On Tuesday evening, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum sent out a blast email drawing a subtle but direct link between the failures of the United States refugee policy in the 1930s and 1940s and the Trump administration’s decision to temporarily ban refugees today.
“The Museum is acutely aware of the consequences to the millions of Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, as noted in our November 2015 statement on the Syrian refugee crisis,” the email began. (The statement had implored public leaders and citizens alike not to “turn their backs” on refugees.)
The email continued:
The Museum continues to have grave concern about the global refugee crisis and our response to it. During the 1930s and 1940s, the United States, along with the rest of the world, generally refused to admit Jewish refugees from Nazism due to antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears.
In our view, there are many legitimate refugees fleeing the Assad regime’s sustained campaign of crimes against humanity and the genocidal acts perpetrated by ISIS against the Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities. American policy should fully address national security concerns while protecting legitimate refugees whatever their national or religious identity.
With this statement, the museum, which is a federal institution, came about as close as it can to outright criticism of the executive branch. It didn’t explicitly mention either Trump or the new policy. But it didn’t need to.
The museum’s mailing came in the wake of the refugee ban put in place by President Donald Trump on Friday evening, just as International Holocaust Remembrance Day drew to a close. The president’s executive order stopped all refugee admissions for 120 days and halted travel from seven majority-Muslim nations for 90 days.
The choice of the museum to begin commenting, even indirectly, on the refugee ban comes against the backdrop of another Trump-related controversy: his administration’s release of a statement about the Holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance Day that didn’t mention Jews, a choice called “softcore Holocaust denial” by historian Deborah Lipstadt.
This isn’t the first time the museum has subtly taken aim at Trump’s refugee policies
The email came just hours after the museum used Instagram to remind its followers that the United States had failed to take in Jewish refugees as the Nazis rose to power.
“Anti-refugee sentiments are often based on economic insecurity, concerns about national security, and fear of the ‘other,” the caption began. “The United States, the place to send “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” often failed to live up to its ideals during the #Holocaust.”
It went on:
In March 1938, the U.S. government began gathering #Gallup Poll data on American opinion of the #refugee issue. While many expressed sympathy with the Jewish plight, only 17 percent of Americans polled favored admitting more #refugees. Between 1938 and 1941, more than 123,000 Jews successfully acquired #refugee status in the United States. By 1942, approximately 4.3 million Jews in occupied Europe and the Soviet Union had been murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. #NeverAgain
Here again, the museum did not mention the refugee ban by name, but those who commented on the photo understood: There was a moral connection between failing to let in desperate people in the 1930s and 1940s and choosing not to let in desperate people today.
Part of remembering the past means actually remembering the past
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum calls itself a “living memorial to the Holocaust,” and asks citizens and leaders worldwide to “confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”
That means sometimes talking about human rights catastrophes in other countries, but also keeping a tight focus on the mass slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust itself.
And that’s why Trump’s decision not to specifically mention Jews in the White House’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day was so controversial.
“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the White House official statement read. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”
The museum’s official statement, which came on Monday morning, was a careful pushback.
“The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators” the museum’s statement read.
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.
The key phrase here is “an accurate understanding.” It is not a stretch to see this as speaking to the White House’s muddled defenses this weekend, which seemed to double-down on a decision many found both indefensible and incomprehensible.
On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “I don’t regret the words.”
“I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people affected and the miserable genocide that occurred — it’s something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad,” he said.
That meant, in other words, that the administration was standing by its refusal to specifically mention Jews in connection to a state-sponsored mass slaughter of Jews.
Condemnation of the de-Judaization of the Holocaust came from Jewish groups across the political spectrum and from Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. As Libby Nelson wrote for Vox earlier this week, “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.”
Indeed, on Wednesday morning, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that one person pleased with the White House message was Richard Spencer, the leader of the so-called alt-right movement, who wrote in a blog post that Jewish groups were “kvetching” (using the Yiddish word for whining), and then kvetched himself that Jewish groups were “all about their meta-narrative of suffering.”
The Trump administration has, for whatever reason, chosen to ignore that the Holocaust was a specific attempt to eradicate European Jewry, and that the effort almost succeeded because Washington turned its back on refugees seeking safe harbor in the US. Those impacted by Trump’s ban aren’t fleeing anything on the scale of the Holocaust itself. That doesn’t mean the lessons of what has happened when the US shuts its doors in the past aren’t relevant when the administration is doing exactly that today.