Given his administration’s bizarre rhetorical struggles when it comes to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the bar for Donald Trump’s speech on Tuesday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum was low. All he really had to do was show he understands that anti-Semitism is bad, and that the Holocaust happened mostly to Jews. He did that, and more. At times, his speech was genuinely moving. It was also disturbing in a very instructive way.
The Holocaust is both a defining event in the modern history of the Jewish people and a defining event in the modern history of inhumanity. It has profound particular significance to Jews and profound universal significance to anyone concerned with the marriage of war, bigotry, state power and human indifference. In the quarter century since the United States decided to memorialize the Holocaust with a museum on the National Mall, the presidents who have spoken about it have walked a line between these particular and its universal elements.
In 2012, for instance, Barack Obama talked about “Treblinka and Auschwitz and Belzec” but he also mentioned Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Cote D’Ivoire, Libya and Uganda. He pledged to “realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family and no girl is raped and no boy is turned into a child soldier” and he announced the “first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide.” In 2016, he warned that, “anti-Semitism is on the rise,” that “Jews [are] leaving major European cities” and that “Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kansas.” But he also said honoring the Holocaust’s memory requires people “to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim, or a nonbeliever; whether that minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.”
Just because Obama addressed the Holocaust’s universal lessons in his speeches doesn’t mean he incorporated them into his policies. Talking about what the Holocaust should teach Americans about the carnage in Syria, as Obama did in 2012, is not the same as acting forcefully to try to stop it. But Obama at least acknowledged in concrete ways that the Holocaust creates obligations to protect the dignity of all people, not just Jews.
Trump did not. He said that, “we will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.” He pledged, “We will stamp out prejudice. We will condemn hatred.” But beyond Jews, he didn’t mention a single specific group threatened by hatred or a single specific place where evil lurks. His references to the Holocaust’s Jewish meaning were lengthy and specific. His references to its universal meaning were brief and vague to the point of meaninglessness.
This isn’t really a surprise. Yes, Trump launched missile strikes to punish Bashar Assad’s government for using chemical weapons, something the Obama administration did not do. But more than any president in modern history, he has been indifferent to—if not contemptuous of—the notion that America has universal obligations that transcend national self-interest. In fact, Trump often suggests that the United States has shown too much moral concern for those beyond its shores. Elie Wiesel famously told Americans that the Holocaust’s message was “don’t be indifferent.” Trump’s message has been: “Don’t be suckers. Take care of your own.”
Obviously, Trump is not the first American president to support dictators. But in his fawning praise of murderous autocrats like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he has dispensed with even the veneer of moral concern. When the State Department issued its annual human rights report, his secretary of state broke with tradition and declined to attend. Refusing sanctuary to Syrian refugees fleeing that country’s brutal civil war is among Trump’s defining political passions.
And, of course, Trump isn’t only actively indifferent to people in far-off lands who suffer from “prejudice” and “hatred.” From his statement that “Islam hates us” to his false accusation that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, to claiming that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” to his creation of an office devoted to publicizing the crimes of undocumented immigrants, he stokes that prejudice and hatred in the United States.
So it’s no wonder Trump downplayed the Holocaust’s universal lessons. Instead, by talking almost exclusively about its meaning for Jews, he turned the occasion into an exercise in ethnic politics. The Irish get St. Patrick’s Day; the Jews get a speech about the Holocaust.
In his speech, Trump spoke warmly about Elie Wiesel. On April 22, 1993, the day the Memorial Museum was dedicated, Wiesel turned to Bill Clinton, with whom he shared the dais, and reprimanded him for not taking the Holocaust’s universal message seriously enough. “Mr. President,” he exclaimed, “I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”
Sadly, there was no American Jewish figure able or willing to play that prophetic role at Trump’s speech. No one told him that if you deny refuge to the desperate, and slander vulnerable minorities for political gain, you have learned nothing from the Holocaust. No one told Trump that until he goes before a group of American Muslims, or a group of Latinos, and vows to protect their rights and dignity, his words to Jews are empty.
“It is our duty to remember the Shoah and to teach it our children,” wrote Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. “Not to give us Jews special rights or special roles, but to make us sensitive to the outrages that marred all of Western history and to the tasks of human rescue and succor that still remain.”
By that standard, the people who invited Donald Trump to speak at the Holocaust Memorial Museum—and the people who politely applauded his words—failed.