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How the Debate Over the Use of the Term ‘Concentration Camp’ was Amicably Resolved in 1998

When on June 18th, the Jewish Community Council of Greater New York (known locally as the JCRC) addressed an open letter of complaint to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling migrant detention centers “concentration camps,” the JCRC was reflecting how emotionally charged this term is for Jews.  In subsequent statements, Ocasio-Cortez made it clear that she was not drawing an analogy to Nazi-era death camps.  The JCRC’s letter compounded what might be considered community-relations malpractice in patronizingly offering “to arrange a visit to a concentration camp, a local Holocaust museum, hear the stories of local survivors, or participate in other educational opportunities in the hopes of better understanding the horrors of the Holocaust.”  

But lost in the controversy was a resolution of a parallel dispute in 1998 that redounded to the credit of all concerned.  At that time, Japanese-American organizers were preparing a museum exhibit at Ellis Island entitled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience,” on the forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II.  Instead of criticizing the exhibit’s curators, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) conferred with them and amicably arrived at an arrangement that satisfied both understandable Jewish sensibilities regarding the memory of the Holocaust and the right of other Americans to commemorate the injustice they endured during those very same years. This was explained in their joint press release:

An exhibit—entitled America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience—chronicling the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, will soon open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Thousands have already seen the exhibit, which was created by and, in 1994, shown at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Today, our sights are trained on the importance of such an exhibit in teaching about episodes of intolerance. We strongly urge all who have the opportunity to see the exhibit to do so and to learn its critical lessons.

A recent meeting between Japanese American and American Jewish leaders in the American Jewish Committee’s New York City offices led to an agreement that the exhibit’s written materials and publicity include the following explanatory text:

“A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term ‘concentration camp’ was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars.

“During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments, and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

“In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and Bosnia.

“Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.”

The meeting and the agreement about the text also reinforced the close and constructive relationship that has long existed between the Japanese American and American Jewish communities. Jewish community groups, especially the American Jewish Committee, were among the first and most vocal outside the Japanese American community calling for the U.S. government to offer an apology and monetary redress for its treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1988, Congress and President Reagan passed legislation that formally granted the redress and apology to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. Both communities have been among America’s leading voices advocating for strong civil rights, anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws. The meeting’s participants were encouraged to continue the work of preserving the memories of our communities’ experiences and helping other learn from them.

The exhibit represents a precious opportunity for those who must tell its story—Japanese Americans and other victims of tragic intolerance—and for those who must hear it. The story is one of betrayal; betrayal of Japanese Americans, who were deprived of protections that all Americans deserve; and betrayal of the American soul, which is defined by its unique commitment to human rights. The best insurance that we will never again commit such acts of betrayal is to use history of this sort as an object lesson for Americans today and in the future.

We know that today’s iteration of this dispute over terminology and history is political in ways that the 1998 episode was not, as exemplified by partisan brawling on the meaning and motives behind Ocasio-Cortez’s words.  Still, it’s good to know that communities and individuals can come to an accord over such a sensitive matter when they exercise prudent judgment.