The news cycle moves at a disconcertingly rapid pace, but here’s why the controversy regarding President Trump’s Holocaust remembrance statement still matters, according to Michelle Kelso (George Washington University) and Alexander Karn (Colgate University).
We are writing as scholars and educators to express our shock and concern regarding the omission of six million Jewish Holocaust victims from President Trump’s official statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the date chosen by the United Nations General Assembly to honor and commemorate the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims, along with the many other victims of Nazi persecution and violence, President Trump stated that “we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust” without mentioning the Jewish people, Judaism, or anti-Semitism.
The language crafted by the White House last week broke with previous statements of past presidents, issued with strong bipartisan support, that explicitly acknowledged the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust and highlighted the dangers of anti-Semitism in both its historical and contemporary forms. When presented with criticism over these omissions, the President’s Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, suggested on Meet the Press that Jewish victims did not require specific mention, since their suffering was something obvious, and spokesperson Hope Hicks told CNN that the wording of the statement was simply meant to be inclusive of all groups.
While some may accept those explanations, we believe that the exclusion of the Jewish people, the primary victims of the Holocaust, from any statement pertaining to Holocaust remembrance is, as Deborah Lipstadt has suggested, a “soft form” of Holocaust denial. To invoke the Holocaust without its Jewish victims is to violate the core of both American and international scholarship and education in the field of Holocaust studies. Moreover, such disregard for naming the victims of the Holocaust is common among extremist movements around the world that seek to silence and dishonor the millions of Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide.
We denounce this statement for failing to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Jewish community. We denounce this statement for its potentially harmful effects on our students and the American public as they seek out information to learn more about the Holocaust. And we denounce this statement for opening the door to hate groups, whose attempts to conflate the Nazi Judeocide with other episodes of violence have been a hallmark of their dangerous historical revisionism.
There can be no leeway or moral flexibility when it comes to plain historical facts and broadly accepted interpretations of the past. The Holocaust cannot be a forum for “alternative facts” or for strong beliefs, divorced from social scientific methodology and consensus.
In crafting its statement, the White House might have relied upon the definition of the Holocaust provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM):
“The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.”
President Trump and his surrogates may view our objections as pedantic or unnecessarily complicated, or, as press secretary Sean Spicer put it, an example of “pathetic nit-picking,” but words (must) matter where both historical interpretation and effective governance are concerned.
The USHMM, which in 2016 hosted over 17.5 million visitors from the U.S. and around the world, is America’s preeminent institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and it serves as our nation’s official memorial for the millions of people who were murdered during the Holocaust. It is unacceptable for the president to issue a statement that departs from and distorts what the Museum teaches every day regarding one of the great horrors and tragedies of the modern era.
As scholars and educators in the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, we urge President Trump to revisit his statement from 27 January and correct his mistake. Together with a strong statement of support for the work and mission of both the USHMM and the federal government’s Atrocities Prevention Board, this would go a long way toward persuading the president’s critics that the new administration has internalized the lessons of history and that the president’s recent statement, with its invocation of “love and tolerance,” is aligned to a meaningful program of action. Victims of the Holocaust—and all who make America their home—deserve nothing less.
Michelle Kelso, Assistant Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, George Washington University
Alexander Karn, Assistant Professor of History, Colgate University