WASHINGTON (JTA) — In an extraordinary swipe at a popular Fox News Channel host, a White House official condemned Greg Gutfeld’s claim that “you had to be useful” to survive Nazi death camps.
“What Fox News allowed to be said on their air yesterday –- and has so far failed to condemn –- is an obscenity,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said Tuesday in an unsolicited email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The comment came as Gutfeld berated a Jewish cohost who was critiquing a Florida Department of Education curriculum that recommends teaching that slaves acquired useful skills. “Did you ever read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’?” Gutfeld said. “Vic Frankl talks about how you had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills! You had to be useful! Utility! Utility kept you alive!”
The 1946 classic by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, posits that inmates were likelier to survive if their lives held meaning. The search for meaning in everyday actions was for Frankl — who was not known to have gone by “Vic” — transcendent, not utilitarian.
“In defending a horrid, dangerous, extreme lie that insults the memory of the millions of Americans who suffered from the evil of enslavement, a Fox News host told another horrid, dangerous and extreme lie that insults the memory of the millions of people who suffered from the evils of the Holocaust,” Bates said.
The singling out of a Fox personality was rare for the Biden White House, signaling how fraught culture wars are figuring large in the political landscape less than a year and a half before the presidential election.
Gutfeld, who helms a popular nighttime program, was appearing on a daytime show he cohosts called “The Five,” which routinely includes at least one liberal to debate the issues of the day with another four conservatives. In this case the designated liberal was Jessica Tarlov, a Jewish essayist.
The panel was discussing Vice President Kamala Harris’s condemnation of a new Florida middle school curriculum covering the history of American slavery. In a section entitled “Analyze events that involved or affected Africans from the founding of the nation through Reconstruction,” the curriculum recommends, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“Just yesterday in the state of Florida they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” Harris said last week ahead of a trip to Florida. “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us and we will not stand for it.”
Harris, typical of many incumbent vice presidents, is taking on a role as political attack dog ahead of the 2024 election. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is running for the Republican nomination, although he is currently distantly trailing former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis, who has come under fire for removing books from school libraries and curricula, called Harris’ claim a lie, which is what prompted “The Five” session, where the panelists discussed whether Harris had fairly represented the curriculum. Tarlov said she thought Harris had a point.
“And frankly, I’m just fundamentally uncomfortable with this sentence that Blacks benefited at all from this,” Tarlov said. “And, you know, it made me think of [what] someone — obviously, I’m not Black, but I’m Jewish — would someone say about the Holocaust, for instance, that there were some benefits for Jews right while they were hanging out in concentration camps. We learned a strong work ethic, right? Maybe you learned a new skill.”
Gutfeld’s response — suggesting that Tarlov’s hypothetical was reasonable, not offensive — angered many.
“Let’s get something straight that the American people understand full well and that is not complicated: there was nothing good about slavery; there was nothing good about the Holocaust. Full stop,” Bates said in his email. “Americans deserve to be brought together, not torn apart with poison. And they deserve the truth and the freedom to learn, not book bans and lies.”