It is a truth universally acknowledged that Holocaust comparisons are almost never appropriate—or, at least, it should be. And yet, presumably in an effort to emphasize dire circumstances, Pope Francis recently referred to European refugee camps as “concentration camps.”
To be clear, Our Cool Pope did not commit the same insensitive blunder as Sean Spicer—White House press secretary and milquetoast Mr. Potato Head—did less than two weeks ago. As you may recall, Spicer revealed insultingly profound ignorance when he remarked that Adolf Hitler did not use chemical warfare. And then, sinking even deeper into the mire of his own stupidity, he attempted to backpedal, and in doing so referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.” Bad show all around, Spicey.
Pope Francis is familiar with the term “concentration camp,” but as CNN reports, he might need to be reminded of its historical baggage. Yesterday, at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, he invoked this terminology to refer to overcrowded refugee camps in Europe.
Recalling a man he had met on the Greek island Lesbos, the Pope said, in Italian, “I don’t know if he was able to get out of that concentration camp, because the refugee camps—many—are concentration [camps] because they are so crowded with people.”
We should condemn the deplorable conditions to which refugees have been subjected, but on their own terms. If nothing else, referring to refugee camps as concentration camps is misleading—and could draw attention away from extant human rights crises regarding refugee shelters.
The pontiff’s words traveled and, subsequently, the American Jewish Committee released a statement requesting a retraction of this word choice.
“The conditions in which migrants are currently living in some European countries may well be difficult, and deserve still greater international attention, but concentration camps they certainly are not,” AJC CEO David Harris declared.
He continued, “The Nazis and their allies erected and used concentration camps for slave labor and the extermination of millions of people during World War II...There is no comparison to the magnitude of that tragedy.”
According to The Vatican’s website, the Pope made his remarks “off-the-cuff,” noting that “many [refugee camps]...are like concentration camps, while international agreements seem to be more important than human rights.”
The refugee crisis, and the Syrian genocide attached to it, demand far more from us than we have provided. But invoking the Holocaust is generally a lazy rhetorical move that, at best, obscures the actual emergency at hand. At worst, it’s disrespectful. Let’s dispense with sloppy comparisons and, while we’re at it, assume that Holocaust comparisons are henceforth off-limits.