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Commentary: The Holocaust and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII

By July 16, 2015 July 21st, 2015 No Comments

By Bill Zessar

Should teaching about the Holocaust be followed by teaching about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII? I think it should be.

After WWII, some people argued that the Holocaust was unique — there was something about the German people that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Events since World War II teach us that genocide is not unique to the Germans. Some believe that a Holocaust could not happen in the United States — there is something unique about Americans. Really? Although the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not a Holocaust, it did demonstrate that we are not immune from doing evil.

There are significant similarities between the Holocaust and the internment. Both occurred during WWII. Both involved the imprisonment of entire families — men, women and children — because of religion or race.

Both took place after laws were enacted that discriminated against Jews and Japanese Americans (and other minorities).

After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews lost their citizenship, were excluded from government jobs, prohibited from becoming judges, lawyers and jurors.

Prior to WWII, a federal statute in the United States stated that the only immigrants who could become citizens had to be white or of African descent. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1922 ruled that the Japanese were not white. Alien Land Laws in California, Oregon and Washington prohibited persons not eligible for citizenship from owning or leasing agricultural land. These laws had a greater impact on Japanese immigrants than on other nonwhite immigrants because many of the Japanese were farmers. Laws in some states prohibited the Japanese from marrying persons of other races and from some trades and businesses.

What these laws did was tell people that Jews and the Japanese were inferior. That set the stage for the Holocaust and the incarceration.

Of course, there is a significant difference. Unlike the Holocaust, we did not have gas chambers, or starve and work internees to death. But those facts do not negate the similarities.

Many, if not most Americans, are only vaguely familiar with the incarceration and are unaware of the psychological harm done to Japanese Americans. We did not physically kill them, but there were suicides and physical and emotional harm caused by the incarceration.

There are benefits to linking the incarceration to the Holocaust. Most school children learn something about the Holocaust. Less are exposed to what happened to Japanese Americans. Many more students will gain knowledge about the incarceration if it is linked to the Holocaust.

If students are only taught about the Holocaust and the other incidents of genocide since WWII, they may think that terrible things like that do not happen in the United States. Although the incarceration was not genocide, it was on the road to genocide and teaches that great evil can happen in our country.

As part of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, Zessar helped organize an event for students and faculty at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, at which JACL’s Bill Yoshino participated.