Jews across the United States were rightly troubled and angered at the end of January, when a White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention the Holocaust’s principal victims: Jews.
Groups both generally unsympathetic and sympathetic to President Trump denounced the statement. Some considered it proof that the new administration wants to appeal to anti-Semitic sentiments. Others gave the White House the benefit of the doubt, presuming the statement’s wording was a regrettable mistake.
The Anti-Defamation League’s chief executive officer argued in a blog post that leaving out Jews from the statement confirmed “the hopes of haters who seek to normalize anti-Semitism and dismiss the notion that Jews suffered disproportionately during World War II.” The Republican Jewish Coalition said “the lack of a direct statement about the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust was an unfortunate omission.” The conservative columnist John Podhoretz called the White House’s attempt to explain away and justify the statement “abominable.”
The government of Israel, however, was silent.
That silence didn’t go unnoticed. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, tried to deflect criticism of the statement by saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “welcomes this administration” and “appreciates the friendship and respect” that Mr. Trump “has shown to Israel and the Jewish people.” In other words: The Trump administration is a friend of Israel’s and therefore a friend of the Jewish people. And therefore it deserves some leeway in its Holocaust-related statements.
Of course, one improper statement does not make the Trump White House anti-Semitic. Nor does the fact that the president has anti-Semitic supporters. In fact, there are many reasons to be suspicious of attempts to paint Mr. Trump as hostile to Jews: His daughter and grandchildren are Jewish. He has had over the years Jewish advisers, employees and donors.
Still, Israel’s silence on the White House’s Holocaust statement tells us a few disturbing things about the Jewish state. The most important is that there is a limit to what Israel is willing to sacrifice in its denunciations of anti-Semitism. Take the example of Austria’s Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis. For years, Israel refused to have contact with the party because of its anti-Semitic leanings. But as it grew in power — and came around to backing the Jewish state — Israel was becoming more receptive to accepting the Freedom Party’s courtship.
Occasionally, there is even a temptation for Israel to benefit from anti-Semitism. In recent years, rather than focus on the need to fight anti-Semitism in France, Israel called on French Jews to come live in Israel.
Of course, when Israel encounters a clear-cut case of Holocaust denial, or of persecution of Jews, it does not shy away from making its voice heard. Two years ago, the Israeli foreign minister warned European far-right parties that they must shun neo-Nazis and described Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn as “illegitimate.”
But most of the time, Israel attempts to delicately balance its wish to delegitimize anti-Semitism and its need to maintain foreign relations that advance its causes. Sometimes this means using attacks on Jews to attract Jewish immigration to Israel. Sometimes this means turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in exchange for political support. Sometimes this means ignoring the trivialization of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust.
This is as unavoidable as it is troubling, even painful. Israel is a state with interests and priorities among which censuring anti-Semitism is one, but not the only one.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, understood this when he agreed to accept reparations from Germany, less than a decade after the Holocaust. Mr. Ben-Gurion’s opponents had a strong moral case against accepting money from the country that had just orchestrated the murder of millions of Jews, but the prime minister thought that his duty as the man in charge of building and defending a new state trumped such considerations. Then, as now, Israel sometimes agreed to help other countries and parties whitewash their images. It’s often a trade: We, Israel, will get what we need in the form of money or arms or political support. You will get the right to showcase Israel as proof that you aren’t an anti-Semite.
This could become much more uncomfortable when the country in question is the United States and when the person accused of tolerating anti-Semitism is the American president. Israel depends on the United States more than it does on any other country for aid, security and diplomatic support. And the American Jewish community is the other main pillar of world Jewry, alongside Israel. More than 80 percent of Jews live and thrive either in Israel or in the United States. This makes the United States the place in which official anti-Semitism cannot be overlooked — and the place where it must be overlooked.
That could result in an irreparable split between Jews. The statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day — provoking Jewish outcry in the United States, while provoking nothing from Israel — just proved it.
Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.