President Donald Trump delivered the type of strong, somber speech about the Holocaust Tuesday morning that US presidents from both parties have made for decades.
He highlighted the uniquely Jewish nature of the tragedy, derided Holocaust denial as well as anti-Semitism, and bluntly labeled the mass slaughter of European Jewry “history’s darkest hour.”
“Those who deny the Holocaust are accomplice to this horrible evil,” he said in remarks in the rotunda of the US Capitol commemorating the Days of Remembrance surrounding Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.
“We will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.”
Solemn as they were, the most remarkable aspect of the speech were not the words themselves, but the identity of the man giving them — and the continued controversy over the administration’s past comments about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The speech, and a similar statement made to the World Jewish Congress earlier this week, followed months of Holocaust-related gaffes, including official White House statements that quite literally avoided mentioning Jewish victims of the Holocaust and press secretary Sean Spicer’s baffling comments that implied Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was worse than Hitler and referred to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers.”
Those types of administration stumbles, following a campaign that failed to forcefully reject anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery, meant Trump’s appearance sparked protests among Jewish groups and quiet backroom rumbling among museum board members. More than 7,800 Jews signed a petition asking the museum to deny the president a platform.
In the end, Trump was welcomed to speak. Before taking a look at what he said, it’s worth remembering why there was so much unease in the first place.
Condemning the Holocaust should be easy. It hasn’t been for Trump.
During the 2016 election campaign, the Trump camp flirted with anti-Semitic memes and images, including tweeting a six-pointed star atop a pile of money next to an image of Hillary Clinton. It was widely seen as a nod to anti-Semitic canards about Jews and power. (That type of star has long been known as a “Star of David.”) The campaign claimed it was a “sheriff’s star,” but later replaced it with a different image.
In the waning weeks of the campaign, Trump also spoke about a global cabal of financiers meeting in secret to help Clinton and undermine US sovereignty, the type of conspiratorial comments that my colleague Yochi Dreazen noted have been used to justify the hatred of Jews for decades.
These strange missteps weren’t limited to Trump himself. Donald Trump Jr. likened the press’s attitude toward his father to the experience of concentration camps, noting that the media would be “warming up the gas chamber” if his father spoke or acted like Clinton. The younger Trump later vigorously denied the phrase was a reference to the Holocaust.
Then, once in office, the Trump White House issued a conspicuously anodyne statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to mention Jews at all.
“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust,” the White House statement began on January 27. “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”
It was distinctly unusual for a sitting president to fail to acknowledge the terror inflicted on Jews in particular. That omission was criticized by Jews and non-Jews alike. Sen. Tim Kaine called it “Holocaust denial.”
And yet, rather than correct or amend the statement, the White House claimed it was simply acknowledging more universal understanding of how many groups suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
In the weeks following that statement, Jews across the country were terrorized by bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers and acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. The White House came under harsh criticism for appearing to dodge the issue by acting decidedly sluggish and halting in its public response. (The perpetrator of the majority of the bomb threat calls is allegedly an American-Israeli Jewish teenager living in Israel; another suspect was arrested in connection with eight of the cases.)
And yet, while by then the White House had begun to forcefully condemn anti-Semitism and rue the terror sowed in communities by the bomb threats, the administration continued to appear to fail to understand the unique impact of the Holocaust.
On the first day of Passover, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told a room full of reporters that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was worse than Adolf Hitler because Hitler didn't even “sink to the level” of using chemical weapons. He dug the hole deeper by insisting that Hitler had not used gas on his own citizens. Spicer then tried to clarify that statement when he insisted chemical weapons hadn’t been dropped on towns, in Assad’s method, but instead had been used in what he termed “Holocaust centers.”
Spicer spent the following two days backtracking, ultimately issuing a lengthy apology. But the effect of his briefing room blunder was to create the sense that the White House had diminished the crimes committed against the Jews.
Today, at least, Trump said the right things
That a president should speak at an event sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Museum is not new. Indeed, every president has spoken at a week of events during the Days of Remembrance since the museum opened in 1993.
But Jewish groups have a long memory.
“Donald Trump and his administration have embraced the rhetoric and the agenda of white nationalism,” Stosh Cotler, the chief executive of Bend the Arc, told the New York Times. Cotler’s organization put together the petition asking the museum to take Trump off Tuesday’s agenda. It reads, in part:
President Trump’s administration has repeatedly insulted the memory of the Holocaust, and embraced the agenda and rhetoric of white nationalism and antisemitism. So how can the U.S. Holocaust Museum invite him to deliver the keynote remarks at the National Day of Remembrance?
Jews across the country are outraged by this bizarre and unacceptable choice.
Once at the podium, though, Trump humbly hit all the right notes. He spoke of the nobility of the survivors present, solemnly reminding the audience of the traumas they had experienced. He invoked the story of Holocaust survivor, museum founder, and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and he underscored again and again the pain of the “Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.”
"Evil can only thrive in darkness. Each survivor here is a beacon of light. It only takes one light to illuminate even the darkest space." pic.twitter.com/CWcKkqPpmC— US Holocaust Museum (@HolocaustMuseum) April 25, 2017
The president then spoke of modern anti-Semitism, on college campuses and across the world. He promised to “always stand with the Jewish people” (and “our great partner, the State of Israel”) and he pledged, several times, “never again.”
The speech today comes on the heels of a strongly worded statement Donald Trump made this week to the World Jewish Congress, also in commemoration of Yom HaShoah: “We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: never again. I say it: Never. Again.”
The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear.
On the Holocaust, Trump has, at last, finally begun sounding like his predecessors — and in a good way.