Facing growing criticism for failing to mention Jews in a statement marking the Holocaust, the Trump administration on Sunday doubled down on the controversial decision.
In a statement on Friday, President Trump broke with the bipartisan practice of past presidents by failing to include any mention of the anti-Semitic views that fueled the Holocaust and left 6 million Jews and millions of others dead.
“I don’t regret the words,” said White House chief of staff Reince Priebus when asked to defend the statement on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“Everyone’s suffering [in] the Holocaust including obviously all of the Jewish people affected and miserable genocide that occurs — it’s something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad,” Priebus added.
Trump’s 117-word statement was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Trump remembered “the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust” without specifically mentioning Jewish people.
What might have been seen as an oversight was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks to have been an intentional decision.
“Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered,” Hicks told CNN on Saturday.
On Sunday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sharply criticized the White House for deploying a well-known tactic of Holocaust deniers.
“This is what Holocaust denial is,” Kaine said on NBC. “It’s either to deny that it happened or many Holocaust deniers acknowledge, ‘Oh, yeah, people were killed, but it was a lot of innocent people; Jews weren’t targets.’ ”
Conservative commentator John Podhoretz slammed the White House’s defense of its actions in a column on Saturday, noting that Nazi ideology rested on the aim of exterminating Jewish people from the face of earth.
“The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups — Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others,” Podhoretz wrote. “But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews.
“There is no ‘proud’ way to offer a remembrance of the Holocaust that does not reflect that simple, awful, world-historical fact,” he added. “To universalize it to ‘all those who suffered’ is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.”
In fact, the United Nations created the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 in part to combat a growing wave of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial worldwide.
In a speech on Friday in Washington, the Israeli ambassador to the United States warned against separating the history of the Holocaust from the Jewish people.
“For many, the Holocaust is primarily a universal story about man’s inhumanity to man, about the evils of racism and xenophobia, about how even the most enlightened societies can descend into darkness and barbarism,” said Ambassador Ron Dermer. “But if this noble universal vision is not firmly rooted in an appreciation that the Holocaust is first and foremost a Jewish story, it can become not only dangerous but even immoral.”
The tactic of minimizing the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish people is also closely associated with nationalist movements in Europe, including the far-right National Front Party in France now led by Marine Le Pen, whose father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was fined for Holocaust denial.
The younger Le Pen has sought to make connections with Trump, calling his victory in the November election a “sign of hope” for her own political future.
Countries such as Russia are also known to ignore the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust in public statements.
But since International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created more than 10 years ago, former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, during their terms, referenced anti-Semitism or the slaughter of millions of Jewish people during World War II.
“I don’t understand why this is even a problem,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is not a political issue, this is a matter of not just sensitivity, it’s a matter of historical fact.
“Six million Jews were slaughtered along with millions of other people,” he added. “But the Holocaust was about this singular focus on the annihilation of the Jewish people. That’s why we remember it. That’s why there is a day, a sad day like this past Friday, to reflect upon it.”
Kaine tied Trump’s move on Friday to bar the entry of travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the puzzling Holocaust statement issued on the same day.
“The fact that they did that and imposed this religious test against Muslims in the executive order on the same day, this is not a coincidence,” Kaine said.
But Priebus noted that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is also a senior adviser in the White House, is Jewish. Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism before the two married.
“You know that President Trump has dear family members that are Jewish and there was no harm or ill will or offense intended by any of that,” Priebus added.
It is not clear what role Kushner played in the crafting of the statement. During the campaign, Kushner defended Trump against accusations of anti-Semitism after Trump tweeted out a graphic featuring the Star of David overlaid on piles of money, an image that had been circulating in anti-Semitic circles online.
“My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite,” Kushner wrote last year.
And later in the campaign, Trump’s campaign released a “closing argument” ad that juxtaposed images of Jewish financiers and public officials with a denunciation of a “global power structure.” The Anti-Defamation League criticized the language in the ad for leaning on anti-Semitic tropes.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Poland among countries that do not specifically acknowledge Jews as victims in public statements. Poland has long recognized Jews as the primary target of Nazi genocide; its government in exile alerted the United Nations to “the mass extermination of Jews in German-occupied Poland” as early as 1942. The source of the incorrect information, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, has since apologized to the Polish Embassy. The story has been updated.