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.”