Last Friday, the Trump administration provoked outrage in the Jewish community by releasing a statement on Holocaust Memorial Day that did not once mention Jews, its primary victims. Sadly, this is not unknown in public discourse surrounding the Holocaust. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada and polar opposite of Donald Trump, made a similar error last year when his statement on Holocaust Memorial Day also neglected to mention the Jewish people. This is deeply offensive because although the Holocaust was a universal human tragedy, it was a universal tragedy enacted upon a specific set of people’s, most prominently the Jews but also including Roma, political dissidents and queer people, in the name of a specific ideology, a fascism centered on anti-Semitic racial struggle. To eliminate the centrality of the Jewish element of the Holocaust acts to perpetuate the genocidal legacy of the Holocaust by erasing the people it killed from memory and commemoration.
More often than not the failure to include Jews in Holocaust commemorations is unintentional. Liberal democratic rhetoric tends to overstress society as a whole and couches its statements of the sufferings of particular ethnicities and races in a dehumanizing homogeneity. Thankfully, in the case of Trudeau, the mistake was rectified after a public outcry. This year’s statement led with the affirmation of Jewish suffering by saying, “Today, on the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember the more than six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust…” before expanding to noble universal sentiments such as “Today, and every day, we reaffirm our commitment to stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and prejudice in all its forms.”
I do not think that the Trump administration’s statement purposefully neglected to mention Jews, but its reaction to criticism from Jewish leaders and advocacy organizations regarding its lack of recognition of Jewish suffering further demonstrates that Trump’s government disdains the concerns of ethnic and religious minorities. When given the choice between admitting a simple reversible mistake and doubling down on alienating an entire community, the Trump administration chose the latter. White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, said, “It is pathetic that people are picking on a statement.”
That’s right, Jews demanding adequate recognition of the slaughter of the loved ones is now “pathetic.”
This case of diminishing the Holocaust intersects in a curious fashion with the new executive order on immigration–the Muslim ban. Like in the statement on the Holocaust, generalities and bland categories are employed to a discriminatory and vile effect. The word Muslim never appears once in the document, but all the countries listed are majority Muslim. It is obvious what the intention of the order is because Donald Trump himself called for a ban on Muslim entry into the USA during his campaign. While omitting Jews in the statement on the Holocaust inflicts pain through erasure, the omission of the word Muslim from the executive order, although its targets were clear, makes it far more difficult to challenge the ban on the basis of religious discrimination. The flexible power of generalities in public and legal discourse is on full display.
Furthermore, the executive order states that refugees who are religious minorities in the countries subject to the ban can still go to the United States. For the vast majority of cases, this means that refugees with maximum priority from the countries subject to the ban will be Christians. However, the word Christian does not show up once in the executive order either.
Nevertheless, we know that favoring Christians is Trump’s goal because he erroneously claimed on Friday that Muslim refugees were being given priority. He stated in an interview with CNN that “If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.”
The Trump administration operates on two levels regarding the executive order: It speaks on TV in the language of ethnic particularity to attract Christian nativist support and stir up Islamophobia, while in the legal sphere it employs non explicitly racialized or Islamophobic language to bring about Islamophobic goals. While never specifying religion and race/ethnicity, broad terminology terms of the executive order amplify and reify ethnic division in the political sphere.
Yet, while the employment of bland generalities has been used to insidious effect by the Trump administration, that does not mean we should react by solely recognizing diversity and difference and refraining from an emphasize on shared humanity. There has been pushback against the slogan, “We are all Muslims.” Emphasizing common humanity has sadly been increasingly dismissed in places like Vassar as a dated liberal trope often used to justify imperialist projects in the name of “liberating” our fellow humans from tyranny. There is much truth to this criticism. However, the fact that the slogan is, “We are all Muslim” as opposed to “We are Muslim” itself shows that the slogan is self conscious of difference while at the same time advocating common identification.
This political moment calls for a politics that negotiates between the affirmation of difference with an emphasis on a common humanity instead of dismissing the latter sentiment altogether. And yes, although most of us are not truly Muslims, we can say that we are to highlight that discrimination against Muslims is discrimination against all of us. If we allow our country to be complicit in shutting out refugees from Syria and elsewhere, like it did to Jews in the 1940s, the virtues of our flawed but laudable constitutional republic will further corrode.
It is time to reclaim the universal from falsehood.