On Sat., May 31, President Bush visited Auschwitz, and spoke about the horrors of that place where some 1.5-million Jews were gassed to death by the Nazis. On Wed., June 4, Bush will have embraced a Palestinian Arab leader who has written that the Nazis didn't murder millions of Jews; that the Holocaust is a myth. How can one explain the president's apparently contradictory actions?
The president walked across the railroad tracks leading into the death camp, viewed the gas chambers and paused at a display of shoes taken from children and hair cut off women before they were gassed. Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps "remind us that evil is real and must be called by name and must be opposed," Bush said.
This week, he flew to the Middle East where he met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who does not believe that the Nazi evil was real at all. Abbas is the author of a book that depicts the gas chambers and the piles of shoes and hair as a Zionist hoax. His book, "The Other Side: The Secret Relations Between Nazism and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement," is based on his doctoral dissertation at Moscow Oriental College. Published in 1983, it declares: "Following the war, word was spread that 6 million Jews were amongst the victims and that a war of extermination was aimed primarily at the Jews.... The truth is that no one can either confirm or deny this figure."
Abbas denies that the gas chambers were used to murder Jews, quoting a "scientific study" to that effect by French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Abbas has never retracted or apologized for writing the book.
This is not the first time that an American president has expressed seemingly heartfelt sentiments about the Holocaust or taken action to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, but then, for political reasons, said or done something inappropriate regarding the Holocaust.
For example, the Reagan administration ordered the airlift of starving Ethiopian Jewish refugees in 1985, and then-Vice President Bush, who was deeply involved in the airlift rescue, indicated the decision was influenced by David Wyman's book, "The Abandonment of the Jews" (New Press, 1998), which documents America's failure to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.
Yet that same year, President Reagan visited the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where a number of Hitler's SS men are buried. Reagan suggested the SS men were just as much victims of the Nazis as the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. American-German relations were deemed politically more important than offending Holocaust survivors.
In 1988, the senior Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, dismissed a leader of one of his campaign support committees, Jerome Brentar, after it was discovered that Brentar had been active in a Holocaust denial organization. Yet, neither at that time nor later did Bush publicly criticize Pat Buchanan, despite Buchanan's articles praising Hitler's "great courage," claiming the gas chambers at Treblinka could not have been used to kill large numbers of people, and defending suspected Nazi war criminals. Alienating Buchanan and his supporters was deemed politically more risky than offending Holocaust survivors.
It was the Clinton administration which presided over the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, and President Clinton gave a stirring speech in which he said: "Before the war even started, doors to liberty were shut, and even after the United States and the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines to the camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed."
Yet the following year, the Clinton administration sought to orchestrate a visit to the museum by Yasser Arafat, despite the strong objections of many Holocaust survivors and others. Advancing the administration's diplomatic agenda in the Middle East was deemed more important than whatever offense an Arafat visit would have caused.
President Bush's praise of Abbas is likewise intended to advance Mideast diplomacy. That goal is regarded by the administration as politically more important than the concerns of those who are offended by Holocaust denial or troubled by the prospect of an unrepentant Holocaust denier serving as the leader of a sovereign state.
George W. Bush is not the first American president to honor the memory of the Holocaust victims and then later say or do something troubling with regard to the Holocaust. But no president has ever done them in such close proximity to one another. To visit the most striking symbol of the Holocaust on Saturday, and then embrace a Holocaust denier on Wednesday -- that is a first.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust, www.wymaninstitute.org.