Additional information about the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement continues to dribble out more than a week after the message, which omitted any mention of the event’s Jewish victims, was delivered by President Donald Trump.
At the time, Jewish groups across the political spectrum condemned the statement, but nobody knew its backstory.
Now, we know more.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued the statement last Thursday, and it immediately raised hackles due to its failure to name-check Jews, identifying the victims of the genocide only as “innocent people.” Jewish leaders who thought the statement might have been a simple mistake and called for the administration to correct itself.
White House Doubles Down
The White House responded to the criticism by saying its framing had been deliberate, with spokeswoman Hope Hicks claiming that the non-specific language was meant to demonstrate how “inclusive” the administration is. Aides further pointed to the fact that Boris Epshteyn, a Jewish communications adviser, had written the statement.
More Criticism, More Information
The administration’s response did little to assuage those concerned. Mort Klein, the leader of the Trump-allied Zionist Organization of America, said the statement caused him and his members “chagrin and deep pain.” The Republican Jewish Coalition called it an “unfortunate omission.” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine went further, accusing the White House of “Holocaust denial. It was also learned that the State Department has drafted an initial statement that mentioned Jews, only to see the administration use its own that omitted that reference.
Did Steve Bannon Play a Role?
Sarah Posner, a writer at The Nation, believes that Steve Bannon might be the answer to understanding the controversy. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News who bragged his outlet was a “platform for the alt-right,” is now the White House chief strategist and seen as Trump’s “brain.”
Posner observed that he made a documentary film (“Torchbearer”) that identified the cause of the Holocaust as a decline in religious faith, rather than the enduring nature of anti-Semitism. Along with his unwillingness to condemn anti-Semitic attacks on former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, Bannon’s opinions might explain the statement, she posited. Bannon also tends to advocate an alliance of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam, and he could believe that a recognition of Jewish suffering would be divisive within that grouping.
What about Boris Epshteyn?
Epshteyn, too, might have had a hand in the writing of the statement as it was run. He’s a Russian Jew, and might have internalized the Soviet narrative on the tragedy, which foregoes recognition of Jewish victimhood and instead points to sheer numbers, identifying them by their national citizenship. The then-Soviet Union lost an estimated 26 million citizens during World War II, including 11 million soldiers.
Daniel J. Solomon is the Assistant to the Editor/News Writer at the Forward. Originally from Queens, he attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he wrote his senior thesis on French-Jewish intellectual history. He is excited to have returned to New York after his time in Massachusetts. Daniel’s passions include folk music, cycling, and pointed argument.