A War of Words

Jewish andJapanese American community leaders are headed for what could becomea bruising confrontation in the coming weeks, a battle of honor overthe urgent question of how to discuss World War II politely. We areentering, literally, a war of words.

The battlefield is a rocky outcropping in New YorkHarbor called Ellis Island. Once the main entryway for immigrants tothe United States, it is now a national park. The great hall, wheregreenhorns once waited and hoped, is now a museum celebrating theAmerican immigrant experience.

Starting April 4, the museum will host anexhibition that recalls a darker episode in the immigrant saga: themass internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans for nearly three yearsduring World War II. Congress apologized for the injustice in 1988and allocated $40 million in reparations — half to compensatevictims, half to fund educational programs to tell the story. TheEllis Island exhibit is one result.

The exhibit was put together in 1994 by theJapanese American National Museum of Los Angeles. It ran for nearlytwo years and won local acclaim, including praise from the JewishFederation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community RelationsCommittee.

In New York, however, some Jews plan to greet theexhibit with Bronx cheers. The reason? They don’t like its name,”America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese AmericanExperience.”

“We are aghast,” says Norman Liss, a leader inseveral local Jewish organizations and vice president of the private,nonsectarian Ellis Island Restoration Commission. “This is aninflammatory name. They’re probably using it just to attractattention. It demeans Ellis Island, and it demeans the United States,and we’re going to fight it. These were not concentrationcamps.”

“There is something disconcerting about thewholesale appropriation of language,” says David Harris, executivevice president of the American Jewish Committee, which is urgingJapanese American leaders to change the exhibit’s name. “We fullyunderstand the victimization of Japanese Americans at a shamefulperiod in American history. But to us the term ‘concentration camp’conjures up a very specific form of oppression, leading toextermination.”

Japanese Americans beg to differ. “To us,” saysHawaii attorney Frank Sogi, chairman emeritus of the JapaneseAmerican National Museum and a former internee, “the American campsare really what is meant by concentration camps. Auschwitz was anextermination camp.”

“No other community or organization has the rightto write our history for us,” says Ron Uba, president of the New Yorkchapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. “There wereJapanese Americans interned in camps at Ellis Island. It’s takenAmerica almost 50 years to acknowledge that any wrong was done. Weneed to educate.”

Caught in the middle is the National Park Service,the federal agency that runs Ellis Island. The park service approvedthe Japanese American exhibit more than a year ago, but officials saythey left the details for a semiprivate foundation that helps operatethe Ellis Island museum. Only recently did they realize that theywere in trouble.

In late January, fearing Jewish protests, the parkservice abruptly told the Japanese American museum to change theexhibit’s name or face cancellation. “New York City has a very largeJewish community that could be offended by or misunderstand the useof this phrase,” wrote Ellis Island Superintendent Diane Dayson onJan. 20.

Three weeks later, the threat was rescinded onorders from Dayson’s boss, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, after hereceived a visit from a leading Japanese American, Sen. DanielInouye, D-Hawaii. The exhibit is now back on schedule, its nameintact. But the story has not ended. “We’re going to make everyeffort to stop it,” says Liss.

Dayson has declined to be interviewed and won’tsay who or what prompted her to spring her threat on the JapaneseAmericans in January, barely two months before the show’s opening.But several officials said that the park service has been skittishsince another furor at Ellis Island last fall, when an exhibit on the1915 massacre of Armenians in Turkey had to be revised in midseason,following Turkish protests.

It was just one of many recent tempests at federalmuseums. Officials cite the Enola Gay and Israel-at-50 controversiesat the Smithsonian and the Arafat-invitation furor at the U.S.Holocaust Memorial Museum. These days, they say, federal museumcurators are nervous about offending anyone with the power to biteback.

This time, though, there may be no way out. TheJewish-Japanese feud has become a tug of war between two successfulethnic groups, both trying to establish their status as history’svictims. Neither one seems inclined to back down. Each side seesitself as speaking out for morality. Each sees the other as trying tothrow its weight around.

The term “concentration camp” was first used atthe turn of the century by the British army for prison camps housingBoer rebels. During the 1930s, the Nazis used it to describe prisoncamps such as Dachau, which housed political and other prisoners.Careful historians distinguish them from death camps set up to killJews, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But most Americans do not know thedifference.

During the 1940s, the U.S. government used theterm in internal documents to describe its Japanese Americandetention camps. Publicly, the camps were described more benignly as”relocation centers” or even “pioneer camps.” An investigativecommission named by Congress in 1980 urged that “euphemisms” beavoided in favor of “more accurate” terms: “internment camps,detention camps, prison camps or concentration camps.”

The dispute has begun to cause strains inside theJewish community. In Los Angeles, community leaders complain that theover-vigilance of the New York Jewish leadership is hurting their owncordial relationship with California’s Japanese American community.”People are starting to see us as bullies,” says one Jewish communityactivist in Los Angeles.

In some ways, the Ellis Island dispute isbecoming, like so many other Holocaust-related fights, a test of theJewish community’s willingness to stand on principle. Jews who onceused Holocaust imagery to protest Soviet anti-Semitism — a system ofcultural repression worlds removed from the Nazi murders — nowreject the same use of imagery to protest human-rights violationshere in America. Jews who combat the abuse of Holocaust imagery byPalestinians to attack Israel, or by Christian rightists to attackabortion clinics, are silent when the same grisly images are misusedby rabbis to attack Jews who marry Christians. Increasingly, itseems, the common denominator is the requirement that Holocaustimagery work to serve Jewish interests, narrowly defined.

Japanese American community leaders say that theydo not want to evoke the Holocaust at all, but simply to tell theirown community’s story in its own language. “We’re not trying to makeany comparisons to what happened in Europe,” says Chris Komai,spokesman of the Japanese American museum. “We’re talking aboutsomething that happened in America. We have to tell our own story ina straightforward manner. And that requires calling a spade a spade.”

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for theJewish Journal.