President Donald Trump is spending Holocaust Remembrance Week trying to counter the allegations of anti-Semitism that have dogged his administration.
Reading from prepared remarks, Trump spoke on Tuesday to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual Days of Remembrance event.
“The Nazis massacred six million Jews. Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide. Millions more people were imprisoned and executed by the Nazis without mercy,” Trump said. “Yet even today there are those who want to forget the past. Worse still, there are even those filled with such hate, total hate, that they want to erase the Holocaust from history. Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil and we’ll never be silent, we just won’t, we will never ever be silent in the face of evil again.”
His remarks carried more than a touch of irony. The president has only been in office three months, but his term has been riddled with missteps of particular concern to the Jewish community. The appointments of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, and national security advisor Sebastian Gorka, an alleged member of a fascist organization, have been received poorly by Jews.
Earlier this month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed crimes carried out by Adolf Hitler by incorrectly claiming that Jews were not gassed during the Holocaust, and was later forced to apologize. On international Holocaust Remembrance Day (different from Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust day observed this year on April 24), the Trump administration’s statement failed to mention Jews.
Incidents like these have done a great deal of damage to Trump’s relationship with American Jews, something that Tuesday’s speech was likely meant to counter. But progressive Jewish groups have not been very receptive.
Prior to Trump’s speech, Stosh Cotler, the chief executive of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, slammed the decision to give the president a spotlight at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
“Donald Trump and his administration have embraced the rhetoric and the agenda of white nationalism,” she told the New York Times. “This is not someone who deserves the platform of speaking at a national day of remembrance of the Holocaust.”
Backing up Cotler’s comments, an open letter from Bend the Arc Jewish Action protesting Trump’s invitation to speak garnered more than 8,400 signatures. A similar petition from Jewish millennial group If Not Now, which encourages an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, received more than 4,100 signatures.
“In their previous statements on the Holocaust, Trump and his surrogates have spread neo-Nazi talking points,” the If Not Now petition reads, going on to list the numerous anti-Semitic gaffes the administration has made. “For Trump, there are those who are ‘true’ Americans and those who are not. As Jews, we know the danger of such distinctions.”
— IfNotNow (@IfNotNowOrg) April 24, 2017
Following the speech, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect (which has no connection to the Frank family), issued a report card for the speech, giving Trump an “A” for acknowledging the Holocaust as a genocide perpetrated against Jews. In other categories he fell short, earning a “C” for failing to acknowledge the rise of anti-Semitism in America (as well as the role his own staff has played in that rise), and a “D” for failing to lay out a plan to combat the issue. Most damningly, the organization gave him the grade of “F” for continuing to deny refugees entrance to the United States.
— Anne Frank Center (@AnneFrankCenter) April 25, 2017
Not all Jewish groups were displeased by the speech. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, issued a statement welcoming Trump’s remarks, though not without a caveat.
“[T]his spirit should not be restricted to Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Greenblatt wrote. “We very much hope the president will continue to use his bully pulpit to speak out against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hatred in all forms. We urge the president and his administration to act to protect targeted communities against hate crime and discrimination.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition was also supportive of the speech.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitic hate crimes have been on the rise across the country. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 541 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported so far in 2017, marking an 86 percent increase from the same period in 2016. The spike comes at a time of alarming hate directed at minorities across the United States following Trump’s election, as ThinkProgress has documented. But Trump has consistently refused to acknowledge the role of his own administration in the violence, sometimes going to great lengths to avoid denouncing anti-Semitism specifically. When a Jewish reporter asked Trump to comment on the incidents, the president told him to “sit down,” going on to claim he was the “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”