By Jesse Berman and Ben Sales
Last month, Francois Amalega Bitondo was standing on a Montreal street, megaphone and cellphone in hand, protesting against COVID-19 vaccines. A bright yellow six-pointed star stood out against his black T-shirt.
The star, which read “unvaccinated,” was an explicit reference to the yellow Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Others in the crowd were wearing them, too. Their implication: Those who refuse to be vaccinated are facing the same oppression as Jews did in the 1940s.
The message and badge put Bitondo and his fellow protesters into the company of a growing cadre of COVID-19 vaccine skeptics around the world who have invoked the Holocaust as they rail against regulations that increasingly marginalize those who choose not to be vaccinated against the virus. Yellow stars reading “no vax” in faux-Hebrew script appeared during a measles outbreak in 2019, and the trend has accelerated this year as the advent of COVID-19 vaccines – and campaigns to persuade people to take them — have caused conflicts worldwide.
Yellow stars have been deployed as a symbol in anti-vax demonstrations across the United States and internationally, from a City Council meeting in Missouri to a speech by a local Washington state official to protests in Germany, France and elsewhere.
Anti-vaxxers and their allies have invoked Nazi Germany in other ways as well. Speakers at an Aug. 10 St. Louis County Council meeting compared mask mandates and other COVID messaging to the Nazis. At school board meetings on mask mandates in the Detroit and Pittsburgh areas, some in attendance gave Nazi salutes. In July, two Republican congresswomen, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, compared federal vaccination efforts to Nazism. A Kentucky congressman drew criticism for tweeting, then deleting, a meme using the tattooed wrist of a Holocaust survivor to condemn vaccine mandates, and a Republican lawmaker in Maine compared health care workers administering vaccines to Joseph Mengele, the sadistic doctor at Auschwitz.
For many Jewish communal professionals, these comparisons are unacceptable.
“I find this comparison despicable,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, in an email. “It is appalling to see people comparing the worst atrocity in the history of humanity to a debate about mandates to counter a public health crisis.
“Making such comparisons diminishes the significance of the Holocaust and ultimately fuels antisemitism in our society,” Libit added.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation saw the issue in a similar light, and he suggested that those who make such comparisons do so out of ignorance or as an attempt to appeal to those in the country on the extreme right.
“During the Holocaust years, Jewish women were raped,” Wohlberg said in an email. “Jewish children were gassed. Jewish men were shot to death. Vaccines should not be mentioned in such a context.
“Hitler attempted to destroy the entire Jewish people,” Wohlberg continued. “We lost 1/3 of our people. It is offensive in any and every way to compare this with any actions of the United States government.”
Meredith Weisel, the senior associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Washington, D.C. region, which covers the Baltimore area, said in an email that there was just no comparison between vaccine and mask requirements and the murder of millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust. She said she saw these kinds of comparisons as offensive, insensitive and an abuse of history and memory.
“At a time of rising antisemitism around the world, and at a time when Holocaust denial remains one of the most pernicious forms of antisemitism, it is critical that people do not draw false comparisons or make trivializing comments that only serve to strip the Holocaust of its history and meaning,” she said.
To individuals who have difficulty grasping why the Jewish community would find these types of comparisons offensive, Libit said he would seek to take them on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust museum, or that he would facilitate a meeting with
“I believe that for most people who make these comparisons, such an education will help teach them why the Jewish community – and so many others in our society – are so offended by these kinds of comparisons,” Libit said.
Indeed, Libit views education as a crucial tool in the curtailing of these kinds of comparisons and statements going into the future, and are why Holocaust education in public schools and the commemoration of the Holocaust have been priorities.
“Fundamentally, it all comes back to education,” Libit said. “When people are educated about the Holocaust and really appreciate the atrocities of what occurred, I think they will be less likely to make these kind of despicable comparisons.”
On the broader subject of vaccines and the opposition to them in general, Wohlberg viewed the matter less as an issue of rights and more as one of responsibility.
“The opposition to a mandate for vaccines is meant to be an expression of protecting the rights of the individual,” Wohlberg said. “But as citizens of a country, we not only have individual rights but common responsibilities to the greater good.
“I personally resent the speed limit being set at 55 MPH,” Wohlberg continued. “It is violating my individual right to zoom around the Beltway. If I want to take that risk, what right does the government have to stop me? Simple: I am endangering the lives of others. I have a responsibility not to put them in danger.”
According to Frances Tanzer, a professor of Holocaust studies at Clark University, Jews during the Holocaust have become the “paradigmatic victim” in the popular imagination. So for anti-vaxxers and others who see themselves as oppressed, Jewish suffering during the Holocaust “allows them to think about themselves as the ultimate victim, despite the fact that historically there is no comparison.”
As for Bitondo, the Montreal protester wearing a yellow star, in the days following the Montreal protest, he told a French journalist that his yellow star was “here to stay.” But after a call with a local Holocaust museum, he changed his mind. In an Aug. 19 Facebook video, Bitondo said he would no longer wear the yellow star, as he now understood why the Jewish community objected to it, and instructed his followers to do the same.
That being said, Bitondo continues to see the plight of anti-vaxxers as being similar to the threat that Jews faced under Nazi rule.
“What they want to install from the first of September is exactly like the first of September 1941, when the Jews were supposed to wear the star,” Bitondo said about Quebec’s launch of a “vaccine passport” on Sept. 1.
Bitondo added, “The government of Quebec is following a way that resembles what Hitler was doing, dividing the society in groups.”
Daniel Amar, executive director of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, who spoke with Bitondo over the phone, said that a single phone call isn’t enough to teach someone about the Holocaust. He hopes Bitondo will visit the museum to learn more and about the risk “of trivializing the Shoah.”
Parts of this story originally ran on JTA.org. firstname.lastname@example.org