Thursday, January 27th | 25 Shevat 5782

June 21, 2019 7:28 am

The Real Problem Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Refusal to Apologize

avatar by Pini Dunner


Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in New York City. Photo: Reuters / Caitlin Ochs.

Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez an antisemite? Does she care one iota about offending Jews?

This week, the freshman Congresswoman from New York was once again under fire, this time for an Instagram video she live-streamed regarding the treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border, many of whom are confined in detention facilities while immigration authorities try to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

Last month, more than 144,000 migrants reportedly tried to make their way into the US. Responding to this growing humanitarian crisis, Ocasio-Cortez declared that the United States “is running concentration camps on our southern border.”

Her video quickly went viral, sending shock-waves across the country and around the world.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a concentration camp is an “internment center for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment.”

Crucially, the Britannica adds that “political concentration camps instituted primarily to reinforce the state’s control have been established in various forms under many totalitarian regimes — most extensively in Nazi Germany (my italics) and the Soviet Union.”

And in case you think Ocasio-Cortez was innocently using this term, she went on to make the connection between concentration camps and the Holocaust crystal clear:

They are concentration camps … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that … ‘never again’ means something.

This is hardly the first time that Ocasio-Cortez has upset the Jewish community. In February, she spent an hour on the phone to Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the UK Labour Party, who has been dogged by accusations of antisemitism and was branded by the UK’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, as a “dangerous anti-Semite.”

Following her conversation with Corbyn, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “It was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with you, @jeremycorbyn!”

Criticism was swift and included her Jewish supporters, shocked by her insensitivity. Ocasio-Cortez promised to make amends, but this latest episode demonstrates she has not learnt her lesson.

Truthfully, unless you are Jewish, it is hard to convey just how touchy a topic the Holocaust is for Jews. And we have every right to be paranoid. It has happened before, so why can’t it happen again? Hence the mantra “never again.”

Having said that, a non-Jew can certainly be forgiven for straying into this minefield — after all, others can’t be expected to truly understand the existential angst of post-Holocaust Jews. Drifting into sensitive territory is not a crime — if you don’t know you are being offensive.

Which means that using Holocaust-era concentration camps as a benchmark to judge current US immigration facilities on the southern border could, in certain circumstances, be judged as the innocently misjudged opinion of the uninformed.

But that all changes once the sensitivity is revealed. In response to the offensive tweet, the world’s premier Holocaust research center and museum, Yad Vashem, suggested that Ocasio-Cortez should learn about the Holocaust before invoking it to score political points.

“Concentration camps assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of ‘extermination through labor,’” the museum tweeted on Wednesday.

Many others, Jews and non-Jews, from across the political spectrum, reacted with similar indignation to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks.

And yet, despite the outcry, Ocasio-Cortez has refused to back down or apologize, trying to squirm out of the hole she has dug herself by pretending that she used the term “concentration camp” generically, invoking the precedent of the US ‘concentration camps’ that housed Japanese internees during World War II, and also suggesting there is a difference between “concentration camp” and “death camp” – a claim immediately rejected by the group that runs the visitors center at Auschwitz.

Just like Ken Livingstone before her, it is Ocasio-Cortez’s reaction to criticism that has revealed her true colors.

Towards the end of parshat Beha’alotecha, Miriam tells her brother Aaron that Moses’ relationship with his wife was wanting. On the face of it, her criticism was comfortably within the bounds of sibling norms. Both Miriam and Aaron were prophets and maintained normal relationships with their spouses; Miriam was unable to comprehend why Moses spent so little time with his wife.

The passage goes on to record God’s intervention and words of rebuke. Moses was an extraordinary person, God told Miriam, and could not be judged by normal standards, nor even by the standards of his fellow-prophets.

But the narrative does not end there, and adds (Num. 12:9): “God became angry with them and left.” This is puzzling. Why did God become angry after he had rebuked Miriam? Surely the displeasure came first?

Rabbi Obadiah Sforno offers a sharp insight. Unlike King David, who responded to rebuke by admitting “I have sinned,” Miriam did not admit her guilt, staying silent, as if to say, “I did nothing wrong.”

It was this that turned an innocent chat with Aaron into a misdemeanor, resulting in God’s anger and departure.

Oftentimes it is not the sin that is wrong, but the lack of contrition. In the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, her lack of contrition reveals a very worrying flaw.

Whether or not the treatment of illegal migrants is wrong or inhumane, by refusing to apologize for her offensive remark, Ocasio-Cortez has strayed across a red line. She may or may not be an antisemite, but she certainly has no qualms about offending Jews.

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