Last Thursday, President Barack Obama attended the Holocaust Day of Remembrance ceremony on Capital Hill and was met with some pretty strong words of warning and admonishment. To read the account politico.com, the people on the dais with the President stopped just short of chastising him. But at least one of the speakers has a very different take.
Politico.com implies that the speakers acted as school marms to a President who may have been surprised his presence there elicited a lecture. As politico.com reports:
As the president sat waiting for his turn at the podium, a series of speakers admonished him, in terms both veiled and direct, to confront Iran’s government as a threat to Jews and to Israel.
“Honoring the dead must not be the sole purpose of remembrance. It must help us shape a better future,” said Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor. “When a regime is again ... terrorizing its neighbors, threatening to destroy the Jewish people, how will we meet this challenge before it’s too late?”
Meridor kept his message implicit, but the subtext was clear: The world must stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Joel Geiderman, the vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was more blunt, drawing a comparison between the Nazis in Germany and the present-day government in Tehran.
“At least one whole nation has been targeted for destruction with the threat to wipe it off the map,” Geiderman said, alluding to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent remarks toward Israel. “History should have taught us that democracies that let such pledges stand do so at their own peril.”
“In the names of the victims, I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to ensure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it,” he continued. “Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics can’t be allowed.”
“One thing that bothered me about the way Politico.com reported it is that they said “Obama Warned” which made it sound adversarial,” Geiderman wrote me in an email. ” I didn’t feel as much like I was ‘warning’ him as I was stating plain fact. I like the President and really appreciated him being there (as did the Museum) and I hope you are willing to state that. Personally, I thought his presence there said a lot.”
Geiderman is an eminent emergency room physician, the head of ER at Cedars Sinai, a child of Holocaust survivors. Honored two years ago by the American Committee for Shaare Tsdek Medical Center at a banquet in Beverly Hills, he grew emotional during his awards acceptance speech as he urged audience members not to forget the lessons of the Holocaust. No doubt some of that passion was on display Thursday as the President listened.
Geiderman is also active in the Republican Jewish Coalition and was appointed to his position on the Holocaust Memorial board by President George W. Bush. But Geiderman reminded the assembly that he was saying nothing now he hadn’t said a year ago at the same event.
“So, as I did last year, in the name of the victims, I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to assure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it. Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics cannot be allowed. By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am reminding all of you that what we do and don’t do matters and will be remembered. It would be far too easy to light twelve candles for twelve million murdered rather than six candles for six million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.”
Was that as terribly a faux pas as politico.com implies. Read the entire text of the speech below and see for yourself.
Obama also received not just prodding, but also some praise, as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel lauded his decision to withdraw from the United Nations Durban II conference, where the Iranian president launched a bitter rhetorical assault on Israel.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for deciding that America should boycott that gathering,” said Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, prompting applause from the crowd.
But Wiesel, too, described the Holocaust as a cautionary tale for the world’s leaders, declaring the world could have done more to stop atrocities late in the war, well after they became public knowledge.
“Washington knew. London knew. Switzerland knew. Stockholm knew. The Washington Post and The New York Times knew,” said Wiesel.
The moment recalled a more piercing exchange 16 years earlier, when Wiesel, at a ceremony for the opening of the Holocaust Museum, turned to the seated President Bill Clinton with a message on Bosnia: “As a Jew, I am saying we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country. ... Something, anything must be done.”
Wiesel’s words Thursday were softer, but still offered in the spirit of counsel as well as remembrance.
Finally, when Obama got his turn, if he was a bit iffed at the lecture in geopolitics he just received he didn’t show it:
In his own remarks, Obama did not directly refer to the Iranian regime, but he mentioned the existence of “those who insist the Holocaust did not happen.”
“Today and every day we have an opportunity, as well as an obligation” to fight those assertions, Obama said, including “doing anything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda” and Darfur.
For the moment, the 44th president was focused on the memorial event at hand.
“How do we assure that ‘Never again’ isn’t an empty slogan?” Obama asked. “I believe we start by doing what we’re doing today: by bearing witness.”
But in closing, he also issued a slightly firmer-sounding message: “May each of us renew our resolve to do what must be done.”
To link to the Politico story click here.
To link to Joel Geiderman’s personal story, click here.
To link to an op-ed piece by Dr. Geiderman on the PETA campaign, click here.
Finally, read on for Dr. Geiderman’s full speech:
Yom HaShoah—April 23, 2009
President Obama, Madame Speaker, Senators, Congressmen, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and fellow citizens. I stand before you this morning and humbly thank you on behalf of my family who perished in the Holocaust for attending this Days of Remembrance ceremony in our nation’s capitol. There are no words to express my gratitude to you for being here. President Obama, I want to especially thank you for honoring us with your presence during these first hundred busy days of your historic Presidency. It is a special moment for all of us.
The theme of DOR this year is “What we do matters.” Who would know that more than me, or the survivors or their families that are here today? Sixty five years ago, Americans sacrificed as they always do for the principle that every human life matters; that oppression is evil; that freedom is a universal right accorded to all by our maker. Americans of all religions, colors, and stripes gave their blood on the beaches of Normandy and elsewhere; they sacrificed at home, they left their families widowed and orphaned, or came home with shattered bodies in order to end the tyranny brought about in Europe by Nazism.
It is impossible to calculate or comprehend the impact of these sacrifices. But consider that in my case alone, 18 people, including my 13 year old son, encompassing 3 generations from across America are here with us today as a result of what America did then. Indeed, what we do matters.
We also have with us today five rescuers from Poland, not Jewish, who risked their own lives in order to do the right thing—to do what matters-to save their neighbors and preserve human lives. More about that in a moment
I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that what we don’t do matters as well. There are sins of omission just as there are sins of commission. There was the Evian conference where 32 countries turned their back on the suffering of European Jews and denied refuge; there was St. Louis which was turned back to Nazi Europe because no port would accommodate her; there was the general failure to confront Hitler despite his threats against Jews and others, whose intentions and goals were publicly stated and in plain view.
Today, another enemy of democracy has made well known its intentions to kill millions of people. Whether it be six million in Israel, or millions in London, Germany, Spain, the Persian Gulf, New York, or elsewhere; the declared intentions are unambiguous. At least one whole nation has been targeted for destruction with the threat to “wipe it off the map.” History should have taught us that democracies that let such pledges stand do so at their own peril.
So, as I did last year, in the name of the victims, I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to assure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it. Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics cannot be allowed. By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am reminding all of you that what we do and don’t do matters and will be remembered. It would be far too easy to light twelve candles for twelve million murdered rather than six candles for six million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.