by Henry Siegman
The Holocaust was invoked this month, first by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and then by a group called The World Values Network. The latter is headed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who modestly crowned himself “America’s Rabbi,” and is financed by the Las Vegas gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is also one of Donald Trump’s largest contributors.
Ocasio-Cortez invoked Nazi concentration camps in her condemnation of internment camps to which Donald Trump consigns refugees seeking asylum from threats in their home countries from criminals, rapists, and murderers.
In a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, Boteach, and presumably his financier, come to the rescue of Donald Trump by accusing Ocasio-Cortez of desecrating the Holocaust by “comparing the United States to the Third Reich.”
But that is a lie. For it is not Ocasio-Cortez but Trump and his supporters who are guilty of the comparison—not rhetorically but with their actions. They do so by defending the treatment of migrants fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children at the U.S. border, imprisoned in camps that are not much different than the concentration camps that Jews in Germany were imprisoned by the Nazis in the 1930’s.
Ocasio-Cortez’s reference to Nazi concentration camps is exactly correct. There was no Holocaust when the Nazis began sending Jews to concentration camps in the late 1930s. I know because that was when Nazis took my grandfather to the concentration camp in Dachau. He was released from Dachau, as were others, at a time when the genocide of European Jewry was still as unimaginable in Germany as was the possibility of an American president planning the forceful tearing of infants by American government officials out of their immigrant mothers’ hands in the United States in 2016.
The point Ocasio-Cortez was making is that when people possess the cruelty that marks Trump’s behavior and policies toward the refugees, do not underestimate the far deeper cruelties they may yet be capable of. That danger is just as great when the cruelties are driven by a deeply amoral and pathological egocentrism—which fuels Trump’s passions—as it is when driven by racist or xenophobic ideologies like fascism or antisemitism. And as Andrea Pitzer notes in the New York Review of Books, “Once there are concentration camps, it is always probable that things will get worse.”
I was born in Germany, and my parents left the country for Antwerp in 1933 when Hitler was handed the German government. However, the Nazis caught up with us in Belgium in1940. We fled for our lives for the next two years with the Gestapo on our tails, hiding in occupied Belgium, then occupied France, then Vichy France, and North Africa. The United States had entered the war in 1942, yet my father miraculously located the last passenger ship that crossed the Nazi U-Boat-infested Atlantic that brought them and their six children to America. Many of our relatives were killed in Auschwitz and in other death camps, including Dachau, the one my grandfather had been in before it was turned into a death camp.
Boteach claims in his New York Times advertisement that he and his collaborators “believe in an American immigration policy of openness to those fleeing persecution and a commitment to never separating parents from children.”
Where, then, was Boteach’s full page advertisement condemning Trump for doing the exact opposite—denying openness to those fleeing persecution and separating parents from children? How is it that outrage against Ocasio-Cortez came so easily to him for her calling the detention facilities where ICE agents confine these refugees and their children concentration camps, but could not find his voice to express outrage at Trump for planning—with malice aforethought—the forceful separation of infants from their mothers and fathers, with so many of them still lost to their grieving parents to this day? Does that cruelty not evoke for Boteach any of the cruelties the Nazis inflicted on Jews and others?
The denial of Trump’ s cruelty to the migrants, arguably offered in groveling appreciation of Trump’s “generosity” in legitimizing Israel’s continuing theft of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, is a betrayal that does not serve the memory of the Holocaust or of any of the lessons to be learned from it. It is a betrayal by Trump’s apologists that will not be soon forgotten.
Henry Siegman is president emeritus of the U.S./Middle East Project and a past senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a visiting research professor at SOAS, and formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.