President Donald Trump paid a short visit to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial yesterday, calling the Nazi extermination of six million Jews “the most savage crime against God and his children” during the most sensitive stop on his two-day visit to Israel.
Mr Trump had come under criticism in some quarters for planning just a brief half-hour stop at Yad Vashem, following a series of missteps by his administration on issues of concern to the Jewish American community, including the Holocaust. But during yesterday’s event, Mr Trump pleased his hosts by taking a stand in expressing sympathy for Holocaust victims and support for the Jewish state. Mr Trump lit the memorial’s eternal flame and laid a wreath in honour of the six million dead.
In brief comments, Mr Trump called the Holocaust “history’s darkest hour”.
“Millions of wonderful and beautiful lives, men women and children were extinguished as part of a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people,” he said. “It is our solemn duty to remember, to mourn, to grieve and to honor every single life that was so cruelly and viciously taken.”
Nearly all foreign leaders make a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem’s vast complex in Jerusalem during official trips to Israel and most visits typically last about an hour and a half and include a tour of the museum. Previous American presidents have had lengthy, emotional visits.
But Mr Trump’s team allotted 30 minutes to Yad Vashem, citing the busy schedule of his 27-hour stay in Israel.
During the ceremony Mr Trump received gift from Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev – an exact replica of the original Holocaust-era personal album that belonged to Ester Goldstein, who was murdered during the Holocaust at the age of 16. Ester’s sister, Margot Herschenbaum, the sole survivor of her immediate family, sat on a chair nearby.
Afterward, Mr Trump shook her hand, and she broke down crying.
In an inscription in the memorial’s guest book, he wrote in capital letters: “It is a great honour to be here with all of my friends – so amazing and will never forget.” Both Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, signed the book.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Mr Trump for a speech “that in so few words said so much”.
Yad Vashem played down any controversy over the length of Mr Trump’s visit, saying such events were “not standardised by protocol” and that each was “unique”. and personalized” depending on the guest. Mr Trump has come under fire for appearing to play to Jewish stereotypes during his presidential campaign and for being slow to speak out against antisemitism in America. His administration famously refrained from mentioning the murder of Jews in a Holocaust commemoration statement in January, and his spokesman compared Adolf Hitler favourably to Syrian president Bashar Assad.
But recently, Mr Trump has made an effort to change these impressions. Last month, he visited the US Holocaust Museum and described how “six million Jews had been brutally slaughtered” in a proclamation marking the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust. He also called the Nazi genocide of Jews “the darkest chapter of human history” in a speech to the World Jewish Congress.
Zohar Segev, a faculty member at the Ruderman programme for American Jewish studies at the University of Haifa, said he didn’t think the quick visit was meant to offend but that Mr Trump “probably just didn’t properly estimate the sensitivity”.