Passover is a holiday of blood and fire, of sacrifice and Exodus, of when the Jewish people sit around the dining room table to celebrate the violent triumph of our Israelite ancestors over our ancient Egyptian oppressors. Some holidays are raucous, like Purim, and some are somber, like Yom Kippur. But not Passover. This is a holiday of triumph, not forgiveness.
So one must feel, at some level, sorry for President Donald Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer. When Spicer made gaffe after gaffe from the White House podium about the Holocaust — and did it on the second day of Passover — he couldn’t have picked a worse time to upset American Jews.
Making Holocaust analogies in politics is a perilous business. There really is no potentially good outcome for those who are willing to drag up the darkest period in human history to justify their present actions. Yet Spicer went there, attempting to explain that the Trump administration’s decision to bomb Syria was an act of humanitarianism.
This is a debatable point, as the Trump administration barely slowed down President Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine and it continues to block Syrian refugees from entering America. Yet Spicer still could have made a plausible argument about the value of the Syrian strikes without mentioning the Holocaust as justification for the administration’s policy.
But he didn’t, and like many other modern politicians, Spicer chose to use the intellectual shortcut of Holocaust analogy to justify his views. And it backfired.
Initially, Spicer described Assad as being more despicable than Hitler, because Hitler “…didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II.” Oh no. Spicer clearly didn’t recall that Hitler used Zyklon B poison gas to murder millions.
And then he compounded this gaffe by stating that Hitler didn’t use “… the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” Never mind that between 160,000 and 180,000 German Jews were killed by Hitler. One must hope that he didn’t mean that German Jews weren’t truly German.
It didn’t take long for Spicer to realize his errors and apologize for them. For this, we should be grateful. But an apology alone is not enough. Spicer needs to do more to earn back the confidence of American Jews.
So, in the spirit of Passover, where a nation was born through a violent transition from slavery to freedom, so too does Spicer have a chance to convert his public humiliation into a positive outcome both for him and for us all. There are two clear steps that he should take to do this.
First, he should lead a group of White House staff to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There are deep suspicions among American Jews about this White House’s views of the Holocaust. This is a White House that failed to mention Jews as Holocaust victims in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And it is a White House that employs an individual connected to a Nazi-affiliated political party in Hungary as its top counterterrorism advisor. Spicer is the perfect person to lead his colleagues on this trip and to lay these suspicions to rest.
Second, Spicer should use the power of his podium to denounce the use of the Holocaust analogy in American political speech. Too often politicians refer to the Holocaust to advance their narrow political aims. This is unjustifiable and rhetorically perilous. And worse, it is offensive to the memory of the victims. Now is the time for politicians to stop this cheap verbal trick and Spicer should lead the charge in ending it.
If Spicer takes this window of opportunity to truly make amends, he would have done us all an unwitting favor with his gaffe. He has an opportunity to change the White House’s strange inability to continue the American tradition of respect for facts about the Holocaust. And he has an opportunity to finally put an end to the use of politically motivated Holocaust rhetoric. He should take it.
And as the Passover story has taught us, despite the Israelite triumph over Pharaoh, there are no shortcuts in getting to the Promised Land. There are no rocks to hit that will quickly renew American Jewish faith in Spicer.
So now is the time for Spicer to take meaningful actions to fix the situation. A quick apology just won’t do, particularly during Passover. Unfortunately for him, until he does this, he will lack the credibility that the White House’s top spokesman needs to have when speaking to the American people.
But if he does take this opportunity, he will be doing us all a service by leading this White House and American political discourse in a better direction. And he will have truly earned our forgiveness.
Joel Rubin is the president of the Washington Strategy Group, a global government affairs advisory firm. He’s also a former deputy assistant secretary of state and Democratic congressional primary candidate in Maryland’s 8th District.