Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The huge contrast between Obama's and Trump's visits to Israel's Holocaust memorial

By Max Bearak

May 23, 2017 at 11:29 AM

President Trump's entry in the guest book at Israel's national Holocaust memorial was strangely upbeat, self-referential and written in his signature all-caps: "IT IS A GREAT HONOR TO BE HERE WITH ALL OF MY FRIENDS — SO AMAZING & WILL NEVER FORGET!"

The brevity and tone of the note may have been a function of the hurry the president was in during his time at the site, known as Yad Vashem, which he visited Tuesday. Packing so much into just 27 hours in Israel left only half an hour for the memorial, a customary stop on U.S. presidential visits, which precluded him from getting a full tour of the museum. Trump already had come under fire for that perceived slight to the memorial before his one-sentence missive started raising eyebrows and making headlines.

The guest book entry provides an opportunity to contrast Trump's style with that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who spent an hour at Yad Vashem and gave an emotional speech in 2013. Obama had already visited once, in 2008, when he was an Illinois senator running for president. On that trip, he left this note in the guest book:

"I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim 'never again'. And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit."

Although Trump and Obama's styles certainly differed, their speeches echoed the sentiment that is imbued in the post-Holocaust credo: "Never forget."

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President Trump spoke after visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to Holocaust victims, on May 23. (The Washington Post)

"Millions of wonderful and beautiful lives, men, women and children were extinguished as part of a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people," Trump said Tuesday. "It is our solemn duty to remember, to mourn, to grieve, and to honor every single life that was so cruelly and viciously taken."

He referred to the Holocaust as "history's darkest hour." Yad Vashem's chairman, Avner Shalev, gifted Trump an exact replica of a photo album that belonged to Ester Goldstein, a 16-year-old Holocaust victim.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for a speech "that in so few words said so much." On Twitter, many users noted that Trump's guestbook entry tallied up less than 140 characters, and wondered if the president's prolific tweeting had sneaked its way into his writing style more generally.

Obama, as was his tendency, opted for loftier, more conceptual rhetoric in his speech, in which he appealed to the "better angels of our nature."

"For us, in our time, this means confronting bigotry and hatred in all of its forms, racism, especially anti-Semitism. None of that has a place in the civilized world — not in the classrooms of children; not in the corridors of power," Obama said during his 2013 visit. "And let us never forget the link between the two. For our sons and daughters are not born to hate, they are taught to hate. So let us fill their young hearts with the same understanding and compassion that we hope others have for them."

George W. Bush visited Yad Vashem in 2008. His guest book inscription got straight to the point, with just three words: "God Bless Israel."

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave remarks after visiting Israel's Holocaust memorial with President Trump on May 23. (The Washington Post)

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Max Bearak writes international news and analysis from the D.C. newsroom and Washington Post bureaus overseas. Previously, he reported from South Asia for the New York Times and others.

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