When Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman saw a photo recently of a child being taken from her mother at the U.S.-Mexican border, part of the U.S. zero-tolerance policy toward illegal migration, side by side with a photo of a Jewish child being separated from his family during the Holocaust, he was immediately struck by their similarities.
It’s a human impulse to try to understand one atrocity by associating it with another, but it isn’t one that Maltzman, rabbi of Kol Shalom in Rockville, is entirely comfortable with.
“Normally, I would say any kind of comparison to the Holocaust is inappropriate,” Maltzman said. “These children aren’t being separated and killed, and their parents aren’t being killed [like during the Holocaust]. But it’s hard not to see some similarities.”
The Trump administration’s short-lived family separation policy, whose effects are still being felt by thousands of parents and children, sparked almost universal outrage. In their fury, people invoked Nazi concentration camps and how the Nazis destroyed families through separation and genocide.
“President Trump just said that immigrants ‘pour into and infest our country,’ entertainer Barbra Streisand tweeted. “This is more than reminiscent of the language of Hitler’s Germany as is his monstrous policy of snatching crying children from their parents at the border.”
“The U.S. Border Separations Feel Eerily like My Holocaust Survivor Grandmother’s Story,” ran a headline on the Jewish blog Kveller.
And Emme Teitel wrote in The Star: “Maybe it’s because I belong to a generation of Jewish kids who had the ‘never again’ message hammered into their brains at Hebrew school but honestly, to borrow another apt cliché: if not now, when? How bad do things have to get before it’s appropriate to point to a past atrocity and say ‘hey, let’s avoid going down that road.’”
Area rabbis like Maltzman who were interviewed for this story essentially answered “no, but” when asked if it is ever OK to compare something to the Holocaust. No, people shouldn’t make the comparison, but the rabbis understand the urge to do so.
“I find it demeans the experience of that moment in that time,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
And it isn’t just the Holocaust. Schwartzman pointed to slavery and apartheid as also off limits to comparison.
“Each one of those moments has its own place in history, and it’s not my personal custom to do that type of comparison. I think it lessens the power of that history.”
‘They’re concentration camps’
Images of children being separated from their families have a powerful visceral impact, Schwartzman said.
And so people reach for another event with the same emotional impact to provide a sense of context, said Rabbi Rachel Anne Hersh of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.
“There’s no question that for many of us the image of children being removed forcibly brings up images of actual memories we have from the Holocaust, and that’s why we in the Jewish community feel especially motivated to speak out.”
Every major denomination of Judaism has spoken out against the family separation policy, which separated 2,300 children from their families, according to The New York Times. Most of them have not yet been reunited.
Andrea Pitzer, a historian who last year wrote a book called “One Long Night” on the history of concentration camps, believes that while a comparison with the Holocaust is inaccurate, the designation of the government’s holding facilities for children as concentration camps is apt.
“Yes, of course they’re concentration camps,” she said last week on Twitter. “They aren’t the unique subset of death camps that were invented by the Nazis for genocide, or even Arctic Gulag camps built for hard labor [by the Soviets]. But they’re camps created to punish a whole class of civilians via mass detention without trial.”
She said what was key to her determination was how Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top Trump adviser Stephen Miller described the policy as a deterrent.
“We have indications dating back to August that the separation policy was being looked at as a punitive measure — in the hopes that it would deter entry,” she wrote in an email to JTA.
But Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, said in The Atlantic that it is possible to acknowledge that something is “horrific” without invoking the Holocuast.
“Although there is nothing good that can be said about Trump’s family-separation policy, it is not a genocide,” she said. “Equating the two is not only historically wrong, it is also strategically wrong. Glib comparisons to the Nazis provide the administration and its supporters with a chance to defend their position, something they do not deserve.”
Rabbi Jeremy Kridel of Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism agreed. The comparison is not helpful in promoting social justice, he said.
‘Trauma should sensitize us’
Perhaps there is a middle ground. The detention centers where the children are being taken are not the same as Auschwitz, wrote Jonathan Katz in Slate. But, it’s a misreading of history, he said, to look “only at the endpoint of a decades-long process and ignor[e] the hard lessons humanity has learned, again and again, about where a policy like the one President Donald Trump and his supporters are now implementing can go.”
And there is a way to invoke the Holocaust without equating or comparing levels of awfulness, said Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Washington.
“I think comparisons are tricky when you try to compare facts. But it absolutely is appropriate when it’s related to experience,” she said. “There is a very appropriate way of drawing those parallels without having to equate the level of atrocity.”
That way is to compare — or draw comparisons from — personal and collective experience. Friedman cited a video posted to Facebook by the Anti-Defamation League in which “hidden children” of the Holocaust talked about the lasting effects of being separated from their families.
Even further back, Jews were made slaves in Egypt, she said. The lesson Jews should take from that experience is to use the experience of slavery and of being outcasts to speak on behalf of others being persecuted, she said.
“When we have traumatic experiences, whether as the individual or as a collective nation, it is supposed to sensitize us to protect the vulnerable,” she said.
On this, the rabbis agreed. Jews, in their history, have known the pain of family separation and are called to speak out against that pain happening to others.
“Our obligation is to say, as a Jew, ‘that’s our pain, that’s our history, we know that,’” Kridel said. “We are going to work to stop it.”
Political Reporter Dan Schere and JTA contributed to this article.