Reflections During Passover On Sean Spicer’s Holocaust Denial
Spicer’s anti-Semitic dog whistles are indicative of a White House plague of darkness.
O n Tuesday, the first day of Passover, Jews across the country celebrated by recounting the story of our exodus from slavery in Egypt—followed by 40 years as refugees wandering through the desert in our quest for freedom. And in New York City, at an interfaith seder outside the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, progressive Jewish leaders sang a revised version of Moses’ famous demand: Let My People Stay.
At the same time, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference declaring that Adolph Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons against “his own people” — certainly not “innocent people” — during World War II. He marshaled this jaw-droppingly ahistoric alternative fact as justification for the Trump administration bombing Syria, where the murderous Bashar al-Assad has used sarin gas to terrorize and kill his citizens.
As a secular Jew I didn’t attend a seder this year, but I didn’t need to symbolically dip bitter herbs in salt water to remember the tears we shed in bondage all those centuries ago. Instead, I ugly-cried alone in my living room as I watched the spokesperson for an administration filled with Nazi sympathizers engage in egregious Holocaust denial.
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I watched Spicer dog whistle to his white supremacist, anti-Semitic base that we are not fully human, insinuating not so subtly that it’s not all that bad that millions of us were murdered in gas chambers — if it even happened at all. (Holocaust deniers have long insisted that Hitler’s gas chambers never existed.)
Instead of “Never Forget,” the administration of the first president with Jewish family members — Donald’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his de-facto-president son-in-law, Jared Kushner — is rewriting history to paint one of the world’s worst genocidal monsters in a kinder light. Just another day in Trump’s America, where the president is capable of speaking about Holocaust Remembrance Day without ever once mentioning Jews.
I watched Spicer dog whistle to his white supremacist, anti-Semitic base that we are not fully human.
It feels unbearable that this is now our government. Like the Ten Plagues in the Passover story, every day we wake to a series of fresh horrors. Yet when a reporter asked Spicer to clarify his claim that Hitler wasn’t that bad because he “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” I still wasn’t prepared for his reply:
“I think when you come to sarin gas — there was no, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad [sic] is doing. I mean, there was clearly — I, I understand your point. Thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, in the — he brought ’em into the Holocaust centers. I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought, the use of it — I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.”
Except maybe it was exactly the intent.
While plenty of media outlets shared Rachel Maddow’s interpretation of this incident as yet another “gaffe” indicating Spicer’s professional ineptitude (“talking is hard,” she said on her MSNBC show, “Why is he [in this job]?”), I doubt that Spicer dreamed up the Assad/Hitler reference entirely on his own.
As spokespeople, press secretaries don’t typically go rogue and spout their own rationales for military action without input from top administration officials. Sure, Spicer may be sincerely ignorant about basic facts about WWII known by most elementary school children; his “Holocaust centers” descriptor certainly indicates that he is not smarter than a fifth grader (Do you like escape rooms? Then come on down to the Holocaust Center, where escape is nearly impossible! Fun for the whole Jewish family! Leave your shoes and clothes at the gate. You won’t need them again.)
It’s possible that the mouthpiece of the United States government actually forgot that chemical weapons were among Hitler’s most fatal tools of war. But the focus on Spicer’s increasing incoherence ignores the likelihood that Steve Bannon, Trump’s notoriously anti-Semitic, Nazi-appreciator chief strategist, or other administration and military advisers, may have helped shape the talking point that unilateral U.S. military action in Syria without Congressional approval was justified because Assad gassed “innocent” people…unlike the six million Jews (and thousands more gays and Roma people) slaughtered by Hitler.
Under immediate fire, Spicer released three written clarifications which did more to underscore the administration’s hateful ideology than to quell his PR disaster. First, he wrote that “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.” (Dog Whistle Alert to anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers: Hey, the Jews deserved it, right?) Next, a correction swapped out the words “innocent people” with “population centers.” (Dog Whistle Alert: where deadly gas is used matters, because when it’s confined to concentration camps no innocent people get hurt.)
It took a cringe-worthy three tries before the White House showed any horror at the Nazis’ brutal genocide, adding “Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable” at the end of the statement. That it took that long to show an iota of empathy for Jewish survivors and descendants celebrating a holiday about how we’re supposedly free from oppression now makes zero sense…unless we understand it as yet another dog whistle. (Stay terrorized, Jews. You never know when you might be persecuted again.)
It took a cringe-worthy three tries before the White House showed any horror at the Nazis’ brutal genocide.
Since the inauguration, I have argued that journalists must abandon the industry’s foundational objectivity myth and take firm stands to resist this authoritarian, pre-fascist administration (as I did in this Establishment roundtable).
While that’s an uncomfortable prospect for many in the field, it’s necessary if we are to defend not only press freedom, but many fundamental principles of our democracy. After Spicer’s comments, I realized it’s time for me to make an uncomfortable shift, too; you’re reading the results. I don’t normally write personal essays, or political opinion pieces that aren’t told through a media literacy lens.
The vast majority of my work focuses on media analysis at the intersection of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Yet I’m making this exception because nothing in our country is normal now that the Trump administration is making America increasingly resemble the banana republics and dictatorial nation-states we typically mock as illegitimate for nepotism, corruption, kleptocracy, crackdowns on individual and journalistic speech, and rank discrimination.
What we are experiencing in America is unique in the modern era. Even the FBI’s despicable counterintelligence program, Cointelpro, conducted its efforts to destabilize the civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war movements in secret. Trump flacks? They’re not even trying to hide their blatant offenses. So now, at a time when my existence as a journalist is under attack (our Narcissist-in-Chief branded the news media the “enemy of the people”), Sean Spicer’s Pesach comments make painfully clear that my basic humanity is, too.
The Trump administration is making America increasingly resemble the banana republics and dictatorial nation-states we typically mock as illegitimate.
One reason my family is so small is because so many in that generation were exterminated in Nazi gas chambers, concentration camps, and work camps. I can’t help but believe that Spicer — along with Bannon, or whomever else helped craft Tuesday’s message — focused on the supposed “contrast” of Assad gassing “his own people” because Nazis “only” gassed Jews and gays and Roma, not “Hitler’s people.” (Millions of whom were, in fact, Germans and annexed Poles). In other words, not “good Germans.”
And that’s exactly what Hitler wanted: for Jews, and gays, and Roma people to be denied all rights to humanity, to not be seen as people. The implications of the press secretary echoing this ideology, even unintentionally, are chilling when we consider how hell-bent this administration is on denying the rights, dignity, and humanity of so many communities that are not white, male, financially secure, and documented — communities Trump does not consider “his people.”
It certainly brings clarity to Trump’s efforts to desperately try and institute an illegal ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and refugees (including the same suffering children Trump used as his reason for bombing Syria), and his attempts to defund women’s health programs, deny millions of Americans life-saving health insurance, and eradicate food assistance for millions of poor children and elderly people.
This appalling Passover plague of darkness comes while Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to roll back a great many racial justice victories won during and since the civil rights era. Human rights and anti-violence advocates fear this will be especially damning regarding law enforcement and may lead to a marked increase in officer-involved assaults, shootings, and killings of innocent African Americans and other people of color. There’s also fear it will result in increased sexual abuse of women and LGBTQ people; under a regime that has such hostility to the basic rights, safety, and dignity of marginalized communities, these fears are not unwarranted.
Spicer spouted this Holocaust denialism just one day after Trump, flanked by a strong assist from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, effectively stole a Supreme Court seat and gave it to a rabid right winger who will get to—potentially—determine U.S. law for the next 40 years.
All this on top of the fact that President Handsy McGrabsalot — himself an avowed, proud, sexual predator — celebrated Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month by effusively defending multiple sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly as “a good person” who didn’t do anything wrong. Which is no surprise, since the president doesn’t think he did anything wrong when he burst into beauty pageant dressing rooms to ogle nude teenagers or when he bragged on that infamous Access Hollywood bus that being famous gave him the right to kiss women without their consent and to “grab ’em by the pussy.”
I personally know several women who have been sexually assaulted by strangers since the election, some literally grabbed by the pussy (others had their breasts groped, asses smacked, and bodies rubbed up against in subways and stores), some telling me the strangers who accosted them had Trump’s name on their lips.
Sean Spicer should be fired, as a chorus ranging from the Anne Frank Center to Dan Rather to Esquire magazine have demanded. His comments — coming on the heels of a marked rise of post-election anti-Semitic vandalism — were horrifying. And while our pain right now is real, it’s important for American Jews to acknowledge that the threat we’re facing is currently minor compared with the life-and-death realities of discrimination and violence against people of color and Muslims in America under Trump.
All oppression matters, including mine.
Some women tell me that the strangers who accosted them had Trump’s name on their lips.
I’m in no way minimizing the terror of anti-Semitism, especially concerning Holocaust denial from people in positions of monumental power. But it’s important for Jews to remember that our fellow citizens of color and undocumented neighbors are being subjected to even more extreme, active targeting for violence and discrimination. Recognizing this will allow us to more effectively fight for justice so that we, and all vulnerable American communities, can survive this regime.
Earlier this month, Mashable published images from a box of photos buried by a Jewish photographer during World War II, revealing the painful realities of life and death in the Lodz ghetto from 1940–1944. I am a first-generation American on my father’s side. Before my father immigrated to New York City when he was 19, he grew up in Lodz, Poland — born just a few years after these photos were taken.
This is where I come from.
Ever since Trump brought Bannon onto his campaign, I’ve been thinking about how my petite, under-five-foot Polish Jewish grandmother was forced to chop down trees in a Siberian work camp for two years. She didn’t think that would happen. Most of her relatives were killed during the Holocaust. Nobody thought this could happen in as sophisticated a country as Germany, either. Hearing Sean Spicer deny Hitler using chemical weapons on “his own people,” on Passover, I’m overcome with the same nagging anxiety I had the I scanned that Lodz time capsule: “No one thinks it could ever happen here, either.” As progressive Jews stated in a petition and series of actions against Trump’s calls for a Muslim registry and ban: “We’ve seen this before. It doesn’t end well.”
I sobbed on election night because I didn’t believe we would be okay. And now: We are not okay. None of this is okay.