Dunleavy: Stop Weaponizing Holocaust Imagery

Using Holocaust imagery to protest public health measures is illogical fearmongering.

by Hannah Dunleavy | 4/6/21 2:30am

Throughout the pandemic, in an effort to express their discontent with social distancing and vaccination policies, some people and politicians have repeatedly drawn stunningly ignorant parallels between COVID-19-related policies and the Holocaust. These attempts to use the Holocaust to push an anti-lockdown agenda are reprehensible and minimize the atrocities committed against Jews, the Roma people, the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people and all others who were the targets of Nazi genocide. If one thing is clear, it’s that government pandemic policies informed by science and intended to save lives are not in any way comparable to the Nazi government’s brutality.

Just to give one example, the Kentucky Libertarian Party recently published a tweet labeling COVID-19 vaccine passports a modern-day equivalent to the yellow star patches that Jews were forced to sew onto their clothing during the Holocaust. Such a comparison reflects a shocking ignorance of the monstrosities Jewish people suffered at the hands of the Nazis. 

This is not the first time those in opposition to COVID-19 guidelines have drawn ill-founded parallels with the Holocaust — and specifically the yellow Star of David — to argue that the government is exploiting its power in implementing measures aimed at bringing the pandemic under control. Protesters in the United States, Canada, Germany and Czechia have made these comparisons regularly during recent demonstrations.

In one instance in May 2020, a protester in Illinois held a sign with a swastika and the words “Heil, Pritzker,” comparing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to Adolf Hitler after the governor imposed COVID-19 restrictions intended to quell the spread of the virus. In another instance, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., said vaccine passport proposals “smack of 1940s Nazi Germany," apparently forgetting that the U.S. already requires forms of documentation comparable to a vaccination certificate, such as a driver's license. In March 2021 demonstrations in France, protesters donned yellow stars etched with the phrase “Not Vaccinated,” comparing public health measures such as the closure of kindergartens and theaters to Nazi bannings of Jews from those same facilities. 

All of these comparisons are, of course, ludicrous. No, the governor of Illinois isn’t being like Hitler when he implements lockdown measures that help slow the spread of a virus that has taken more than 500,000 American lives. Hitler’s policies were based on hate and enforced by violence. The governor of Illinois’s policies are based on science and are largely unenforced, mostly relying on an honor system and occasional fines. Requiring people to have documents proving inoculation isn’t the same thing as requiring papers documenting ethnicity and religion. And the temporary closure of businesses to protect public health is not comparable to a specific ethnic group being banned from businesses under threat of violence and oppression. 

The fear-mongering comparisons coming from these individuals and groups are as ignorant as they are reprehensible — there is, clearly, a colossal difference between the yellow stars of the Holocaust and vaccine certifications. During the Holocaust, Nazis forced Jewish people to wear yellow patches both as an identifier of otherness and as a badge of shame linked to a 13-century long history of systematic oppression of Jews. On the other hand, vaccine passports, the so-called modern version of yellow stars, in addition to being in the interest of public health, are entirely voluntary. The passports may be required to enter or use some businesses, such as arts and sports venues, airlines, and cruises. Entry to these nonessential businesses could serve as a key motivator to become vaccinated, contributing to herd immunity. Although some may find this frustrating initially, businesses generally are allowed to make their rules as long as they aren’t discriminatory, similar to a “no shirt, no shoes” policy.   

Moreover, having access to vaccines is in and of itself a privilege. Getting vaccinated saves lives by both lowering your chance of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 and decreasing the likelihood that you will spread it to others. A vaccine certificate is an incentive to contribute to herd immunity, not a vehicle of oppression. These passports are in no way similar to a badge forced upon your outward appearance under the threat of violence, identifying you as someone deserving of hate and oppression. 

To in any way compare the Holocaust’s horrors to the impacts of government efforts to address the pandemic shows a shocking and callous level of ignorance. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that around 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust of starvation, disease, experiments, and murder in concentration camps. The Romani death toll from World War II is estimated to be between 220,000 to 1,500,000. Gay men and women were also labeled with pink and black triangles, respectively, and many gay men were institutionalized; between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. The Nazi T-4 euthansia program murdered more than 200,000 handicappped people, and 375,000 disabled people were forcably sterilized. This level of cruelty and human suffering is nowhere near comparable to science-based policies implemented during a pandemic to keep people safe. Going forward, we must abandon fear-mongering and focus on solutions to the public health crisis we face.

By comparing policies of genocide to policies backed by science, the debate over what is or isn’t appropriate government action is only made more divisive and incendiary and only serves  to delay a return to normalcy. Regardless of one’s view on whether the government is abusing its power, victims of the Holocaust must be respected. Grossly inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust only serve to minimize the horrors faced by those who lived through it.