WASHINGTON — In a barrage of statements last week from the president and his aides, the Trump administration wants you to know, he gets it: The Holocaust describes a genocide committed only against one people, the Jews.
It’s a radical departure from the first days of the Trump administration, when a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any mention of Jews.
That was made worse, in the eyes of most of the Jewish establishment, when Trump staffers further blurred the distinction between the Jewish genocide and the sufferings of other groups during WW II.
President Donald Trump made the distinction clear at the annual Days of Remembrance commemoration, April 25, in the US Capitol Rotunda organized by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The Nazis massacred six million Jews,” he said. “Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide. Millions more innocent people were imprisoned and executed by the Nazis without mercy, without even a sign of mercy.”
Trump made the same distinction a day earlier in his proclamation declaring the Days of Remembrance and also on April 23 in a video address to the World Jewish Congress.
The State Department last month held a ceremony honoring Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania who provided transit visas to Japan for 6,000 Jews, saving their lives.
Trump taking out time to keynote the museum event last week was in itself significant.
Presidents have appeared at the event, but their presence is not routine. And his embrace of Jewish sensibilities about the Holocaust was robust, extending to an excoriation of Holocaust denial, a rejection of anti-Semitism overall and a defense of Israel.
“This is my pledge to you: We will confront anti-Semitism,” Trump said.
“We will stamp out prejudice. We will condemn hatred. We will bear witness. And we will act. As president of the US, I will always stand with the Jewish people — and I will always stand with our great friend and partner, the State of Israel.”
A number of Jewish groups, among them groups that had been harshly critical of Trump’s past fumbling of the issue, welcomed the turnaround.
Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s associate director for policy, praised Trump for his “forthright message of fidelity to historical accuracy, empathy with the Jewish people and commitment to combat all forms of hatred and violence towards Jews.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who has had a contentious relationship with the administration, said he looked “forward to working with the president and his administration to put his pledge into action.”
What moved Trump? A variety of factors might have been in play:
Much has been made of the fact that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner — both unpaid White House staffers — are Jewish, as are some of his top aides.
Ivanka Trump, in her own Holocaust remembrance message, made clear how personal the week was to her and her husband.
“I want my children to live in a world where every country and its leaders pledge to ensure a genocide like the Holocaust will never happen again,” she said.
“I want them to grow up in a world where people are tolerant, inclusive and loving toward one another.”
The next day, on a visit to Berlin for the G20 women’s summit, Ivanka Trump visited the city’s Holocaust memorial.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been outspoken in his praise of Trump, and rarely misses an opportunity to compare him favorably to his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The same goes for Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers.
In his own address in the Capitol on April 25, Dermer flattered Trump explicitly and derided the Obama administration implicitly by comparing their approaches to Syria.
“History shows that indifference has been the rule, not the exception,” Dermer said.
“The exceptions have been decisions like the one President Trump made this month to respond to a chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent men, women and children. That decision was a defiance of indifference.”
Obama did not strike Syria after a 2013 attack much worse than the one last month that killed 89 civilians in rebel-held territory. Instead, Obama’s threats to strike led to negotiations that culminated in a deal in which Syria promised to divest itself of its poisonous gases.
Dermer took aim at Obama’s stated preference for “soft power.”
“Those contemplating evil should know that they will face more than the soft power of self-righteous condemnations and feel-good hashtags,” he said.
Trump was impressed and extemporized a thank you to Dermer in his speech that immediately followed.
“We are privileged to be joined by Israel’s ambassador to the US, friend of mine — he’s done a great job and said some wonderful words — Ron Dermer,” he said.
Trump in his video address to the WJC was similarly effusive in praising the group’s president, Ronald Lauder.
“I want to thank Ronald Lauder not only for his many years of friendship — and he truly has been my good friend, he even predicted early that I was going to win the presidency — but also for his leadership of this organization,” the president said.
Lauder, notably, was the only Jewish leader to give Trump a pass for his botching of the Holocaust remembrance message in January. An old acquaintance of Trump’s, the cosmetics executive has for decades been deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance. The message: Flattery may work better with Trump than confrontation.
Stephen Bannon in the shadows.
Stephen Bannon is believed to have been behind the January statement.
Trump recently demoted Bannon, pulling him off the National Security Council, and is said to be frustrated by Bannon’s hard-line ideological fixations, believing they are obstructing his efforts to pass legislation through an ideologically diverse Congress.
Who needs the headache?
Fairly or not, another Trump adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has been driven to distraction by allegations of his associations with the Hungarian far right. He stormed off a Georgetown University panel after students at the university confronted him with questions about those allegations.
As Trump scrambled to name accomplishments in his first 100 days in office, distractions about what the Holocaust means is exactly what he does not need.