Controversy took over the headlines this week – you know, not real controversy, but the type of controversy that we’ve come to expect in a 24-hour news cycle where every tweet, comment, and quote get over analyzed and twisted out of context. This week, in reference to the detention facilities that the Trump administration has set up on the US-Mexico border, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. Many of her political opponents were quick to criticize her, suggesting that one cannot use Holocaust allegory to condemn the human rights violations happening right now in our country, as if we say “never again” but don’t actually mean it, like it only means never again to us.
I understand that using the term concentration camps is a trigger. I understand that doing so suggests that the actions of the Trump administration are no different than Nazi Germany. I would never say that or suggest that. But we have been so consumed over the last several days by whether or not these are concentration camps, and ignored the half a dozen children – CHILDREN – who have died in these detention facilities for lack of care, or the babies born prematurely in these internment camps without being seen by a medical professional. We’ve debated appropriate analogies instead of highlighting the reports that a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens at the border who have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water, or sanitation.
And it doesn’t matter that there are those historians who say that concentration camps is the appropriate term, because I am not sure it is the appropriate term. But we get consumed and distracted by those arguments, by those who are trying to prove that concentration camps is an appropriate term, or those who suggest that using such a term minimizes the actual horrors of the Holocaust. We end up ignoring the President’s promise of a modern-day Kristellnacht – yes, I too used such an analogy — reporting that he will soon be demanding that ICE begin rounding up millions – MILLIONS – of residents to arrest them, detain them, and deport them, because of their immigration status, and will question those based on how they look or the languages they speak.
The 24-hour news cycle has forced us down this narrowly-focused path where we only have tunnel vision, where we are arguing over semantics, and ignoring the actual problem, refusing to act entirely. It’s as if only certain people can say certain things, like decrying human rights violations can only be done by those who they themselves have suffered such violations, like using the term concentration camp is reserved only for survivors of the Shoah. Unfortunately, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left, it is up to those who only learned about such atrocities and thank God, didn’t live through them, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Or even worse, it is up to us to make sure society doesn’t turn a blind eye, when history does repeat itself.
In Parashat Behaalotecha, we are introduced to Eldad and Meidad, two individuals who we only hear of for the very first time in Numbers 11:26. The text tells us that vatanach aleihem haRuach, that God’s divine spirit rested on them, and they offered prophecy. When a young man runs out to complain to Joshua and Moses that two random men are prophesizing and speaking truth to power, Joshua freaks out, but Moses puts him in his place. He says: It should be that all of God’s people are prophets, and that God’s spirit rests with everyone.
It is on all of us to speak up when we see the atrocities going on all around us. And maybe we are overly hyperbolic. But maybe, just maybe, such analogies are appropriate. And most definitely, such analogies bring attention to the problem – to kids locked in cages, to ICE agents raiding apartment buildings and elementary schools, to families being separated, to children being denied safety and sanitation by this supposed land of the free. We all have an obligation to be that prophetic voice – not just our leaders. And especially when one attempts to silence another for calling out such atrocities, or for the imagery they use when doing so, we must speak up and be reminded that God’s divine spirit rests on all of us. We are all prophets. We must all speak truth to power.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky