At the joint press conference Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, declared: “No other people has endured what the Jewish people have endured.”
Those words contrast with his previous statement in which he trivialized the effect the Holocaust had specifically on the Jews. In this statement he appeared to be fully empathetic with the Jewish people, yet in previous statements regarding the Holocaust, he failed to even mention them. This two-faced approach is very damaging.
“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust.
It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” It is with these words that Donald Trump chose to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. This statement is alarming as it ignores the Jewish specificity of the Nazi genocide, as the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem also pointed out in its official statement, recalling that the Holocaust, a crime perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, saw in a relatively short period of time, 6 million Jews murdered, and that it constitutes, in this sense, an unprecedented genocide. This correction of the historical record was necessary because Donald Trump’s comments – far from being benign – are disturbing in several respects.
Following these criticisms, on January 29, Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, justified the president’s remarks, saying in an interview on BBC, “[E]veryone’s suffering in the Holocaust including, obviously, all of the Jewish people affected....”
However, even if the phrase was taken out of context, even if elsewhere in the statement the chief of staff did refer to the genocide of Jews, the fact remains that this “inclusive form of rhetoric” to describe the Holocaust is unacceptable.
It de-Judaizes the Holocaust by removing the Jewish specificity.
A few days later, on January 30, Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian and specialist on Holocaust denial, also criticized Trump’s comments, in an article published in The Atlantic. She argued that Trump’s wording constitutes what she calls “soft-core” Holocaust denial. I disagree. I believe that it is too early to say that Trump’s statement is Holocaust denial, whose definition is too often misunderstood by the general public. It must be better understood in order to better combat this phenomenon.
Holocaust denial is the denial of the crime – the genocide of the Jews – as well as the denial of the weapons used to commit the crime – the gas chambers – with, of course, various degrees of denial among Holocaust deniers. In addition to the Holocaust, we could also mention the denial of the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and the Cambodian genocide.
The words of the American president are part of a willingness to de-Judaize the Holocaust and to trivialize its significance.
But this is not a matter of Holocaust denial.
To use this term to describe the discomfort engendered by Trump’s words creates confusion and hinders an effective fight against true Holocaust denial and the efforts to de-Judaize the Nazi genocide.
In his speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump’s remarks constitute a form of banalization of the Holocaust, of which there are several. A form of banalization that can be considered legitimate is to deprive the Jewish genocide of its sacred aspect in order to better historicize it. The other forms should be banished because they minimize the Jewish specificity of the Nazi genocide. Those who de-Judaize the Holocaust, as Trump did in his statement; compare mass crimes in order to minimize the genocide of Jews; conflate genocides and try to make Israel seem like a Nazi country whose victims would be the Palestinians; desecrate Jewish memorial sites to remove traces of Jewish identity and memory; or mock Jews by implying that they are making such a big deal out of “their” Holocaust, are all contributing of this trivialization.
But if the latter is to be distinguished from Holocaust denial, it is still nefarious.
It is in this sense that Trump’s words appear dangerous. Should one really be astonished when one observes those around him who lean toward the altright, such as Stephen Bannon whom Donald Trump appointed as chief strategist? Bannon is the former head of the Breitbart News website, considered one of the most extremist, racist, antisemitic and xenophobic media outlets in the United States.
Banalization allows one to put different crimes on supposedly equal footing, with the grotesque effect of minimizing the genocide of the Jews. Making comparisons in history is necessary. Nevertheless, just as every genocide is specific in and of itself, there is a Jewish component to the Nazi genocide – even if we also take into account the persecutions of homosexuals, Gypsies and communists. It is true that banalization is a stepping stone down the slippery path of Holocaust denial.
Many of those who support Holocaust deniers first passed through the phase of banalization and trivialization. However, it remains difficult to say Donald Trump’s remarks constitute Holocaust denial.
If Europe has been fighting for decades for the recognition of the Jewish specificity of the Nazi genocide, the phenomenon of removing Jews from the Nazi genocide takes place in the countries of Eastern Europe, where some politicians are brandishing the concept of a “double genocide”: the Nazi genocide and the Stalinist genocide.
At a time when the countries of Eastern Europe are confronting banalization of the Holocaust, it is particularly distressing to hear the president of the United States making such remarks. While Trump presented himself as a friend of Israel, highlighting the Jewish members of his family, the new resident of the White House prefers doublespeak to remain ambiguous. A kind of duplicity – two faces – which allows him to scratch the back of the Jewish people by announcing the move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while simultaneously appointing those of the alt-right to key posts in his administration and de-Judaizing the Nazi genocide.
It seems clear that one must remain very suspicious and vigilant toward him.
The Holocaust was caused by people following a charismatic leader and not questioning his ethics in time; the danger we now face is a president of the United States who is ambiguous and unclear about his genuine intentions.
That the most powerful man in the free world is so ambiguous about his true views of antisemitism is extremely concerning.
The author is a historian, specialist on Holocaust denial and author of Les idées fausses ne meurent jamais, Le négationnisme, un réseau international (False Ideas Never Die: Holocaust Denial, An International Network), (upcoming, CNRS Publishing). A version of this op-ed was published in French by Le Monde on February 9.
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