Sean Spicer, the pope and the Holocaust
May 5, 2017
Israel observed Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day—last week, pausing to remember the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. As Holocaust survivors age and die, it’s not long before our memory will be without the benefit of people who actually suffered and still bear witness to these unspeakable and unparalleled horrors.
It’s all the more important to remember in light of Holocaust denial; claims that the Holocaust simply didn’t happen, that there was no systematic murder of European Jews, or that we are exaggerating the actual numbers of victims. I have been confronted personally, in response to an article like this, by someone who I don’t know and who doesn’t know me, stating that members of my own family were not murdered. I don’t know how this person thinks he knows such a thing, but he is dead wrong, pun intended. The fact that someone like this—or anyone—would have the despicable hubris to distort reality and deny that my family, or any of six million others, were not in fact murdered by the Nazi machine is scary at best, because in a generation there will be no living witnesses.
It’s also all the more important to highlight these facts and remember the Holocaust and its victims in some way this year, not just because of Holocaust denial, but because of statements by people who are so ignorant or insensitive as to diminish its significance. The fact that people in such positions would make such absurd statements is indicative of a larger problem fostering ignorance and insensitivity, not because of denial or even anti-Semitism, but simply because of not knowing the facts.
The first of these comments came from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Earlier this month, while trying to draw a parallel between Syria’s use of sarin gas and Russia’s support for Syrian President Assad, he said, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in WWII. We had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” And then he went on to “clarify” by saying, “I think when you come to sarin gas, he (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
During further “clarification,” Spicer displayed his ignorance by saying that Hitler “brought them into the Holocaust center.” To an educated person, the newly coined term “Holocaust center” was baffling. Of course he meant concentration camp, but his ignorance didn’t allow him the ability to use a proper term, adding insult, and stupidity, to injury.
On the bright side, Spicer wasn’t denying Hitler’s use of Zyklon B and other deadly gas as a cornerstone of his genocidal murder machine. The Nazis began using poison gas as early as 1939 against mental patients in mobile gassing vehicles. By 1942, gas chambers became the common instrument of Hitler’s genocide. At Auschwitz alone, as many as 6,000 Jews were gassed to death each day. This is not only fake news, it’s incontrovertible.
But stupid comments such as Spicer’s are not just wrong and offensive. They diminish facts that are indisputable, and in doing so they allow deniers to creep in and fill the void. Just by watering down the facts of these unique and unspeakable horrors, it allows a false equivalence to other things that are no less horrors, but that do not rise to the level of the wholesale mass murder of six million, one third, of the world’s Jews. These facts must be affirmed and underscored because if people in such positions as Spicer don’t get it, its clear there are far too many like him who may understand something bad happened to the Jews of Europe, but don’t understand the depth and uniqueness of the horrors.
To his credit, Spicer apologized. “I was trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week using chemical weapons and gas... frankly, I used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison. And for that, I apologize. It was a mistake...”
In Jewish circles at least, Spicer’s remarks unleashed a tsunami of backlash, with millions of hits and comments on news and social media sites calling him out, or for him to be fired. I noted then that other horrors may be no less shocking, but over simplifying them and using Hitler and the Holocaust as a synonym for everything evil is wrong. People who can’t define why other situations are uniquely dangerous or evil way diminish their own case, and the memory of the Jews who were the primary victims of the Holocaust, a singular event in history. Mass murder is bad but it’s not a Holocaust. There are no comparisons.
Spicer’s gaffe and apology should be used to turn this into a learning moment. It’s true that if such a comment can be made by someone in this position there’s a lot of learning that needs to be done. Spicer is the product of an America that may know about the Holocaust in broad strokes but are not scholars, don’t know details, and certainly don’t have the inbred sensitivity of those of us who lost dozens, or hundreds, or relatives in the Holocaust, or who are children and grandchildren or neighbors of those who survived. I don’t blame him for being ignorant. He’s a symptom of a bigger problem.
Just when the dust settled from the Spicer comments, another prominent person also made a comment that was no less insensitive, and perhaps more so. In speaking about the state of Syrian refugees in Europe, Pope Francis, referring to refugee camps, said “many of them, are of concentration (camps) because of the great number of people left there inside them.”
By using the term “concentration camp” the pope so diminished its meaning and the horrors that actually took place. It’s all the more an affront coming from the head of the Catholic church with its own mixed past under Pope Pius in not actively trying to save the lives of the Jews of Europe. If Pius had been so pious then as Francis is today with the Syrians, perhaps more Jews would have been saved. At least he’d have had an ethical hook on which to hang his hat and Francis’ comments wouldn’t be as offensive.
Refugee camps are no picnic. Not now, and not anywehere. But for the pope to suggest that there’s any parallel to a concentration camp shows no less ignorance and insensitivity than Spicers’ comments. Comparing a refugee camp where people are fed, bathed, treated medically, and taken care of to Nazi concentration camps where people were enslaved, starved, tortured, shot, hung, gassed, and burned is outrageous. Yet, I haven’t heard calls for the pope to step down over this, or his making an apology either.
Because of the depth of the horrors, there’s no limit to the learning and understanding one can undertake to absorb and transmit this. Some months ago I read and recommended a Holocaust memoir by the grandmother of one of my daughter’s friends. It’s incumbent on each of us to do so, even if it’s only once a year at this season.
There’s a new list of recently published books (I haven’t read) but encourage you to take this opportunity to read, to remember, and to transmit something to others, from these or elsewhere (http://www.jta.org/2017/04/14/life-religion/7-new-books-about-the-holocaust-you-should-read-according-to-scholars). And if reading is not your thing, there are endless videos you can watch and share as well.
But please take some time to learn and teach others so you can help be sure people won’t make the same mistakes as Spicer and Pope Francis, or others in positions like them who should know better.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. He has a three-decade career in nonprofit fundraising and marketing and throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians. He writes regularly on major Christian web sites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He can be reached at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.