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Jonathan S. Tobin

The Trump and Obama administrations are as different as night and day in most respects but ‎they have one important thing in common: They’re allergic to admitting mistakes even when it ‎would cost them nothing to do so. For the last eight years, then-President Barack Obama and his aides did ‎that with respect to a myriad of issues and scandals and the same stubbornness was on display ‎in the days following what should have been an unremarkable routine acknowledgement of ‎International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the Trump White House.‎

The problem isn’t just that the administration erred badly when it issued a statement that didn’t ‎mention Jews or anti-Semitism when commemorating the Holocaust. They compounded that ‎blunder by sending out first White House chief of staff Reince Preibus and then spokesman Sean ‎Spicer to insist that it wasn’t a mistake and that anyone who called attention to it was either ‎floating a conspiracy theory or failing to acknowledge Donald Trump’s support for Israel. The alibi they ‎eventually settled on later was to make Boris Epshteyn — a White House staffer and former ‎Trump TV surrogate who also happens to a Russian immigrant and a descendant of Holocaust ‎survivors — the scapegoat for the blunder.‎


It was neither “pathetic” nor “petty” to point out that any appreciation of that historic crime ‎must begin with an acknowledgement that Jews were the specific focus of Nazi policy. While ‎not all victims were Jews, all Jews within Hitler’s grasp were victims. Denying that truth and ‎thereby diminishing Jewish suffering and the primary goal of the Nazis is a form of revisionist ‎history that has been championed by bigots. No matter how much more sensitive to Israel’s ‎security needs Trump’s White House may be in comparison to his predecessor, there is no ‎excuse for writing Jews out of the Holocaust in that manner.‎

That was doubly unfortunate because their refusal to own up to the fiasco gave ammunition to ‎their critics. In doing so, the Trump team made it easier to argue that one could draw a straight ‎line between the policy changes they put into effect on refugees and a poorly drafted document ‎about a historical memory. That Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, didn’t hesitate to link ‎the two and to accuse Trump of engaging in anti-Semitic Holocaust denial on “Meet the Press” ‎probably only encouraged the White House to continue to deny fault. But the opening this gave ‎to partisans distracted them from the fact that even Jewish groups that are inclined to be ‎sympathetic to the new president, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition or the Zionist ‎Organization of America (which only days earlier was boasting of its access to the ‎administration), were expressing pain about the Holocaust statement. More importantly, the ‎juxtaposition of the two issues also gave substance to charges that Trump’s refugee policy is ‎rooted in a form of Holocaust denial.‎

But even though the connection between the memory of Jewish refugees being denied safe ‎havens during the Holocaust and Trump’s decision seems logical, it is a false argument.‎

Aspects of Trump’s executive order that paused the acceptance of refugees and temporarily ‎stopped immigration from seven countries that were already labeled as terrorist hotbeds were ‎poorly thought out and badly implemented. Exceptions should have been made and the rollout ‎in which Congress and relevant agencies were not informed led to televised scenes of anguish ‎and protest at airports was a fiasco. But it’s possible to adhere to the concept that America ‎should be a welcoming place for immigrants without also accepting the notion that ‎there can be no limits on their numbers or attention paid to their places of origin. Trump’s ‎focus may have been misplaced and the timing awful but the policy shift wasn’t illegal or un‎constitutional. Nor was it a “Muslim ban” or racist.‎

Equally misleading are the analogies between Jews fleeing Hitler’s death machine and the ‎plight of Syrian or other Middle Eastern refugees. The suffering of those seeking new homes is ‎real but the idea that the influx of Islamist immigrants poses not even a theoretical threat ‎ignores the reality of a changing world in which increasingly larger numbers of migrants are ‎flocking to the West. Whatever one may think of Trump or some members of his ‎administration, tightening vetting procedures is a matter of common sense, not xenophobia.‎

This is why the attempt to link the largely partisan furor over the executive orders to a ‎perceived indifference to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust falls flat. As much as the Trump ‎White House demonstrated how clueless it could be on the Holocaust, its critics, who have ‎spent the months since the election calling Trump a fascist or a Nazi, are just as wrong. As ‎unreasonable and appalling as Trump’s personal behavior and speech may be, reasonable ‎people should still be able to debate how far the government should go in balancing security ‎considerations with the needs of immigrants and refugees without resorting to hyperbole about ‎the beginning of a new era of Nazi persecution. That’s especially true since most of those ‎groups attacking Trump’s executive orders and calling him an authoritarian cheered ‎Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which actually did violate the separation of powers laid out in the U.S. ‎Constitution.‎

No one should hold his or her breath waiting for Trump to admit error on the Holocaust ‎statement or anything else. But an apology from opponents who call him Hitler because of a ‎disagreement about vetting procedures for immigrants would be just as appropriate.‎



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Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. He can be followed on Twitter, @jonathans_tobin.