Why Was the White House Reluctant to Call Paris Attack Anti-Semitic?

President Obama has called the deli attack anti-Semitic in the past.

on February 10, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Mark Wilson

Even when giving interviews to new media organizations, presidents must choose their words carefully. 

Critics have pounced on a remark President Obama made during an interview with Vox's Matthew Yglesias regarding the January terrorist attack in Paris, France, in which Obama characterized the killing of four people in a kosher supermarket a random occurrence rather than an act of anti-semitism. 

Asked by Yglesias whether he thought the media overstated threat level that terrorism represented in comparison to such dangers as global warming and disease epidemics, Obama said he understood why certain news stories took got more airtime than others.   

"Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people," Obama continued. "It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris."

That choice of words left Obama open to a torrent of criticism from those who argued that the deli attack was anything but "random."

"To put these awful events in a context that properly labels them an outbreak of violent Muslim Jew-hatred would require the administration to rethink its policies toward Israel as well as Iran," Jonathan S. Toobin wrote at Commentary. "And that is something this president has no intention of doing."

But some have argued that Obama misspoke, noting that the White House has called the attacks anti-Semitic in the past. Tablet magazine's Yair Rosenberg argued on Twitter that "the president's team has a very, very hard time admitting mistakes when it comes to Obama's rhetoric," but has also condemned the rise of anti-Semitism in the past.

Foreign Affairs' Justin Vogt agreed: 


Further inflaming critics, however, White House press secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki failed on Tuesday to make the point that the president had simply misspoken about the attacks. 

When asked about Obama's description of the killings as "random," Earnest replied that the president meant that the individuals were "randomly" there—they weren't targeted by name. Later Earnest was pushed on the matter by ABC News's Jonathan Karl:

Karl: I mean, this was not a random shooting of a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. This was an attack on a kosher deli. Does the president have any doubt that those terrorists attacked that deli because there would be Jews in that deli?

Earnest: Well, John, it is clear from the—the terrorists, in some of the writings that they put out afterwards, what their motivation was. The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible tragic incident were killed not because of who they were, but because of where they randomly happened to be.

Karl: Well, they weren't killed because they were in a Jewish deli, though, they were in a kosher deli?

Earnest:  These individuals were not targeted by name. This is the point.

Karl: Not by name but by—by religion, were they not?

Earnest: Well, Jon, there were people other than just Jews who were in that deli.

After more pressing, Earnest replied "no," when asked if the president has doubts that the deli was attacked because it was kosher and added that "the president's acknowledged [anti-Semitism] on many occasions when he's had opportunity to speak about this incident."

In a separate press briefing, Psaki was asked by Associated Press's Matt Lee (who has a history of grilling department spokespeople) if the administration really believes the victims were random. Psaki replied that, "if I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality." Yet all four victims of the deli shooting were French Jews

Lee then asked if the administration thought the shooting was an attack on the Jewish community. "I don't think we're going to speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation at play here," she replied. French authorities have already called the attacks anti-Semitic.

"Yeah, but if a guy goes into a kosher market and starts shooting it up, he's not looking for Buddhists," Lee said. When he added that he didn't see why she couldn't say it was an anti-Semitic attack, Psaki re-iterated that it's an issue for the French government to address.   

After those press conferences added more fuel to the fire, both Earnest and Psaki were forced to issue their own clarifications.