White House press secretary Sean Spicer fired back at critics who he argued are “nitpicking” President Trump’s statement on the Holocaust by highlighting the White House’s omission of any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism.
“Well I think he’s aware of what people have been saying, but I think by and large he’s been praised for it,” Spicer told reporters at the White House’s daily briefing on Monday. “I mean, the president went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust and the suffering that went through it and the people that were affected by it and the loss of life and to make sure that America never forgets what so many people went through whether they were Jews or Gypsies, gays, disability, priests.”
Actually, Jewish groups, even the pliant Republican Jewish Coalition, had denounced the statement. The Anti-Defamation League likewise condemned (before Spicer’s latest outburst) the excising of Jews from the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. “The suffering of the Jewish people is not an afterthought, a prepositional phrase to be bolted onto the end of a sentence. The suffering of the Jewish people is the whole reason that the concept of the Holocaust was defined. It became shorthand to explain the unexplainable, the inconceivable — an intentional, transnational campaign to exterminate an entire people perpetrated in broad daylight in front of the entire world.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement Monday, directly addressing this topic:
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Nazi ideology cast the world as a racial struggle, and the singular focus on the total destruction of every Jewish person was at its racist core. Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy. As Elie Wiesel said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
Similarly, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who gave a prayer at the Trump inauguration, called the statement a “mistake.” CNN reported, “Hier added that to remove Jews from mention in commemorations of the Holocaust, as is done by nationalist groups in the US and Eastern Europe seeking to minimize how much the Holocaust was specifically targeting the Jews of Europe for genocide, ‘is dangerous.’ ”
Most educated adults, and virtually all elected national politicians on both sides of the aisle, are aware that anti-Semites and anti-Zionists jump not just at opportunities to deny that the Holocaust occurred, but also at opportunities to claim it was exaggerated or not designed specifically to target Jews. That’s been the language of many Arab governments that seek to undermine the basis (not the justification, which goes back thousands of years) for the founding of the Jewish state. Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (who prevailed in a court case in England against a Holocaust denier) has a term for this tactic:
The de-Judaization of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the White House statement, is what I term softcore Holocaust denial. …
Softcore denial uses different tactics [from hardcore denial] but has the same end-goal. (I use hardcore and softcore deliberately because I see denial as a form of historiographic pornography.) It does not deny the facts, but it minimizes them, arguing that Jews use the Holocaust to draw attention away from criticism of Israel. Softcore denial also makes all sorts of false comparisons to the Holocaust. In certain Eastern European countries today, those who fought the Nazis may be lauded, but if they did so with a communist resistance group they may be prosecuted. Softcore denial also includes Holocaust minimization, as when someone suggests it was not so bad. “Why are we hearing about that again?”
What we saw from the White House was classic softcore denial. The Holocaust was de-Judaized.
Is she right?
The best-case scenario for the White House is: The new administration, understaffed and more inexperienced than any in the modern era, made a dumb error, but because Trump never wants to admit error, staffers including Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus would rather sound like Holocaust deniers and moral idiots than apologize or even admit they blew it. That would be the charitable explanation, but it would mean that the president has created an atmosphere in which lying, stupidity, ignorance, incompetence and un-Americanism are not the worst sin; admitting a mistake is. That frightful conclusion would have implications far beyond the Holocaust statement — and we have already seen the same delusional reaction to the travel-ban fiasco as aides insist all is well and everything is working beautifully.
Then again, Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, who seem to run the entire administration, may be right-wing nationalists, most of whom in Europe and elsewhere historically have been anti-Semitic (regarding Jews as a foreign, fifth-column element apart from a country’s culture and history). Bannon and Miller continually sound dog whistles to white nationalists, winking and smirking at their own ability to malign, insult and marginalize those outside the base of white, Christian, less educated voters.
Decide for yourself which makes more sense. Either, frankly, renders the Trump team unfit for White House duty. Those who would defend or join them cannot say they didn’t know what they were getting into.