Bad Faith & Concentration Camps


Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has done important work in calling attention to the political and moral atrocity at the U.S. border. En masse, people are stripped of their legal right of asylum and where children are ripped from their parents and people are left to rot in detention because the American government is being run by racists. All of this while the Trump Administration continues to strip down democratic norms and institutions. But to compare these conditions to concentration camps forces attention to turn around the form of expression, not around the actual crisis at hand. The problem with loaded language is the load it carries, which is complicated by the disproportionate weight carried by some that that others don’t.

None of this is in good faith.

First, you can’t in good faith use a loaded term like “concentration camp” and then, when called on it, claim that, historically, there were other concentration camps prior to the Nazis when you have very obviously tagged the Nazis and the Holocaust with a phrase like “Never Again” or a word like “fascism.” The usage of the term was meant clearly to evoke Hitler, not the British during the Boer War in South Africa, awareness of which has been long submerged in popular memory and ordinary language in the long time since 1945.

More bad faith is the argument that the Holocaust is not the monopoly of Jewish memory, that the trauma is human or universal. This kind of argument was once made in Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. Today it is made by the very same people who resist other forms of cultural appropriation in contexts closer to their own heart. The Holocaust and things like concentration camps, death camps, and “Never Again” are not unlike words like “slavery” and “rape” that should not be analogized.  These words have come to assume particular meanings and some groups have more at stake in the language than others. For the most part, a swastika will mean something more to Jews than to gentiles, as will the Confederate flag for African Americans.

Still more bad faith. Jews across the political spectrum have been placed in a position by non-Jews where they are arguing this out amongst themselves with the force of not a little confusion and anger. At the same time,  progressive and conservative, gentiles are now arguing with other gentiles about concentration camps, the Holocaust, and Jews. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Liz Cheney come immediately to mind. In this Washington Post story, Jews simply disappear as active subjects. In this media spectacle, Jews are reduced to spectral objects. On the right and the left, there is no little Christian supersessionism here at work, American as apple pie.

There is more than enough Jewish bad faith to go around. Conservative Jews who support Trump support a man who has whipped up the worst anti-Semitism in the country since I’m not old enough to remember when. Nazis and white supremacists are now a regular fixture of the American public sphere, and people are unsafe. About Jewish supporters of Trump, they are hopeless and utterly debased, unable to put two and two together, the concentration of children and babies in camps, screaming and wailing, torn apart from their parents. But what about the Jewish left? Not long ago, Jewish critical thinkers would deconstruct such slogans like “Never Again” and the abuse of Holocaust memory on the Jewish right as reified and reactionary cultural objects and ideological constructs. Now the Jewish Left in the Diaspora eats this up, uncritically.

Not in good faith is when people opposed to the analogy to concentration camps are accused of caring more about language than the actual suffering at the border. They are accused of doing so by the very people who suddenly want to introduce the contentious language in the first place. It’s like throwing a bomb and then complaining when it explodes.

[By way of postscript]: More bad faith is the people who argue that it doesn’t matter what you call these facilities and camps as long as we do something about it, and then, in this case Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and 3 others, vote against a bill to get some 4.6 billion dollars to fix these places. It would seem that the logic of the argument locks people in a position where they oppose doing something about conditions in the camps. But also, the very idea that money can go to improve conditions at a concentration camp boggles the mind. It suggests that the term carries too much analytic and affective weight to actually work in the way people who use the term want it to, namely to motivate action, in this case the bare modicum.

One last piece of bad faith relates to mixed sentiments. On the one hand, people invoke the Holocaust as sign of their profound ethical and political seriousness and commitment to human rights and social justice. On the other hand, there’s not a little Holocaust “camp” at play with the over the top expression. Exciting the moral imagination, the shudder of thrill at the very mention of such a dire thing in human history can be traced back to the “sublime” in English and German aesthetic writing of the eighteenth century. To call something sublime evokes that which the imagination cannot master in order to a stimulate the sense of one’s own capacities for moral reflection. Experts will tell you. In Holocaust Studies, this is called kitsch. We’ve known this for a long time already.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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9 Responses to Bad Faith & Concentration Camps

  1. Charles Cohen says:

    In opposition (I got both JPP and “Shalom Rav” posts today):

    . Charles

    PS — I’m not claiming the wisdom to arbitrate between these two positions.

  2. Sheldon Ranz says:

    AOC was not making her case in bad faith. Her use of “Never Again” was a warning that if Trump’s concentration camps are not shut down, the possibility of genocide is quite real.

  3. Excellent blog post. No doubt about it, the Holocaust analogies are very offensive. That said, it seems to me that one lesson of the Holocaust, indeed of the Tanakh as well, is to be vigilant against injustice towards orphans, widows, and strangers or minorities. So rather than dwell on the offensive analogy and callous political posturing of the insufferable AOC we Jews must show concern for the huddled masses regardless, “because you were strangers.”

  4. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”:

    “Concentration camps can very aptly be divided into three types corresponding to three basic Western conceptions of a life after death: Hades, Purgatory, and Hell. To Hades correspond those relatively mild forms, once popular even in non-totalitarian countries, for getting undesirable elements of all sorts – refugees, stateless persons, the asocial, and the unemployed – out of the way; as DP camps, which are nothing other than camps for persons who have become superfluous and bothersome, they have survived the war. Purgatory is represented by the Soviet Union’s labor camps, where neglect is combined with chaotic forced labor. Hell in the most literal sense was embodied by those types of camp perfected by the Nazis, in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment.”

    from, which quotes Arendt:

    “The U.S. immigration detention facilities are the Hades type of concentration camp. They are expressly designed to keep “superfluous and bothersome people,” as Arendt called them, out of the way. The conditions in them can be intensely uncomfortable, but tormenting inmates isn’t the primary goal, and there’s certainly no hard labor.

    “…One can argue whether DP camps were concentration camps in the full sense of the word. Arendt, at any rate, clearly thought so. But there’s an element of the U.S. migrant detention practice that put it in the “Purgatory” category rather than the “Hades” one. It was the separation of families, which the Trump administration introduced and then had to end under intense political pressure last year. Its idea was to deter undocumented immigration, so it was essentially a hostage-taking practice: The children were held to put pressure on the adults.”

    End quote. But this author says they had to end the separation of families — in fact he’s wrong, they didn’t end it, since minors coming in accompanied by anyone who is not their parent are still separated from , and that adult, even if they are a relative, and any minor who has a family member on the outside who can foster them is not allowed to go there — even though that is a legal requirement.

    Bottom line Zach — I think you’re wrong about this one, and I think it’s good for people to have to learn history and understand that the conceptual and ideological apparatus that was part of Nazi Germany was developed long before their goal was extermination of our people, and that those historical precedents, which are much closer to what the US is doing, are part of a path towards something even more grotesque and awful. Call it now and maybe we have a better chance of stopping it.

    • zjb says:

      thank you, David, I appreciate the long Arendt quote and I appreciate very much your open and critical pushback. I can only say is that I do, in fact, recognize the broader morphology of the carceral prison-camp-universe. I would, at the same time point back to the slippage you mention Arentd’s usage between the terms “concentration camp” and “detention camp.” None of this has any bearing on the particular case of the extermination camp, none of this has any actual bearing on what the Nazis did to our people (since all kinds of people were sent to the KL’s), and none of this has any bearing on stopping the abuse and suffering in the U.S. border camps. I’d go one step further, and I appreciate your patience. As a country committed to liberal and progressive ideas of human decency and well-being, we are already done for if the Holocaust is the only thing that marshals our moral and political attention to the border camps and family separation policy.

  5. dmf says:

    don’t think there is any good way to draw hard and clear rules about such matters we have to just muddle thru I think. I do wonder sometimes if the attempts to make the Holocaust truly singular (and not a horrendous/extreme example/outbreak of something broader about human-being/anthropo-ology) have a theological aspect to them even if it’s not explicit?

  6. It’s also in bad faith to vilify conservative Jews for their support of Trump by insinuating that they collaborate with the vilest of antisemites whilst AOC is known for long telephone calls with her mentor Jeremy Corbyn. Comparing Trump with Corbyn, who is viewed by the overwhelming majority of the British Jews (all but the most radical of the left) to be the worst, and most successful, antisemite since king Edward I, is an exercise in perspective because Trump is not nearly as antisemitic as Corbyn is.

    It is utterly mind boggling that half the Jewish tribe feels so strongly that Linda Sarsour is a defender of Jews and Trump is the worst antisemite in the history of the country whilst the other half strongly feels that Trump is a defender of Jews and Sarsour is the vilest antisemite in the history of the country. No matter in which camp you are, the sheer gap and the mutual exclusivity of these two views ought to shock you.

    Perhaps the biggest failure of American Jews, politically speaking, was the failure present ONE definition of antisemitism that would protect ALL Jews regardless of denomination, ethnicity and origin. Instead, progressive Jews are promoting Sarsour’s seclusive definition – the same definition that Jeremy Corbyn TRIED to pass in the UK Labour party. British Jews, at least, were unified in their opposition to Corbyn’s definition of antisemitism because they saw it as an immediate threat to their future in the UK.

    Astonishingly, American progressive Jews are happy to use antisemites like Sarsour to attack their brethren across the isle and abroad. Personally, I chalk this as a very very disturbing escalation in the reform-orthodox wars.

    • zjb says:

      the Jewish left should take care of its own bad faith, and the Jewish right should take care of its own bad faith, starting with its support of a President and a movement that has given rise to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in American life. The Jewish Never-Trumpers seem to get this

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