Opinion

The Importance of Sean Spicer’s Comments

They were erroneous and offensive, but they broke the taboo of not comparing anything in the world to the Holocaust

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waits for an interview to speak about a comparison he made between Syria's Bashar Assad and Hitler, April 11, 2017.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

White House spokesman Sean Spicer once again revealed his shameful ignorance on Tuesday when, during a press briefing on U.S. moves in Syria, he said that even Hitler hadn’t descended to the level of using chemical weapons. This time it wasn’t just a matter of having trouble pronouncing the names of world leaders that President Donald Trump had met with or slammed down the phone on. This time, he displayed ignorance of one of the most basic facts known to everyone living on this planet over the last 70 years.

And then, as if to emphasize how incapable the current U.S. administration is of walking and chewing gum at the same time, Spicer offered a clarification in which he said that of course he’s aware that Hitler murdered people with gas in “Holocaust centers.”

Beyond this ignorance regarding the murder of millions of Jews in the gas chambers, it’s worrying that the president of the United States is surrounded by boors, some of whom display tendencies toward racism, anti-Semitism and, at times, even Holocaust denial. Every decent human being is aghast at this display of unfitness to fill the honorable job of spokesman for the leader of the free world. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that next time, it would be better to simply avoid entering the minefield of mentioning the Holocaust or World War II.

But aside from all this, there’s something refreshing about the very fact that the White House spokesman mentioned Hitler. Spicer’s remarks – erroneous, offensive and crude though they were – represented a convention-shattering attempt to make use of a historical reference, of an instructive lesson from world history and human history in the previous century, to say something about the current geopolitical reality.

These remarks were a refusal to obey the dictates of political correctness that reign not just in Israel, but worldwide: “You must not compare.” You must not compare the Holocaust to anything else happening in the world today; heaven forbid you should discuss the similarities and differences. Every genocide, and every other crime against humanity, will always be a pale and ostensibly digestible imitation of the real Holocaust.

This approach, which holds that comparisons between current events and the Holocaust are impossible, misses the most important lesson humanity could learn from the rise of fascism and Nazism in the heart of democratic Europe. Human history is relevant to today’s reality because it enables peoples and countries to learn from the mistakes of the past. And the world can actually learn a lot from comparisons to what happened during World War II and the Holocaust.

Memories of Hitler – the ideology in whose name he rose to power, the corrupt use he made of democratic institutions, the inconceivable acts he committed and the way he gradually convinced his nation that these acts could be justified, out of blindness to the humanity of “the other” – could all serve as excellent yardsticks for the behavior of modern-day countries and leaders.

In Israel, too, “suppression of the Holocaust” reigns. Instead of having a discussion about it and learning about it from rational historical angles, and not necessarily that of the victim, we enact laws banning the use of the word “Nazi.” Perhaps this is why the Jewish state acts like a country that learned the wrong lesson from the Holocaust. Instead of “never again against Jews,” the lesson ought to be “Never again against human beings.”