WASHINGTON — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal freshman Democrat from New York who has made fighting for immigrants’ rights a signature issue, on Tuesday described the Trump administration’s border detention facilities as “concentration camps,” provoking backlash from Republicans who said she was minimizing the Holocaust.
“This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, amplifying comments she had made on her Instagram feed on Monday night.
“This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis,” she added, citing an article in Esquire magazine that quoted a historian of the Holocaust who lectures at the University of Virginia. In the article, the historian, Waitman Wade Beorn, said, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”
But the invocation of Nazi imagery to describe the administration’s handling of immigrants and refugees set off a furor in Washington. Although not all Nazi concentration camps were death camps — some were forced labor camps — Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the phrase, which she said was intentional, opened the door for attacks from Republicans, led by Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the sharp-tongued chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
“Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history,” Ms. Cheney wrote on Twitter. “6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”
Representative Lee Zeldin, Republican of New York, who is Jewish, called for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to “stop trying to draw these crayon parallels between POTUS & Hitler!”
But Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, chimed in to support Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Mr. Nadler, who is Jewish, tweeted: “One of the lessons from the Holocaust is ‘Never Again’ – not only to mass murder, but also to the dehumanization of people, violations of basic rights, and assaults on our common morality. We fail to learn that lesson when we don’t callout such inhumanity right in front of us.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s comments come as debate over American policy toward Israel and how to respond to anti-Semitism is roiling Congress in general and the Democratic Party in particular. Democrats voted this year to condemn all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism, after a charged debate over Representative Ilhan Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota, who invoked what many said were anti-Semitic tropes in talking about supporters of Israel.
Whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks will generate widespread pushback in the Democratic caucus was not immediately clear on Tuesday; many lawmakers were still traveling back to Washington after a long weekend. J Street, the progressive pro-Israel advocacy group, defended the congresswoman.
“Like the vast majority of American Jews, J Street is outraged by the Trump administration’s disgraceful, inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees — and supportive of members of Congress like Representative Ocasio-Cortez who are strongly challenging the president’s hateful policies,” the group said in a statement.
“The legacy of the Holocaust absolutely compels us to act in defense of vulnerable and targeted minorities — and to stop their mistreatment before it grows even worse,” the statement continued. “Instead of policing terminology, we should be doing everything we can to shut down these camps and to aid the families who are imprisoned in them.”
But at least one Democrat, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, who lost family members in the Holocaust, was deeply critical of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.
“As an American, I’m deeply concerned about the treatment of children at out borders,” Mr. Gottheimer said in a text. “But, make no mistake, the comparison is cruel and disrespectful to the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust, including members of my own family. Concentration camps were places where Jews and others were enslaved, tortured, and then sent to gas chambers to be murdered.”
The comments also set off intense debate over the meaning of the words “concentration camp” and whether the term could be appropriately used to describe anything other than Nazi death camps.
Politicians and public officials generally regard invoking Nazi comparisons as the third rail of politics; it is done at one’s own peril. Sean Spicer, who served as Mr. Trump’s first White House press secretary, was excoriated when he suggested that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was guilty of acts worse than Hitler and referred to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers.”
But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is typically intentional about her word choice, as she herself made clear when she addressed her Instagram followers on Monday evening in one of her regular unscripted videos.
“I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘Never Again’ means something,” she said, invoking a phrase Jews use when discussing the importance of remembering the Holocaust. “The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it.”
She called Mr. Trump’s administration “an authoritarian and fascist presidency,” adding: “I don’t use those words lightly. I don’t use those words to just throw bombs. I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is. A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a concentration camp as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard — used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.”