Avi Weiss
Avi Weiss
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Presidential Holocaust gaffes

Sean Spicer is not the first to politicize the death camps; Carter, Reagan, and Obama all misrepresented the Shoah

President Trump’s commitment to speak at a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum event on Tuesday deserves to be commended. He joins prior presidents who did the same. In President Trump’s case, it helps counter Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s recent declaration that Syrian President Bashar Assad is worse than Hitler.

Spicer’s comments are not the first time the executive branch has made mistakes that gravely misrepresent the Shoah.

In 1978, as President Jimmy Carter was selling F-15s to Saudi Arabia he invited 1,000 rabbis to the lawn of the White House to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was there as Carter announced the formation of a Holocaust Commission, from which the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was ultimately born. The president shook hands with every rabbi who attended.

I was among the attendees. When my chance came to shake his hand, I looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m outraged by the sale, and Mr. President. Don’t give us the Holocaust at the expense of the State of Israel.” For me, it was clear that Carter was using the six million Jews lost in the Holocaust as a political tool to appease a Jewish community outraged by his decision to sell fighter jets to Israel’s then arch-enemy.

Seven years later, Ronald Reagan announced he would go to Bitburg to lay a wreath where SS Waffen were buried. To mitigate Jewish outrage, he said he’d go to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as well. He then drew a moral equivalency between the SS and their victims.

Defending his visit to Bitburg, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also. . . . They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

I then flew with my colleague Ronnie Schwarzberg to Bergen-Belsen. We announced through the media to the world that if Reagan was going to Bitburg, he was unwelcome in Bergen-Belsen. Yet another perversion of Shoah memory.

In 1998, President Clinton also allowed the Shoah to be politicized when his State Department — in what Aaron Miller, who initiated the move, later admitted was “one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S foreign policy” — invited Yasser Arafat to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to create a photo op that would convince Jews and others that Arafat really wanted to understand the pain of the Jews and could be trusted with Israel’s security.

My brother-in-law, Dr. Walter Reich, who then headed the museum, refused to take Arafat through because he believed that the Holocaust dead must never be used to manipulate public opinion for political or diplomatic reasons. He lost his job when he courageously stood by his decision, telling the museum’s board that his was “an act of conscience in a museum of conscience.”

As it turned out, Arafat cancelled the visit at the last moment, as on that very day, the news of the Monica Lewinsky affair broke out. The cameras were on Lewinsky and none would follow Arafat. Thank God. Just imagine Arafat coming out of the museum and declaring: “What the Nazis did to the Jews is exactly what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”

In 2009, President Obama made what is sadly a common Shoah memory mistake. Standing in Buchenwald, he said that the nation of Israel arose out of the “destruction of the Holocaust.” That is the Arab narrative. If Israel was birthed by the Holocaust, why not carve out the Jewish State from parts of Germany or Poland and avoid the Middle East? The seeds of Israel go back in history; its legitimacy goes back to the Bible when Abraham and Sarah settled in the land, irrespective of the Holocaust.

I offer this critique not as a Democrat or Republican but as one who has dedicated a good portion of my life to Shoah memory. My concern is that the memory remain pure, clear and holy without distortions, perversions or agendas.

The survivors are sadly leaving this world. And people like myself, the generation after, are getting older. Now the responsibility to remember is falling to the third, fourth and fifth generations.

We must be true to this sacred responsibility. We must applaud those who remember the Holocaust with honor, respect and fidelity, and call out those who don’t.

This piece was originally published by the New York Daily News

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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