Anti-Semitism by any other name, is still the same. Perhaps someone needs to tell President Trump that.
If I were to pinpoint a time in my life when I lost a sense of innocence, it would be the spring of 1995. I was not even ten years old, and I decided to read the Diary of Anne Frank — an accompaniment to an in-class lesson on World War Two at my elementary school. The honest, anxiety-filled words of Anne — including the devastating prologue and epilogue to the book — haunted me. As the years progressed, I went onto read other primary and secondary sources — including, but not limited to, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Journal of Helene Berr, and Aimee and Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943.
As a literary and historical observer of the Holocaust and the Final Solution that murdered millions of Europe’s Jews, I cannot even fathom what the victims went through, or the inevitable PTSD that inflicted the survivors who were bravely liberated by America and allied forces.
The annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day — January 27th — marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the estimated 2.1 million to 4 million victims that walked through the notorious gates of Auschwitz, roughly 200,000 survived. By the time WW2 ended in 1945, almost two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe had been murdered.
On one level, I was too young to fully grasp the realities of the Holocaust, and how it continues to shape sociopolitical consciousness today. Learning about the genocide did, however, leave an early imprint in my mind that encouraged a career in politics and activism as an adult. I vowed to never be silent on discrimination, nor turn a blind eye to echoes of the past.
When I read President Trump’s statement to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I was unnerved. Not only was the statement released on the same day as he rolled out the poorly vetted and controversial Executive Order targeting seven Muslim-majority countries, but there was one serious omission from his Holocaust address — he did not mention Jews once. How can anyone make any statement on the Holocaust and not even mention Jews or anti-Semitism? That was my first reaction.
To say we are living through a new political paradigm is an understatement. Donald Trump is not a Holocaust denier, and his daughter — Ivanka — converted to Judaism, prior to marrying Jared Kushner — who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and is an integral member of Trump’s Administration. Trump also has a number of Jewish officials within his own political inner circle. That is what made the official statement so perplexing, but baffling and perplexing are just two words to describe his style of governance anyway.
It did not take long, unsurprisingly, for journalists to pen critical articles, and social media users to express their discontent with the address. While Trump’s Executive Order dominated the news cycle — including real life implications for those detained or denied entry to the US — this news story did not escape my radar by virtue of my long-standing observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The White House was quick to challenge and attempt to quell the growing outrage that ensued. That rationale given was that the President was – and is – mindful that millions of non-Jews were also victims of Nazi terror. Ergo, the address was (apparently) an inclusive one to commemorate all innocent lives lost.
I have a different word for the statement — generic. I am not in any way saying that non-Jewish victims should be ignored or that history should side step the entire reality of what happened prior to and during WW2 in Europe — absolutely not. My reproach to the generic statement — mirrored by many others — is that Trump’s speech at least appears to minimize the fact that violent, murderous anti-Semitism and the Final Solution — to eradicate the Jewish population — was a central tenet of the Holocaust. Hitler used existing fear and prejudice to legitimize racial de jure segregation, eventually leading to state-sponsored murder. That is why Trump’s message was more than just a political mistake — irrespective of who wrote it.
Trump’s controversial statement is yet another example of his “avant grade” and unpredictable political leadership that not only defined his rise to power, but is continuing under his presidency. It is a striking reversal of bi-partisan tradition. Former GOP and Democratic Presidents in modern history have included the persecution of Jews in statements about the Holocaust. Sean Spicer has accused critics of being “pathetic” and “nitpicking” — words that are just tone deaf and indifferent to the voices of people and organizations that have raised concerns.
Life under a Trump Presidency — thus far — means waking up each morning to new and often confusing information. I suspect there will be many more game-changing announcements and decisions that will have profound political, economic and social consequences.