This morning, President Donald Trump visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum on the edge of Jerusalem. Flanked by Israeli and American flags, the president spoke gravely of the “millions of innocent, wonderful, and beautiful lives, men, women, and children … extinguished as part of a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people.”
He called it “the most savage crime against God and his children” and said it is “our solemn duty to remember, to mourn, to grieve, and to honor every single life that was so cruelly and viciously taken.”
And, when he left, he signed the guest book: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends — so amazing and will never forget!”
More than the somber speech he gave, that blithe, almost chipper, note is what people will remember from his historic trip. Journalists and activists immediately took Trump to task. Yair Rosenberg of Tablet magazine wrote on Twitter that it was “basically just what teenagers write in each other’s high school yearbooks.”
Many tweeters juxtaposed Trump’s note against the sober message left by Barack Obama when he visited Yad Vashem in July 2008, while he was still a senator.
Barack Obama’s message reads:
I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim “never again.” And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.
The recognition, in Obama’s note, that victims were not just victims, but individuals like us is among the most essential messages that Holocaust educators hope reach their audiences. It is a recognition that we are all humbled before this history — that we are no different from those who came before us, that we ourselves could be victims, or coerced into becoming perpetrators, and therefore must strive not to repeat it.
By contrast, Trump’s breezy statement reveals a remarkable lack of gravity or deep reflection.
Trump’s visit had already rankled Israelis before it even began. His advance team had reportedly initially scheduled him for a scant 15 minutes in the museum — and that’s including the time it would take for him to sign the guest book, lay a wreath, and deliver his remarks. (He ended up onsite for nearly 30 minutes.)
For days, the Jewish press had speculated how such a short visit would be possible given the size, depth, and scale of the museum, and the Jerusalem Post even ran a mocking video, set at warp speed, of how to see everything at Yad Vashem in 15 minutes.
For an administration that has been dogged from the outset by accusations of anti-Semitism and minimizing the Holocaust, this was maybe not the best PR move.
In January, the official White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to include Jews, instead offering a blanket recognition of all victims — something that many Jews found offensive because it seemed to minimize the unique Nazi attempt to deliberately wipe out an entire people.
And in April, press secretary Sean Spicer favorably compared Hitler to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, falsely stating that “Hitler didn't even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.” The Nazis, of course, gassed Jewish victims in concentration camps. Spicer later apologized, profusely, but the damage was done.
Today, Trump sounded like most other presidents and dignitaries before him on his visit to Yad Vashem. “We must bear witness,” he said, quoting Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor.
In his speech, he seemed appropriately impressed by Yad Vashem, a museum that is both shrine and research center, history and horror, with room upon room of stories of the lost.
“The president seems to have learned his lesson,” wrote the Times of Israel, noting a shift in Trump’s speeches and messaging since Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, in April.
But the note Trump left in Yad Vashem’s guest book may leave some wondering how deeply that lesson has been received.