Was the Pope Wrong to Compare Refugee Centers to Concentration Camps?

Migrants and refugees at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos during a visit by Pope Francis in 2016. Credit Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Migrants and refugees at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos during a visit by Pope Francis in 2016. Credit Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Until last weekend, Pope Francis earned nothing but praise from the American Jewish Committee. But when the pope, speaking off the cuff, likened European migrant and refugee holding centers to concentration camps, the advocacy group’s response was swift and Sharp.

“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,” said David Harris, the committee’s chief executive. “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.”

As a Jewish convert to Catholicism, I sympathize with the committee’s desire to guard against comparisons that would risk minimizing the Nazis’ appalling crimes. Even so, it seems to me that Mr. Harris, in urging the pope to use “precision of language,” could use some precision himself.

Calling the living conditions at sites such as Moria, the place on the Greek island of Lesbos that Francis called a “concentration camp,” merely “difficult” diminishes the gravely inhumane treatment that men, women and children are suffering for no other crime than wanting freedom and a better life. It fails to acknowledge the hopelessness at places like Australia’s island prisons for migrants where, as Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times, “human beings have been left to fester, crack up and die.”

And to be honest, are parallels between Europe’s treatment of migrants and the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other persecuted populations during World War II really such a stretch? In late 2015, The Times reported that, while the migrant crisis “is no genocide,” not since the “Jews were rounded up by Nazi Germany have there been as many images coming out of Europe of people locked into trains, babies handed over barbed wire, men in military gear herding large crowds of bedraggled men, women and children.”

The situation today is no less distressing. In January, Moria saw a spate of deaths as tents collapsed under heavy snowfall at the overcrowded camp.

To be fair, it’s not as though Mr. Harris is unaware of the plight of refugees. The American Jewish Committee is among the leading supporters of IsraAID, which brings together Israeli Jews and Arabs to provide volunteers and medical help to migrants and refugees, including those at Moria. And when President Trump signed executive orders in January authorizing construction of the wall on the Mexican border and blocking the admission of refugees from countries of terror concern, Mr. Harris joined other leaders of faith groups — including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — in condemning the move.

No serious observer can question Pope Francis’ sensitivity to Jewish concerns. Indeed, in the words of Rabbi David Rosen, the committee’s international director of religious affairs, “There has never been a pope with as deep an understanding of Jews as Pope Francis.” Certainly the pope is not above criticism, and the committee has the duty to defend Jewish values. But the context of Francis’ remarks make it clear that the pope — who last year met with Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz — had no intention of minimizing Nazi atrocities. He was simply doing what he has been doing for as long as we have known him: urging not only Catholics but the world at large to open their eyes to the needs of the suffering.

In a letter written as archbishop of Buenos Aires, one year before he became pope, Francis warned that “one of the greatest dangers we face is a feeling of complacency, of becoming desensitized to the world around us.” On the other hand, he added, “there are moments that shock us out of our unhealthy complacency and set us on the brink of reality, which always challenges us a bit more.”

Francis’ remarks on refugee camps are indeed shocking, but they are shocking for a purpose: to challenge the world, and every one of us personally, to take action for the good of souls and bodies. The American Jewish Committee, and all people of good will, should rise to the pope’s challenge with collaboration, not condemnation.

Dawn Eden Goldstein is a resident lecturer in dogmatic theology at St. Mary’s College, Oscott, in Birmingham, England, and the author of Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories.

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