WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expressed concern after two top Obama administration spokesmen parsed whether last month’s deadly attack in Paris was anti-Semitic.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, and Jen Psaki, his State Department counterpart, later clarified on social media that they believed the deadly Jan. 9 attack by Islamist terrorists on a kosher supermarket was anti-Semitic, although earlier they had given confused and inconsistent answers to questions.
Their answers had “clouded the issue,” Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said in a letter Tuesday to Earnest.
Earnest and Psaki were fielding questions about an extensive interview U.S. President Barack Obama had with Vox, an online magazine.
In the interview, posted Monday, Obama was asked about media treatment of terrorism. He said it was legitimate for the media to stoke concern “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.”
The use of the word “randomly” sparked a flood of criticism on social media, and in contentious Q and A sessions with reporters Tuesday, Earnest and Psaki appeared to argue that while the terrorists targeted the supermarket because it was Jewish, the victims were randomly chosen.
“These individuals were not specifically targeted, these are individuals who happened to be in this deli and who were shot while they were there,” Earnest said in the daily press briefing.
Psaki resisted calling the attack anti-Semitic. “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 said at the State Department briefing when asked directly if the attack was aimed at the Jewish community.
In fact, all four dead in the attack were Jewish, although there was staff in the store who were not Jewish. And Amedy Coulibaly, who was killed during a police raid, said during his siege he killed his victims because they were Jewish.
“Rather than clarifying the president’s comment in the interview, your answer to the question further clouded the issue,” Foxman told Earnest in his letter. ADL’s concern, he said was “further heightened” by Psaki’s answer because she “did not refer to the murders as an anti-Semitic attack.”
Both spokesmen later said on Twitter that the attack was anti-Semitic, something that a number of top officials, including Obama, have said multiple times since the attack.
Foxman downplayed the Vox interview, saying Obama’s view that the attack was anti-Semitic had been made “very clear” in a statement last month that the president made on the occasion of a UN forum on anti-Semitism.