The politicization of the Holocaust dishonors the memory of the six million. Sean Spicer made a serious mistake when he compared Bashar Assad to Hitler, and — to make matters worse — he got his facts wrong. He quickly and fully apologized. There was no hint of antisemitism in his historical mistake and his apology should have ended the matter. But his political enemies decided to exploit his mistake by pandering to Jews. In doing so, it is they who are exploiting the memory of the six million during the Passover holiday.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) issued a rebuke with the headline “We will not stand for antisemitism.” Its content included the following: “Denying the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime is a tried and true tactic used by Neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups that have become emboldened since Donald Trump first announced his campaign for president.” By placing Hitler and Trump in the same sentence, the DNC committed a mistake similar to that for which they justly criticized Spicer.
Moreover, the DNC itself is co-chaired by a man who for many years did “stand for antisemitism” — namely, Keith Ellison who stood by the notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan, while denying that he was aware of Farrakhan’s very public Jew-hatred. It is the epitome of Chutzpah for the DNC to falsely accuse Spicer of a sin that their own co-chair actually committed. In another display of Chutzpah, Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street — an organization that supports Ellison — characterized Spicer’s statement as “unforgivable.” I do not recall him saying the same about Ellison’s collaboration with a notorious antisemite. Indeed, Ben Ami quickly forgave him and continues to support him.
Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, falsely accused Spicer of “downplaying the horror of the Holocaust.” But by leveling that false accusation, Pelosi herself is exploiting the tragedy.
These over-the-top reactions to an historical mistake made by Spicer that was not motivated by antisemitism represent political exploitation of the Holocaust. Spicer was wrong in seeking to bolster his argument against Assad by referring to Hitler, and his political opponents are wrong in exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust to score partisan points against him.
The difference is that Spicer’s gaffe was not in any way premeditated, whereas the exploitation by his enemies was carefully calculated for political gain. All sides must stop using references to Hitler and the Holocaust in political dialogue. Historical analogies are by their nature generally flawed. Analogies to the Holocaust are always misguided, and often offensive, even if not so intended.
On CNN the other night, Don Lemon asked me if I was “offended as a Jew” by what Spicer had said. The truth is that I was offended as someone who cares about historical accuracy by Spicer’s apparent lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi’s use of chemicals such as Zyklon B to murder Jews during the Holocaust. But it never occurred to me that Spicer’s misstatements were motivated by antisemitism, Holocaust denial or an intent to “slur” the Jewish people. Nor do I believe that those who have accused him of such evil motivations actually believe it. They deliberately attributed an evil motive to him in order to pander to Jewish listeners. That offends me more than anything Spicer did.
Extreme right-wing antisemitism continues to be a problem in many parts of Europe and among a relatively small group of “alt-right” Americans. But hard-left and Muslim extremist antisemitism is a far greater problem in America today, especially on university campuses. So those of us who hate all forms of antisemitism and bigotry, regardless of its source, must fight this evil on a non-partisan basis.
Republicans must be especially vigilant in condemning antisemitism from the Right, as must Democrats from the Left. It’s far too easy to call out the bigotry of your opponents. It’s more difficult and more important to call it out among your political friends.
We must also get our priorities straight, focusing on the greatest dangers regardless of whether they come from the Right or the Left, from Republicans or Democrats. The fight against bigotry is a bipartisan issue and must not be exploited for political gain.
The partisan overreaction to Spicer’s mistake dishonored the memory of the six million.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law and Electile Dysfunction: A Guide for the Unaroused Voter. Follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh. A shorter version of this article was first published by the Gatestone Institute.