The Trump team continued into day four of what is shaping up to be a modern-day campaign of Holocaust denial on Monday, when White House spokesperson Sean Spicer told a roomful of reporters that it is “pathetic” to criticize the administration for not mentioning Jewish people or anti-Semitism in its Holocaust remembrance statement.
The White House has been under fire for the remarks since putting out the brief message on Friday honoring International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Instead of acknowledging its omission and moving on, the Trump team is acting defensive, arguing it wasn’t just Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. Many others also perished. Also, Spicer argues: Jewish people work in the White House and Israel. Or something:
“The statement was written with the help of an individual who was both Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors,” Spicer said Monday. “To suggest that remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging all of the people ― Jewish, Gypsies, priests, disabled, gays and lesbians ... It is pathetic people are picking on the statement.”
Spicer’s reasoning echoed similar comments made over the weekend by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and spokeswoman Hope Hicks. (”We are an incredibly inclusive group,” she said.) Both downplayed the notion that it’s remarkable and important to remember that Germany under Hitler murdered 6 million Jewish people with the intent of wiping an entire religion off the face of the earth.
It is not the kind of argument you’d expect from a U.S. president in 2017. Barack Obama and George W. Bush both mentioned either Judaism or anti-Semitism in previous years’ remarks.
In fact, Holocaust Remembrance Day was created in 2005 by the United Nations specifically to counter the rise of anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt writes on Medium.
“The Holocaust was about Jews in every sense. The number of Jews murdered was extraordinary and unique in the annals of mankind. The resources that the Nazis employed to identify, round up and annihilate the Jews were unprecedented,” Greenblatt writes.
Greenblatt is hardly alone in calling out the Trump administration. The Republican Jewish Coalition also decried the statements. And here’s an editor who sits on the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board:
“What we saw from the White House was classic softcore denial,” Deborah Lipsadt writes in The Atlantic. “The Holocaust was de-Judaized.”
Downplaying the Jewish role in the Holocaust is not as “hardcore” as trying to argue that mass genocide never happened, but it is on the spectrum, Lipstadt writes.
It’s possible that not mentioning Jewish people in the Trump administration’s initial statement was an oversight, concedes Lipsadt, a historian who wrote a well-regarded book on Holocaust denial.
However, the context here is damning: Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, is also the former CEO of Breitbart.com, a website that is a platform for the so-called “alt-right,” the modern-day name for neo-Nazis. The Trump administration also has a big fan in David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK.
Adding to fuel to this fire: Trump’s supporters engaged in a campaign of overt anti-Semitism (some of which was directed toward this Huffington Post reporter) during the presidential campaign.
Considering all of this, you’d think the Trump administration would exhibit some kind of sensitivity to Jewish people. Its unwillingness to do so is noteworthy and deeply troubling.
Instead, Spicer tried to wave away concerns, explaining the administration couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic because it is supportive of Israel and because Jewish people work in the White House ― presumably a reference to Jared Kushner, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
Vice-president Mike Pence seems to know better. Late on Friday, as criticism of the White House’s original statement grew, Pence quickly put out a statement acknowledging reality. “This #HolocaustRemembrance Day, we join the Jewish people to remember the victims & honor the survivors of the past for sake of the future.”
Was that so difficult?
Greenblatt’s piece is titled “Never Again,” a phrase employed by Spicer on Monday.
“I think he [Trump] acknowledged the suffering that existed and wants to make sure it’s enshrined in the Americans peoples memory to ensure that something like this never ever happens again,” Spicer said about Trump.
The use of the phrase is particularly poignant considering that also on Friday the Trump administration announced that the country would no longer admit Syrian refugees who are fleeing the violence and turmoil taking place in that country.
The move seemed to echo similar ones made before, during and after World War II when the U.S. made the terrible decision to turn away Jewish refugees trying to get out of Germany.
Never again indeed.