Netanyahu defends Trump over omission of Jews from Holocaust remembrance statement

PM says criticism of president by American Jewry on the issue ‘misplaced,’ matter should be ‘put to rest’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended the White House’s controversial omission of Jews from a statement issued by President Donald Trump for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, arguing that the American-Jewish community’s complaints over the matter were “misplaced.”

During a briefing for reporters after their first meeting at the White House, Netanyahu hailed Trump as a staunch ally of Israel and the best friend the Jewish people could wish for.

“There is no doubt that the president and his team understand very well the significance of the Holocaust as an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, and that they fully appreciate the centrality of the Holocaust in Jewish life,” he told Israeli and international reporters at the Blair House, the administration’s prestigious residence for visiting dignitaries.

When it was put to him that virtually the entire American Jewish community expressed disappointment, concern and in some cases anger at the fact that the White House not only omitted to mention Jews as the victims of Nazi genocide in the statement but later doubled down on the omission, insisting that other people also suffered during the Holocaust, Netanyahu reacted dismissively.

He said he did not bring up the issue during his meeting with Trump in the Oval Office earlier Wednesday, but that his aides looked into the matter “a while ago” and were utterly convinced that no objections needed to be raised.

“This man is a great friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, there is no doubt about this,” Netanyahu said, adding that concerns and condemnations expressed by US-Jewish groups “were misplaced.”

“In the course of my life I have met many different [US] presidents,” Netanyahu said. “Based on this first meeting [with Trump] I can say that we don’t have a greater friend than President Trump,” he said.

During a joint press conference earlier on Wednesday, Trump was asked about “a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States” since his election. The reporter also asked the president to respond to critics who claim his administration promotes xenophobia and racism.

Trump responded by talking of the “tremendous enthusiasm” about his election victory before partially addressing the allegations. “We are going to do everything within our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on,” he said. “As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren.”

Unsolicited, Netanyahu then offered his own defense of Trump. “I’ve known the president and I’ve known his family and his team for a long time. There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest,” he said.

Virtually all Jewish-American groups denounced the White House’s January 27 statement — which honored “victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust” but failed to mention that it was specifically targeted the Jewish people — and its subsequent refusal to correct it. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition and the hawkish Zionist Organization of America took issue with the way the administration handled the affair, though one notable exception to the chorus of condemnation was the World Jewish Congress, which stated the statement “appropriately commemorates” the victims of the Nazis.

In a press briefing the weekend after the statement was issued, sparking the firestorm, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the criticism as “pathetic,” while other administration officials argued the statement was deliberately crafted to be “inclusive” and to take “into account all of those who suffered.”

This line of defense only increased many Jews’ anger, with some positing that comparing the suffering of non-Jews during World War II with the Nazis’ genocidal obsession with the Jewish people was close to flat-out Holocaust denial.

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