May 25th, 2024

Reality Check

The border analogy problem

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published Dec. 3,2018

The border analogy problem

Don't blame it all on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It's true that the most notorious member of the Democratic Party's freshmen class in the House of Representatives was at the center of a media kerfuffle about her tweet comparing the standoff at the U.S.-Mexico border to the Holocaust. But the self-described Socialist firebrand isn't the only one who's been peddling this false analogy.

The discussion about the Central American migrants who are trying to get into the United States has become inextricably tied to opinions about U.S. President Donald Trump, who exploited the issue for political gain by calling their caravans from Honduras an "invasion" during the midterm election campaign. The violence at the border this week—in which some of the would-be asylum-seekers threw rocks at border-patrol officers and sought to scale a fence separating the United States from Mexico—actually made Trump's warnings seem prescient, if still overblown in terms of U.S. national security. (In fact, those are the actions that CNN's Jim Acosta said wouldn't happen in their infamous White House press conference argument.) But the use of tear gas by American authorities to try and control a dangerous situation also set off yet another stream of inappropriate allusions to history.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked on Twitter if the use of tear gas was a violation of international agreements against the use of chemical weapons (short answer: no), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) decried the effort to defend the border as an atrocity against women and children. The loose talk about the Trump administration "gassing" people obscured the fact that tear gas had been used repeatedly at the border to deal with not dissimilar demonstrations during the Obama administration. But the rush to compare the surge of Central Americans trying to get into the United States without going through the normal legal procedures for either immigration or granting asylum has found a ready audience among Jews, who have embraced the cause of illegal immigrants as a religious and moral obligation.

The willingness of so many Jewish organizations and Community Relations Councils to treat support for the entry of illegal immigrants or granting asylum to people who don't fit the traditional definition of a refugee (i.e., someone fleeing for their lives, like the millions forced out of their homes by the Syrian civil war, not those who just want a fresh start in a better country than the one they were born in) has distorted arguments about the issue. It has also wound up enabling those, like Ocasio-Cortez, who have no business talking about the Holocaust. Many of those who were quick to denounce that the president's over-the-top rhetoric aren't willing to apply the same standard to those who sympathize with the migrants.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) compared U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency personnel and tactics to those of the Nazi Gestapo. Shelters where the children of illegal immigrants have been housed have been called "concentration camps." And those promoting the sanctuary-city movement have compared such actions, which in effect help people violate U.S. law and evade the efforts of the government to apprehend them, to "righteous gentiles" who hid Jews during the Holocaust. Some Jews have turned their homes (as one CNN report documented) or even their houses of worship into "sanctuaries" from the law.

The Jewish community is one whose history has been largely shaped not only by the immigrant experience, but by the failure of the United States to respond adequately to what was happening to Jewish men, women and children in Europe during the years of World War II. The memory of Jews fleeing from Nazis and being turned away from the United States is easily evoked.

But the problem with playing this rhetorical game is twofold.

One is that not everyone seeking asylum is the moral equivalent of a victim of the Third Reich anything close to it. The other is that the use of such language actually undermines the cause of immigration reform.

Those who wish to leave countries like Honduras, which is plagued by poverty and crime, deserve our sympathy. But their desire for a better life in the United States is not the same as the desperate search for a safe haven by European Jews who faced persecution and death if they were denied the chance to leave. Sen. Lindsey Graham was correct when he responded on Twitter to Ocasio-Cortez that she needed to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to learn the difference. But the real problem isn't so much ignorance as it is the notion that the "lessons" of the Holocaust must be applied to all contemporary issues, as the Queens congresswoman-elect replied. Such universalizing of the Shoah strips it of its unique nature. If the Holocaust can be analogized to this debate, then it means nothing.

Those who wish the United States to liberalize immigration laws have a legitimate argument. Yet to treat the current law as if it were a Nazi screed that must be resisted or flouted is not legitimate or in accord with Jewish values. The same applies to those who fling about the term "fascist" when referring to those who rightly see the caravans of would-be asylees as merely economic migrants who are looking to game a broken system.

Sympathy for the downtrodden is not a sufficient reason to trash the rule of law—something that is essential to the preservation of democracy. By hinging the debate about immigration reform as one in which opposition to the entry of illegal immigrants is the moral equivalent of the Final Solution or proof that you have forgotten the Holocaust, those making such analogies are ensuring that the already slim chances of changing the system are doomed.

The problem is that people like Ocasio-Cortez are following the lead of Jews who ought to know better. Those who are giving her and others license to misuse the memory of the Holocaust so are not so much remembering Jewish history as they are draining it of any meaning.


Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Jewish News Service. He's been a JWR contributor since 1998.