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The White House says President Trump is aware of some of the criticism from the American Jewish community over the omission of Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the controversy “ridiculous” and “pathetic.”
“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 his daily briefing on Monday.
“The president recognized the tremendous loss of life that came from the Holocaust,” Spicer said. “To suggest otherwise, I mean, I’ve got to be honest: The president went out of his way to acknowledge the Holocaust.”
Spicer became defensive during the briefing when he was again asked about the backlash.
“To suggest that remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging all of the people — Jewish, Gypsies, priests, disabled, gays and lesbians — frankly, it’s pathetic,” Spicer said. “The idea that you’re nitpicking a statement that sought to remember this tragic event that occurred and the people who died in it is just ridiculous.”
Trump’s six-sentence statement, issued by the White House on Friday, honored “victims, survivors [and] heroes of the Holocaust,” but made no specific mention of Jews:
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
Spicer said the statement “was written by an individual who is both Jewish and a descendant of Holocaust survivors.”
But its omission of Jews did not go unnoticed.
“The Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews,” John Podhoretz, a conservative columnist, wrote in Commentary magazine. “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. To universalize it to ‘all those who suffered’ is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was asked by host Chuck Todd if the administration was effectively whitewashing anti-Semitism.
“I’m not whitewashing anything, Chuck,” Priebus said. “It’s a terrible time in history. And obviously I think 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.”
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, are Jewish. Kushner’s paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors who came to the U.S. as refugees.
The Haaretz newspaper ran an op-ed criticizing Kushner for staying silent on both the Holocaust statement and Trump’s executive order, issued the same day, temporarily banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“After the Holocaust Day refugee bombshell announcement, any solace that could be found in Kushner’s Jewishness is gone,” Allison Kaplan wrote in a column titled “Shame on You, Jared Kushner.”
Priebus was asked if the administration regretted not including Jews in the president’s statement.
“I don’t regret the words,” Priebus said. “I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust including obviously all of the Jewish people affected and the miserable genocide that occurred is something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad and something that can never be forgotten and something that if we could wipe it off of the history books we [would]. But we can’t.”
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a U.S. civil and human rights group, condemned Priebus’ explanation.
“Wake up and smell the Antisemitism in the White House,” Steven Goldstein, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “President Trump and his administration are engaging in the kind of Holocaust denial we have seen elsewhere from the most offensive scoundrels of history. Is that what we have come to deal with here?”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, blasted Trump for “overlooking the defining aspect of Holocaust Remembrance Day — the horror that befell the Jewish people.”
“As if this were not a sufficient error, repeated statements by White House surrogates in the days that followed only compounded the sin,” Greenblatt wrote. “Rather than acknowledge the oversight, Administration officials suggested that there was nothing amiss. As one official put it, ‘Everyone suffered in the Holocaust, including the Jewish people.’
“Wrong,” Greenblatt continued. “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.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine was equally critical. “This is what Holocaust denial is,” Kaine said on “Meet the Press.” “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 targeted.’ The fact that they did that and imposed this religious test against Muslims in the executive orders on the same day, this is not a coincidence.”
Following Spicer’s press conference, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued its own statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day:
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.”
The Holocaust teaches us profound truths about human societies and our capacity for evil. An accurate understanding of this history is critical if we are to learn its lessons and honor its victims.
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