The dangers of Sean Spicer’s soft Holocaust denialism

“What concerns me the most about anti-Semitism is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer quite literally raised eyebrows when he violated Godwin’s Law—invoking a Hitler comparison to explain the administration’s military intervention in Syria over the weekend.

Even for a Hitler reference, Spicer’s comments were flabbergasting. He first argued that the Nazis never used chemical weapons during the Holocaust, forgetting the millions of people exterminated in Nazi gas chambers.

And when offered an escape route by a bewildered Cecelia Vega of ABC News, who asked Spicer if he’d like to clarify his comments, he inexplicably made a bad situation worse by arguing that Hitler didn’t gas “his own people,” and appearing to downplay the use of chemical weapons because they weren’t used on a battlefield but rather on civilians in concentration camps, which he referred to as a “Holocaust center.”

The fallout was immediate. Before he even left the podium, people were calling for Spicer to resign. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect released a statement in a matter of minutes calling on Donald Trump to fire his press secretary.

“On Passover no less, Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death,” the statement reads. The organization’s tweet was even blunter: “@realDonaldTrump MUST FIRE SEAN SPICER NOW FOR ENGAGING IN HOLOCAUST DENIAL.”

There are few sins greater to the worldwide Jewish community than engaging in Holocaust denialism. Several countries, particularly in Europe, have even made questioning the legitimacy of the Holocaust a crime, punishable with jail time and hefty fines.

It would be unfair to lump Sean Spicer in with the likes of David Irving, perhaps the most notorious Holocaust denier whose historical revisionism is the basis for virtually all denialism worldwide. There’s no indication that Spicer actually disputes the facts of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. But his historical ignorance is no less dangerous.

Quite the contrary: while deniers are marginalized and ignored for their abhorrent views, hearing echoes of those same views coming from the White House erodes the certainty upon which we base our moral opposition to genocide.

“There is this light version of Holocaust denial,” said Kenneth Stern, executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which works to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. “He is basically trying to distort the facts of the Holocaust for other political purposes.”

Spicer’s comments — “inexcusable” is how he himself would go on to describe them at an event Wednesday morning — might be easier to dismiss as an unfortunate mental lapse were he working for an administration that hasn’t so openly embraced anti-Semites.

“They were not isolated comments,” said Stern, who authored a seminal book about Holocaust denialism while at the American Jewish Committee in the 1990s. “It comes on the heels of the Trump administration being exceptionally slow to condemn acts of anti-Semitism, and their statement on the Holocaust remembrance day that excluded any mention of Jews.” That incident was also tinged with Holocaust denialism.

“There’s this slippery slope,” said Stern. “It makes it easier for outright Holocaust denial.”

Sure enough, by Tuesday evening, the Trump administration’s water carriers at the Daily Caller were up with a piece defending Spicer’s comments about German Jews, arguing that in fact “only three percent” of the six million Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps were from Germany.

“I’m not excusing Hitler gassing them Heaven forbid, but Spicer was right that they weren’t Hitler’s own people,” wrote David Benkof, a columnist for the publication. His argument boils down to this: Nazi Germany revoked the citizenship of the country’s Jews years before they began exterminating them, therefore German Jews aren’t German at all. Like Spicer, he neglects to explain what possible difference that makes.

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s because another authoritarian politician floated the idea of revoking citizenship for dissidents.

The parallels between the current administration and 1930s era Germany have been well-documented since Election Day. But anti-Semitism and the undercurrents that power it are perhaps the most stark.

“What concerns me the most about anti-Semitism is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Stern. “The Trump administration’s statements about Muslims, about Mexicans, these dehumanizing comments; that’s what gives rise to anti-Semitism.”