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Pittsburgh Jewish community leader calls Spicer's remarks 'disgusting'

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 7:36 p.m.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 10, 2017. Spicer discussed Syria, Trump's first one hundred days in office and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
White House press secretary Sean Spicer talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 10, 2017. Spicer discussed Syria, Trump's first one hundred days in office and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Pittsburgh-area Jewish community leaders rebuked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday for making remarks that seemed to downplay the severity of the Holocaust and incorrectly suggested Adolf Hitler did not use poisonous “gas on his own people.”

“It's always bad timing to make Holocaust analogies, but I wonder if Mr. Spicer knew that today was the first day of Passover,” Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh spokesman Josh Sayles told the Tribune-Review late Tuesday.

Sayles, director of the Oakland-based Jewish federation's community relations council, called Spicer's remarks “disgusting,” thoughtless and inaccurate.

“We understand that Mr. Spicer was trying to convey how horrible Syria is. But we wish somebody in a position as high-ranking as his would have been a lot more careful with the words he chose to convey his message,” Sayles said. “Words matter, and this is unacceptable.”

Spicer publicly apologized Tuesday evening.

Spicer was attempting to discuss during a daily press briefing the horror of the chemical weapons attack last week in Syria, which the Trump administration is blaming on President Bashar Assad.

“We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II,” said Spicer, adding that “someone as despicable as Hitler ... didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Minutes later, Spicer delivered a garbled defense of his remarks in which he tried to differentiate between Hitler's actions and the gas attack on Syrian civilians last week.

The attack in northern Syria left nearly 90 people dead, and Turkey's health minister said tests show sarin gas was used.

“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he (Hitler) was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer said. “There was clearly ... I understand your point, thank you. There was not ... He brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that.”

Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said it's a “well-documented historical fact that the Nazis used poison gas, developing and refining the method over the period of the war.”

“The first victims were people with mental illness and physical disabilities, then Jews and Roma (or so-called ‘gypsies'),” Bairnsfather said. “Organizations like the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh exist so no one forgets the methods and the extent of Nazi crimes against humanity. We remain vigilant so that the facts of what happened are not watered down or misstated.”

Spicer's factual error was egregious, “but that's besides the point,” Sayles said.

“The point is, as bad as the situation is in Syria — and, clearly, it's really, really bad — there is absolutely no need to make Holocaust analogies,” Sayles said. “They're both horrible in their own way, and there's no need to compare the two or to say one is distinctly worse than the other.”

After the briefing, Spicer emailed a statement to reporters: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”

“Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison,” Spicer said in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday evening. “It was a mistake to do that.”

Blitzer, the son of Holocaust survivors, asked Spicer if he knew that the Nazis took Jews, gays, gypsies and others to death camps “to slaughter them in these poison-gas chambers.”

“Yes, clearly I am aware of that,” Spicer said, adding that his original comments were meant to focus just on Assad's use of chemical weapons dropped from aircraft. “It was a mistake to do that and, again, that's why I should have just stayed on topic, stayed focused on the actions that Assad had taken and the horrible atrocities that he had committed against his own people.”

The New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called on Trump to fire Spicer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Na tasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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