The danger of Spicer’s casual anti-Semitism
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As a professor of modern European history at Connecticut College, which granted Sean Spicer a degree in government and history, and as a citizen who rejects his demonstrated contempt for the First Amendment, I say, he’s got to go, and so does the anti-Semitism threaded throughout this administration.

With near-daily, headline-worthy press briefings, it’s easy to succumb to generalizations about Spicer’s incompetence. But, before we move on to scoff at his latest misstep, or the one that’s sure to follow, let’s not overlook the seriousness of his inaccurate comment about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being worse than Hitler, who “didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.”

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Spicer’s statement about Hitler was not a “mistake,” as he has insisted. It was the latest in a series of statements from the Trump administration that distort the history of the Holocaust, deny the extent of Jewish suffering, and push anti-Semitic stereotypes. Incompetence is one thing, but making statements that diminish the tragedy of the Holocaust is dangerous and inexcusable, especially from a public official.

“I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have and I screwed up,” Spicer said after the initial statement, which he said during the week of Passover. He said he regretted his “insensitive” comments during “a very holy week for both Jews and Christians,” and was sorry for letting the President down by “distracting from the message of accomplishment.”

Yet, Spicer’s statement is not an innocent error. It is an expression of the anti-Semitism that connects this xenophobic administration to its base.

The problem is not, as Spicer has claimed, that he compared Assad to Hitler. Most serious historians embrace comparative approaches to Hitler and the Holocaust as useful to illuminating the specific historical and situational factors that made the genocide of European Jewry possible.

The problem is the authority and ease with which Spicer spoke out on the Holocaust, despite being grossly uninformed. What makes his statement all the more breathtaking is how crucial the history of the Holocaust is right now, at a time of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe, the refusal of right-wing European politicians such as Marine Le Pen to acknowledge the shameful reality of Nazi collaboration in their countries, and increasingly mainstream Holocaust denial in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Many think of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism as a worldview that one deliberately embraces or rejects. But it’s perhaps more useful to think of it as a creeping, infectious disease that spreads easily to people who are not particularly self-reflective or principled, and who understand its usefulness to their own advancement in a given context.

But, all this is precisely what happens in an administration that proudly pairs contempt for knowledge and expertise with unapologetic racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. This administration also includes, let us not forget, Chief Strategist and former Breitbart editor, Steve Bannon and counter-terrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka, who wore a Nazi-allied Order medallion to Trump’s inaugural ball, and is reputed to have ties to this anti-Semitic group in his native Hungary that go back decades.

All politicians invoke history to mobilize support. But only the most corrupt use it to fuel bigotry and divide people from one another. Connecting the dots, Spicer’s cavalier comment about Hitler is part of a broader, troubling narrative that pushes anti-Semitic stereotypes and questions Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, which the Trump administration has been spinning for months.

We can even point to the classically anti-Semitic tropes running through the ad the Trump campaign aired on the eve of the election that featured Clinton supporters George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein (all Jewish and involved in finance) as sinister masters of the “levers of power in Washington,” pushers of “special global interests,” and intent on putting “money into the hands of a handful of large corporations.”

Students of European history will recognize it as eerily similar to anti-Semitic propaganda used by interwar nationalist governments to demonize Jews as untrustworthy outsiders with secret attachments to global networks, working against national interests.

There was Trump’s dismissive response to bomb threats against synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, and to vandalism at Jewish cemeteries across the country. While initially saying nothing, he finally broke his silence and promised to investigate but warned that perhaps Jews were themselves to blame for these sinister events. That a young Israeli-American has been accused of calling in many of the bomb threats is tragic, but it’s largely irrelevant to Trump’s statement.

The continued vandalism of Jewish cemeteries across the U.S. has yet to be accounted for, and more importantly, Trump’s eye-rolling at the idea of genuine animus toward Jews is, at a time of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and the world, reckless and irresponsible at best. At worst, it is a cynical ploy to avoid irritating the anti-Semites who make up his support base, including white supremacist Richard Spencer and KKK leader David Duke.

And, perhaps most shocking was the White House’s last-minute edits of a prepared statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to exclude any specific mention of Jews. This unprecedented statement from a U.S. President was widely criticized for denying the particular experience of Jews as the only group, besides the Roma and Sinti, that the Nazis targeted exclusively for death. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration’s statement met enthusiastic support from the Neo-Nazi Web site Daily Stormer.

In his classic analysis, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre makes the point that anti-Semites don’t even try to use words responsibly, instead making a sport of playing with discourse, and “delight in acting in bad faith.” They feel free to say whatever they want because they have chosen to be impervious to reason and experience. They like to discredit their detractors by accusing them of being silly and overly sensitive. And freed of the hard work of using words responsibly — this onus is on their opponents — they enjoy their frivolity, and choose not to examine their hateful positions or the implications of their speech.

Spicer, with his casual anti-Semitism, may lack deeply held convictions about the Holocaust, but his choice of words show an alarming comfort with a narrative that downplays the significance of it in the first place, and cynicism about Jewish claims of anti-Semitism at the heart of this rotten administration.

Resisting Spicer’s offensive distortion of the history of the Holocaust is one way that we, no matter our politics, can express our commitment to evidence-based history and rejection of state-sponsored intolerance.

While Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE insisted this week that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated, his pledge means little if he does nothing to address this problem within his own Cabinet.

Sean Spicer needs to go, but let’s remember that he is a symptom of a much bigger problem: an administration that shows utter disdain for our intelligence and well being as citizens with its dangerous and shameful demonizing of Muslims, condoning of anti-Semitism, distortions of the history of racism, and persistent lying to us — and our willingness to stand for it.

Eileen Kane, Ph.D., is a Professor of History at Connecticut College, is Director of the school’s Global Islamic Studies program, and is a Public Voices fellow.


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