Navigate to News section

Holocaust Exploitation

Why the sudden rush to Shoah analogies from people who just handed over the keys to the Middle East to the Iranians? And why did Trump leave the Jews out of remembrance of the genocide?

James Kirchick
January 30, 2017
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House January 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House January 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images

Let’s be clear: President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admissions into the United States for 120 days and blocking entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days is both a moral outrage and strategically self-defeating. No refugee has committed an act of fatal terrorism in the United States—the specter of which this directive is allegedly intended to prevent—and while applying a higher level of scrutiny to citizens of anarchic or jihad-plagued nations is certainly appropriate, indiscriminately prohibiting those who already hold visas and green cards from entering our country is absurdly overreaching and vindictive. In a particularly cruel twist, one of the first people detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials after the order was signed was an Iraqi translator who had risked his life working alongside the U.S. military for a decade.

But by signing that order, Trump also provided progressives with an opportunity to do what they do best: preen hysterically, signal their virtue and engage in collective bouts of competitive moral vanity. Demonstrating that they’ve learned absolutely nothing from Trump’s election victory, which had more than a little to do with liberals’ own tendency to denounce everything they don’t like as a sign of incipient fascism, progressives took to social media and airport terminals around the country decrying Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.

It is a strange Muslim ban, however, whose text includes neither the words “Muslim” nor “Islam.” If anything, Trump’s executive order is an enhancement—an excessive and harsh one—of pre-existing Obama administration policies. In 2011, long before anyone even seriously contemplated the prospect of a President Donald Trump, Barack Obama suspended Iraqi refugees from entering the United States for a period of six months. You don’t recall the massive protests in response to this measure because there were none. As for the seven countries whose citizens are hereby prohibited from entering the United States for three months, they had originally been targeted for restricted visa access by the Department of Homeland Security two years ago, part of a law—passed with Democratic congressional support and signed by Obama—called the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. As Seth Frantzman, an Israeli journalist who has covered the story of refugees fleeing the tumult in Syria and Iraq for the past two years, writes: “Trump’s decision to go beyond the policy and increase the Obama policy harms refugees, but it only increases an existing discriminatory policy, it doesn’t invent it.”

This is not a semantic point. The problem with crying wolf about a supposed “Muslim ban” is that, should an actual prohibition on Muslims entering the United States ever be proposed, people will be less inclined to heed the protests against it. A more accurate label for Trump’s executive action is “temporary refugee ban,” or, more specifically, “Syrian refugee ban,” as it’s only Syrian refugees whose entry into America has been suspended for an indefinite period of time. This is really not that much less shameful than an outright ban on Muslims, and Trump’s critics only play into the crafty hands of his Rasputin, Stephen Bannon, by turning what should be a discrete debate over refugee policy into a broader one about Muslim immigration. The way things are developing, soi-disant Leninist Bannon will cynically frame the controversy as a presidential administration committed to tougher vetting procedures pitted against a raft of ACLU lawyers and crowds shouting, “No borders, no nations, fuck deportations!” Guess who wins that fight.

That Trump happened to sign this measure on Holocaust Memorial Day only added to the frenzy. Countless comparisons were made to the plight of Anne Frank, whose family was also denied entry to the United States. In the self-congratulatory bubbles of social media, the JFK arrivals terminal, and The New York Times op-ed page, the stakes of moral validation are continually being raised such that the tweeting glitterati must outdo one other in expressing their righteous indignation. As there is no greater moral currency than the plight of Jews during the Holocaust, it was naturally the historical analogy upon which everyone settled.

Attempts to obfuscate just who was at fault for the Holocaust and the Syrian civil war derive from a similar, uniquely Western compulsion to blame ourselves for the world’s problems.

Never mind the evident flaws in equating Jews forced to flee Nazi extermination to Syrians voluntarily leaving United Nations-administered refugee camps in Turkey. More galling was the sudden rush for Holocaust analogies from people who in 2015 turned over the Middle East to a Holocaust-denying regime. It has been quite a sight to behold, Obama administration alumni and their sycophants, who, having upended four decades of American foreign policy by emboldening Iran and laying the groundwork for Russia’s return to the region as a military power, guilt-trip the rest of us into seeing Trump—barely a week in office—as being somehow responsible for the upheavals of the Middle East. Yet there was Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the most vocal supporters of the last president’s Iran deal and Syria policies, tweeting out a photograph of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a beach. “To my colleagues,” he wrote, “don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today.”

That 3-year-old Alan Kurdi died under President Obama’s watch was apparently lost upon the junior senator from Connecticut, who, like most of his Democratic colleagues, would rather demagogue the Syrian crisis than devise a strategy to stop it. Key to this effort is blaming American Republicans for the mess in Syria rather than the actual culprits—that is, the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons, who laid waste to the country while Barack Obama did nothing. It was, after all, President Obama, not President Trump, who declared a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, refused to enforce it, then derided the Syrian opposition he had coldly abandoned as not worth supporting anyway because they were just a bunch of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.” None of this history has inhibited Susan Rice and Samantha Power from delivering moral lectures in condemnation of Trump’s heavy-handed response to foreign-policy disasters they facilitated. In similar fashion do the tweeting historical revisionists use Anne Frank as their political prop, faulting past American immigration restrictions (and not, say, Nazi genocide) for her fate, the better to defame their domestic political adversaries as modern-day incarnations of Charles Lindbergh. One representative, widely circulated tweet in this regard showed a photograph of the Dutch Jewish girl, captioned “Today is #HolocaustMemorialDay, a good time to remember those who died because the U.S. wouldn’t take in refugees.”

Today is #HolocaustMemorialDay, a good time to remember those who died because the U.S. wouldn’t take in refugees.

— Helen Kennedy (@HelenKennedy) January 27, 2017

According to this interpretation, Anne Frank “died” not because Nazis killed her, but because America wouldn’t accept her family’s asylum claim. Even the word choice of “died” betrays a sly attempt at depriving the perpetrators of moral agency. For Anne Frank didn’t simply “die.” She was murdered. And she was murdered by Nazis, not Franklin Roosevelt.

Likewise, Alan Kurdi and the half a million Syrians who have perished over the past five years are not dead because of nativist American conservatives or Frauke Petry, Nigel Farage, or Marine Le Pen, odious as they all are. They were murdered by Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, his chemical weapons attacks, and in his torture chambers, with the connivance of the regimes in Tehran and Moscow. Attempts to obfuscate just who was at fault for the Holocaust and the Syrian civil war derive from a similar, uniquely Western compulsion to blame ourselves—anyone but the actual perpetrators—for the world’s problems. Syrian refugees, then, are suffering not because al-Assad and Vladimir Putin and the Iranian mullahs are pulverizing their homes and mutilating the genitals of their teenage sons, but because Westerners won’t let them into their countries. Anne Frank “died” not because Nazis killed her but because America wouldn’t take more Jewish refugees. Please understand: America’s WWII-era refugee policy was shameful, just as Trump’s executive order is shameful. But acting as if Syrian refugees just appeared out of nowhere under President Trump, or that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened absent a more generous American refugee intake, completely ignores the geopolitical conditions that created these catastrophes in the first place.


Shoddy associations to the Syrian refugee crisis weren’t the only abuse of Holocaust memory witnessed last week. Also on Friday, the White House released a statement by President Trump commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day containing not a single reference to Jews or anti-Semitism. At first, it seemed like a thoughtless oversight, akin to last year’s blunder by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also neglected to mention Jews in remarks about the genocide that killed 6 million of them. But when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks for clarification, the administration doubled-down on what I’ve previously termed “The Holocaust without Jews” narrative, stating that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” In her response to Tapper, Hicks provided a link to a Huffington Post story noting that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis, but also “priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, Communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters.”

No one seriously disputes that these groups also suffered under the Nazis. But it was the Jews—and only the Jews—who were the primary targets for wholesale extermination simply by virtue of their ethnic composition. De-emphasizing the unique ways Jews were pursued by the Nazis for eradication—both in nature and degree—has long been a feature of right-wing Eastern European nationalist historiography, which, wanting to highlight Soviet atrocities in WWII (and seeing Jews as accomplices to these crimes), minimizes or erases Jewish suffering from the history books. But reading Hicks’ statement, as well as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ weasel-worded exchange with NBC’s Chuck Todd in which he stated that “everyone’s suffering [in] the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people affected and miserable genocide that occurs—it’s something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad,” the language of the Trump White House sounds more like progressive campus activists blandly describing the Holocaust as “white-on-white crime” than it does the exculpatory revisionism of Hungarian nationalists.

With Jews seeing their history exploited or distorted by both sides of the political spectrum, one might expect them to circle the wagons. Not Peter Beinart (Rhodes Scholar, Marshall “declined”), whose compulsion to cast himself as the lone hero willing to question the pieties of “the Jewish establishment” regularly overrules his critical faculties. Responding to the White House statement, Beinart found a way to blame his fellow Jews, castigating them for not condemning Trump’s executive order (which he falsely labeled a “Muslim ban”) in the language of Holocaust remembrance. Leading Jewish organizations did, of course, denounce the refugee ban; the Anti-Defamation League called it “cruel and contrary to the values of our country.” Nonetheless, this imaginary oversight by Jewish groups, Beinart said, adding emphatic insult to fact-less injury, was “much worse” than the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge the Jewish specificity of the Holocaust:

Trump not mentioning Jews in Holocaust statement: Bad. Jewish orgs commemorating Holocaust w/out mentioning Muslim ban: Much worse

— Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) January 29, 2017

Even after this disgusting act of Holocaust obfuscation and erasure of Jewish history on the part of the Trump White House, there will be right-wing Jews who continue to defend the administration because Trump says he wants to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, or because he allegedly opposes Obama’s Iran deal, or because Ivanka has Jewish children and that mensch Jared Kushner has the president’s ear. Neither side would ever admit it, but in their partisan blindness these Trump-defending Jews are no different than their co-religionists on the other side of the aisle, who endlessly excused their party’s president no matter how many times he and his administration isolated Israel or insisted that an Islamist slaughter at a kosher supermarket in Paris was a “random” crime whose victims were targeted “not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be.” If the Obamians, having empowered Tehran’s murderously anti-Semitic regime, are engaging in purposeful, gaslighting malevolence by analogizing a humanitarian catastrophe over which they presided to the Holocaust and blaming their domestic political adversaries for its atrocities, the Trumpkins are merely perpetrating malevolent revanchist incompetence.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.