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The controversy over the White House Holocaust statement, explained

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Donald Trump released a brief statement to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a small, symbolic step taken by past presidents to mark one of the world’s greatest tragedies. It didn’t take long for many people to notice that a key word was missing: Jews.

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” Trump’s statement began. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”

As critics quickly noted, there was no mention that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, or an acknowledgment of the virulent, state-sponsored anti-Semitism that led to their deaths — details that are crucial and commonplace in most discussions of the Holocaust.

Then, on Saturday, the White House said that Jews had been omitted from the statement on purpose because other victims also suffered and died in the Holocaust, an explanation that seemed to minimize the effects of a genocide that killed two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. Sen. Tim Kaine called it “Holocaust denial.”

The context here matters. Trump’s most fervent supporters included outspoken anti-Semites, online trolls on the “alt-right” who delighted at tormenting Jewish journalists and public figures. His campaign flirted with anti-Semitic tropes, including tweeting an image of a star of David with Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a pile of money. His closing ad warned of a shadowy cabal of bankers and international elites. His son casually used the phrase “warming up the gas chambers” to refer to vociferous criticism.

In each case, Trump and his inner circle refused to back down or apologize, and his anti-Semitic fans interpreted those controversies as coded signals in their favor. Now that he’s president, the same dynamic is playing out around his statement on the Holocaust.

Trump’s statement on the Holocaust was incredibly vague

Here’s Trump’s full statement on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, which was designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations in 2005:

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.

Compare that with President Barack Obama’s past statements on the same subject; “Today, with heavy hearts, we remember the six million Jews and the millions of other victims of Nazi brutality who were murdered during the Holocaust,” Obama began his statement on Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance day, in 2016. “With their example to guide us, together we must firmly and forcefully condemn the anti-Semitism that is still far too common today.”

Obama’s statement is clear about the hatred and mass murder of Jews. A similar statement from President George W. Bush, in 2007, didn’t mention the death toll but did condemn anti-Semitism specifically. Trump’s statement, on the other hand, is so vague that it could apply to nearly any tragic event. Substitute the name of a terrorist attack or mass shooting for “the Holocaust,” and “terrorism” or “gun violence” for “Nazi terror,” and it wouldn’t seem out of place.

Spokesperson Hope Hicks told CNN that the wording was intentional: “Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered,” Hicks said.

In other words, the Trump administration didn’t include Jews in its statement about the Holocaust to avoid emphasizing their suffering in a genocide that targeted them directly.

Over the weekend, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said he didn’t regret the wording of the statement. “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,” he said.

Monday, communications director Sean Spicer continued to push back against the criticism, calling it “ridiculous,” “pathetic,” and “nitpicking.” “The president went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust,” he said.

Critics say Trump erased the “specifically Jewish” history of the Holocaust

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Holds Days Of Remembrance Ceremony
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, made a speech that was critical of the approach the Trump administration took (though it didn’t mention the statement directly).
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Both Hicks’s explanation and the original White House statement, critics argued, minimized the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. “Holocaust denial is alive and well in the highest offices of the United States,” Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and expert on Holocaust denial, wrote for The Atlantic.

Hicks cited a Huffington Post article that counted 5 million additional victims of the Holocaust, naming people with mental illnesses, priests, twins, Roma (gypsies), and gay people.

But those victims, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions. It is obviously a tragedy that so many people died at the hands of the Nazi regime, and it is worth remembering those lost. But the Holocaust was the culmination of a systematic, state-sponsored campaign of anti-Semitic persecution that eliminated two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe.

“There were indeed millions of innocent people whom the Nazis killed in many horrific ways, some in the course of the war and some because the Germans perceived them—however deluded their perception—to pose a threat to their rule,” Lipstadt wrote, calling the question a matter of “historical accuracy and not of comparative pain.” “They suffered terribly. But that was not the Holocaust.”

Lipstadt, who has studied and analyzed Holocaust deniers, wrote that she assumed at first the omission was an innocent mistake. But Hicks’s justification, she said, was “classic softcore denial” — not denying that the Holocaust happened but minimizing it, including by implying that Jews are stealing the attention from other victims.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, gave a speech Friday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and argued against “universalizing” the Holocaust as a symbol of prejudice and intolerance globally rather than anti-Semitism specifically.

“After the Holocaust took away so much from the Jews, we must not take the Holocaust itself away from the Jews,” Dermer said, calling it an “unforgivable betrayal.” “Those victims were murdered not merely because they were different. They were murdered not merely because they were an ‘other.’ They were murdered because they were Jews.”

John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, saw the statement as “the culmination of decades of ill feeling that seems to center on the idea that the Jews have somehow made unfair ‘use’ of the Holocaust and it should not ‘belong’ to them. Someone in that nascent White House thought it was time to reflect that view through the omission of the specifically Jewish quality of the Holocaust.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America, two Republican Jewish groups that have been generally supportive of Trump, issued statements calling his omission of Jews from the statement regrettable.

“As supporters of President Trump, we know that he holds in his heart the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust, and is committed not just to their memory, but ensuring it never happens again,” the statement from the Republican Jewish Coalition — heavily financed by the casino magnate and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who also donated to Trump — read.

Anti-Semitism controversies keep swirling around Trump

The broader context for the controversy over the Holocaust statement is that Trump’s run for office was greeted enthusiastically by the loose collection of white nationalists and anti-Semites known as the “alt-right.” Throughout the campaign, Trump was often slow to repudiate those supporters and occasionally made gestures that they read as coded messages.

As Priebus noted Saturday, Trump’s daughter Ivanka has converted to Judaism, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is an Orthodox Jew and crucial White House adviser. From his life before entering politics, there was little evidence that he had personal animus toward Jews. But during the campaign, he was caught in several controversies involving anti-Semitism.

Trump was slow to denounced KKK leader David Duke. He deployed a meme that imposed a Star of David and Hillary Clinton’s face on top of a pile of money and was widely perceived as anti-Semitic — then refused to back down or apologize. He adopted the phrase “America First,” associated strongly with anti-Semitic isolationism in the United States before World War II. His son, Donald Trump Jr., said that if Republicans had behaved like Hillary Clinton, the media “would be warming up the gas chambers” — an odd choice of phrase that neo-Nazi websites celebrated.

The campaign ad Trump employed to make his closing argument against Hillary Clinton was a collection of anti-Semitic stereotypes, featuring image of George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Goldman Sachs chair Lloyd Blankfein — all Jews — while accusing them of being global special interests who “control the levers of power” and “don’t have your interest in mind.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign energized and emboldened anti-Semites, who embarked on a campaign of tweeting Holocaust references at Jewish journalists. After the election, Trump said he’d never intended to do this and that he disavowed “the group,” meaning the alt-right. But he only said that after he’s won.

Now that he’s in the White House, the same groups that cheered the Star of David tweets and Donald Trump Jr.’s “gas chamber” remark are celebrating the White House proclamation. “Jews triggered into mindless rage at Trump Holocaust memorial statement,” the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer wrote, illustrated with an image of Pepe the Frog. They still think they hear a dog whistle — but this time, it’s coming not just from a campaign but from the Oval Office.