For two days I was in a news blackout, due to the Passover holiday. Then the festival ended, and I saw that my inbox was filled with media asking me to comment on Sean Spicer’s remarks about Hitler, poison gas and the Holocaust. As a rabbi I can’t broadcast on any Jewish holy day. But I feel Spicer deserves defending after his apology, so here goes.
Hitler was the most evil man who ever lived. He gassed, shot and burned 6 million Jews and started wars that led so the deaths of approximately 100 million people. He was a monster the likes of which the world has never seen. No one should be compared to Hitler.
It’s also true that Hitler is the godfather of all modern genocide, and all those who attempt the extermination of an ethnic group are Hitler’s ideological stepchildren. True, genocide did not start with Hitler but with the Ottoman Turks and their mass murder of Armenians during World War I, a genocide that the amoral world still barely recognizes. But Hitler has become mass murder’s poster child, and was responsible for the most far-reaching and all-encompassing genocide of all time.
Spicer is right to point out Bashar Assad’s relationship to Hitler — the Syrian butcher is attempting a genocide of Sunni Muslims in Syria carried out by Alawite militias, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, which is also Shiite. All of this has been aided and abetted by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Spicer is also correct to point out that the use of nerve agents against one’s own people is a unique form of evil from which Assad can now never escape.
Assad should be removed — no man who gasses his people should ever be allowed to stay in power.
Where Spicer was absolutely wrong was when he said that Hitler had not used chemical gas against his own people. Hitler murdered something in the region of 200,000 German Jews during the Holocaust, not to mention the millions of others who were gassed at Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and so many other camps.
I understand what Spicer was trying to say: namely that there were areas where Assad was even worse than Hitler, insofar as the Damascus butcher used chemical gas on the battlefield. Interestingly, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany engaged in chemical warfare in World War I, which the Wehrmacht seemed not to have used in battlefield conditions in World War II.
But ultimately Spicer was wrong — all of Europe was a battlefield during the war, and the gas chambers where 1.5 million Jewish children met their end was history’s most horrible use ever of chemical agents in war.
But Spicer apologized, and it seems he did so sincerely. He deserves to be forgiven and we should move on.
Those who wrote blogs calling Spicer an anti-Semite are guilty of character assassination and debasing the term. The Jews have real enemies in the world. Sean Spicer has used his pulpit at the White House to repeatedly defend the Jewish state and condemn genocidal Iran, and should be considered a friend of the Jewish people.
What is far more important to me, as a member of a people who experienced genocide, is that the Trump administration decided to reverse course from previous American inaction at the gassing of Syrian children and strike hard at the Assad regime, showing that “Never again” must mean just that: never again.
I have no doubt that former President Obama was well-intentioned when, rather than enforcing his “red line” in August of 2013 after Assad gassed to death more than 1,000 innocent Arabs, he chose not to attack Assad but to forge his ultimately fraudulent deal with Syria to remove chemical weapons instead.
But intentions don’t count when it comes to mass murder. You either take action or you don’t. And Obama chose not to. Obama’s inaction will forever stain his legacy.
President Trump and his people may not have found all the right words in defending their attack on Assad. Spicer certainly did not. But when it comes to combating genocide, words are trivial and action is everything. I am grateful to Sean Spicer and the members of the Trump team for taking action to give value to innocent lives.
For nearly four years we watched as America became a toothless tiger, forever huffing and puffing but never striking at Assad for the use of nerve agents against children. Surely even the biggest Trump haters applaud the president for his honorable action at striking back at the beast.
The crime of the Holocaust is unique in world history. It brooks no comparisons. But genocides of any stripe are humanity’s highest abomination, and poison gas is poison gas. America had a moral responsibility to hit the Assad regime after it dropped Sarin gas on children. And nothing that can be said about that action will ever be as important as the action itself. To see Syrian jets smoldering in ruins at the hands of the American military is to take just pride in being citizens of the most righteous nation on earth.
Many of the memoirs of Auschwitz survivors relate how the prisoners prayed daily that they might see American bombers punishing the SS for operating the gas chambers at Birkenau. They prayed even though they knew that such bombing runs would cost them their own lives. But the bombers never came, thereby forever staining the legacies of even truly great men like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who ultimately defeated Hitler.
I earlier noted that April 7, the day in Syria when Trump struck, was the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. More than 800,000 people were hacked to death in three months in 1994. The world watched in silence as the Tutsis were dismembered before the eyes of the world. The Clinton administration did not lift a finger to help them, and in 1998, Bill Clinton traveled to Rwanda to apologize. His words, as usual, were eloquent. But surely the people of Rwanda would have preferred mistaken comments by Clinton’s press secretary matched by action to stop the slaughter to an eloquent apology that was too little, too late.
It’s time to applaud and thank President Trump and his administration — Spicer included — for taking decisive action in Syria. Because only action, and not words, are that which will ensure that “never again” means “never again.”