Obama outlines Holocaust lessons that are particular and universal

President Obama embraces Elie Wiesel before delivering a speech about the Holocaust and its meaning at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, April 23, 2012. (Courtesy USHMM)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — One by one, the emails from the White House arrived in inboxes across Washington on Monday morning, each highlighting a unique initiative toward a different corner of the globe: Syria. Iran. Uganda.

The unifying factor was the president’s appearance that day at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and together the seemingly disparate issues underscored a message carefully calibrated by top White House officials: The Holocaust was uniquely a crime against the Jews, and its lessons for today are realized both in protecting Israel and preventing atrocities from being inflicted on any other people.

Obama threaded the themes together in his Monday morning speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum following a tour guided by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist and Nobel laureate.

The president segued from the uniqueness of the Holocaust to the threats facing Jews and Israel today.

“When efforts are made to equate Zionism to racism, we reject them,” Obama said. “When international fora single out Israel with unfair resolutions, we vote against them. When attempts are made to delegitimize the State of Israel, we oppose them. When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Obama then transitioned to the threats facing others.

“ ‘Never again’ is a challenge to societies,” he said. “We’re joined today by communities who’ve made it your mission to prevent mass atrocities in our time.”

The two-part message — protecting Israel, preventing atrocities — was reflected in the makeup of the audience, a mix of leaders of Jewish groups and groups that have advocated for other populations under threat, including Bosnians and the Sudanese.

Obama’s nod to the Holocaust’s uniqueness and how its trauma shaped his sensitivities to other peoples facing atrocities is not new. But in tying the threats facing Israel to the Holocaust, he seemed to be trying to address a perception among some Israeli and Jewish communal leaders that he does not “get” how Israel figures into post-Holocaust Jewish thinking.

Wiesel, introducing Obama, gave voice to Jewish concerns about Iran’s potentially genocidal intentions toward Israel.

“How is it that the Holocaust’s No. 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a president?” Wiesel asked. “He who threatens to use nuclear weapons — to use nuclear weapons — to destroy the Jewish state. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late.”

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly expressed the desire to see Israel excised from the region, he has not explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Israeli leaders have cited the rhetoric of Iranian leaders as evidence that the Islamic Republic cannot be allowed nuclear weapons.

Wiesel later made explicit the connection between Israel’s posture and the Holocaust.

“Now I hope you understand in this place why Israel is so important,” he said. “Not only to the Jew that I am but to the world. Israel cannot not remember, and because it remembers it must be strong just to defend its own survival and its own destiny.”

Obama made it clear that he heard Wiesel’s concerns.

“As we walked through this exhibit, Elie and I were talking as we looked at the unhappy record of the State Department and so many officials here in the United States during those years,” he said. “And he asked, ‘What would you do?’ ”

Obama recalled telling an American woman he met while touring Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, in 2008 — when he was a candidate — “I would always be there for Israel.”

Repeating that message seemed aimed at assuaging worries expressed by Israeli leaders that Israel stands alone in perceiving the potential of genocide in Iran’s belligerence.

“People who dismiss the Iranian threat as a whim or an exaggeration have learned nothing from the Holocaust,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his own Holocaust remembrance message last week. “To cower from speaking the uncomfortable truth — that today like then, there are those who want to destroy millions of Jewish people — that is to belittle the Holocaust, that is to offend its victims and that is to ignore the lessons.”

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said that Obama citing the threats facing Jews was a welcome development.

“This is the first speech that connected the dots on the current threats together with Holocaust remembrance,” he said. “You had delegitimization [of Israel], you had the Iran issue.”

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, said Obama’s speech was important for underscoring how “Never again” emerged from a Jewish tragedy. He also said Obama’s speech would help push back against accusations that Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres are overplaying the connection between the Iranian threat and the Holocaust.

The message of “Never again,” Foxman said, “is connected to Israel, and it is connected to Iran, not just by Elie but by the president.”

Obama’s thinking about the Holocaust has been picked apart by the Jewish community since before his election as president.

On the one hand, Jewish leaders welcomed the sensibilities of a candidate who cited the postwar experience of a great-uncle helping to liberate a Buchenwald subcamp.

“He returned from his service in a state of shock saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head,” Obama said during a presidential visit to Buchenwald in July 2009, also with Wiesel in attendance.

On the other hand, a speech in Cairo by the president delivered the day before his visit to Buchenwald raised some Jewish hackles. In that speech, addressing the Muslim world, Obama said that America’s bond with Israel was based on “cultural and historical ties,” as well as “the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

While the president used the opportunity to condemn Holocaust denial and to make the case for Israel’s legitimacy — noting that threats to destroy the Jewish state evoked for Israelis memories of the Holocaust — some in the Jewish community were deeply troubled by the implications of his choice of words.

David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said at the time that it was “unfortunate” that Obama “implied that the Holocaust was the primary reason for Israel’s creation” rather than the Jewish state being the result of historic ties to the land.

Obama’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum appearance gave him an opportunity to more clearly articulate his views on the Holocaust. In his speech there, the president said one message of the Holocaust is that the capacity to inflict harm is embedded in everyone, as is the capacity to do good.

That thinking was reflected in one of the directives he issued Monday — recognizing Jan Karski with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for the Polish resistance fighter’s work providing some of the first eyewitness accounts of the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews.

“We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts, because so many others stood silent,” Obama said. “But let us also tell our children about the Righteous Among the Nations.”

Obama’s thinking on genocide prevention has been informed by the work of his adviser Samantha Power, a top National Security Council official who has noted the West’s failure to do more to protect the Jews and other victims of genocide in making the case for intervention to stop modern-day atrocities.

Power, an architect of the Obama administration’s diplomatic and military strategies in helping to topple dictators in the Ivory Coast and Libya, and in aiding the creation this year of South Sudan, was named Monday by Obama to lead an Atrocities Prevention Board.

The board, Obama said, would oversee efforts in a number of departments to isolate and confront perpetrators of atrocities.

“We’re going to institutionalize the focus on this issue,” he said. “Across government, ‘alert channels’ will ensure that information about unfolding crises — and dissenting opinions — quickly reach decision-makers, including me.”

The White House was eager to convey the impression that the board’s agenda already was informing administration policy. Executive orders were issued Monday banning the sale of information technology to Syria and Iran that could be used to stifle dissent in those countries.

Obama also renewed the mandate of U.S. military advisers counseling Uganda on the pursuit of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rampaging militia led by Joseph Kony that kidnaps children and rapes and murders civilians.

The president, however, has come under fire by those who say he has not made good on campaign pledges to defend human rights. The Republican Jewish Coalition in a statement after the speech faulted Obama for not doing enough to bolster Iranian democracy activists in 2009. Conservatives and congressional Republicans say Obama has shown a lack of resolve in failing to provide opponents of the Syrian regime with military support.

In his speech, Obama defended what he said were his successes but said the United States has to pick and choose its battles.

Preventing atrocities, he said, “does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world.”