Anti-Vaxxers’ Trivialization Of The Holocaust Is Antisemitic
Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.
In June of this year, a British nurse, Kate Shemirani, was struck off for spreading misinformation about the covid-19 pandemic. The fact that a nurse was arguing that the illness was caused by 5G masts rather than the covid virus or that wearing face masks does not offer any protection was bad enough; but it is the manner in which she made her arguments that is of interest here.
Shemirani has been pictured outside parliament besides a placard with the slogan, “Curfews equal Nazification”; she also claimed that vaccination teams should be renamed “death squads”, that the NHS (National Health Service) is the ‘new Auschwitz’, and that the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which took the decision to strike her off – is committing genocide.
Shemirani’s is an unusual case; one outlier is of limited interest, and she has rightly lost her right to practice as a nurse. But there are many others like her – albeit not many amongst health professionals – who hold similar views. In the Netherlands in May, on the day of the country’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust and World War II, held on the day of liberation from Nazi occupation, the right-wing party, Forum for Democracy, argued that covid restrictions had ‘undone’ the country’s liberation from the Nazis.
And in March, anti-vaccination protestors in Avignon were condemned for wearing yellow stars; one article that describes the march notes that ‘Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination networks have become known as hotbeds of antisemitic conspiracy theories and tropes’, a claim which requires more unpacking, for why would those who hold antisemitic beliefs represent themselves as being akin to Jewish victims of the Nazis? Likewise, why would a right-wing party choose to use the day marking the end of Nazi rule to condemn measures aimed at protecting public health?
The US is, perhaps predictably, where the association of Holocaust imagery with anti-vaccination protests has been most visible. It is predictable because American debates over mask-wearing, lockdown, and vaccination have been politicized and weaponized more obviously than elsewhere (with the possible exception of, more recently, Brazil), and because in the US, the rise of ‘Holocaust consciousness’ in the public sphere since the 1980s has been remarkable. But this is a Holocaust consciousness in which, as pundits often note with a shake of the head, most people do not know the most basic facts about who was responsible for what, or when and where ‘it’ happened.
There are many examples, from the obvious candidates like US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), well known for her outspoken views, talking about vaccination officials as ‘brown shirts’, to lesser-known Republican officials being forced to resign for similar remarks, such as one who compared the Minnesota mask-wearing requirements to the Holocaust. In New Mexico, protestors compared the mask-wearing mandate at schools to the decree for Jews to wear the yellow star; anti-vaccination protestors in New York and elsewhere have taken to wearing the yellow star with the words ‘No vax’ written in Hebrew-style letters.
Unsurprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League condemned this use of Holocaust imagery. Its statement noted that using yellow stars was a ‘hugely inappropriate use of this enduring symbol of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis during World War II and minimizes and trivializes the experiences of survivors and victims of the Holocaust.’ This claim is unsurprising; one could of course argue the opposite: that the use of Holocaust imagery indicates that the extremity of the Nazis’ victims’ suffering is so widely understood that people turn to it in all sorts of situations in order to give their otherwise marginal views some purchase in the public sphere. But what is striking here is not the use of Holocaust imagery as such; it is the appropriation of Jewish suffering by groups more usually associated with the radical right.
All of this adds up to a toxic and confusing brew. In the antisemitic canon, Jews have long been figured either as carriers of disease or, in a more extreme version, as themselves a disease, a kind of cancer on the body politic. We have seen since the start of the pandemic occasions when Jews have been blamed for spreading covid, as they were blamed in the middle ages for poisoning wells or in more modern times for being carriers of typhus. But here we face the phenomenon of those associated with the radical right – anti-vaxxers, right-wing libertarians, conspiracy theorists – appropriating symbols of Jewish suffering in order to position themselves as victims of an overweening state apparatus. This is not a new phenomenon, associated only with covid, as this poster from 2016 shows:
It has long been obvious that Holocaust education – and with it, the ubiquitous imagery associated with Nazism – has failed to produce a citizenry whose views accord with those held by those who promote such education. This is not the fault of Holocaust education per se; as I have written elsewhere, it is asking too much of Holocaust education to make the world a better place, when all of the other circumstances and indicators are working in the opposite direction. But the simplistic notion of Jews as a kind of ‘ultimate victim’ leads to the easy appropriation of Jewish suffering as a powerful metaphor by anyone who wants to advertise their victim status.
It seems that this is the case even for people and groups who one might be forgiven for thinking would otherwise be sympathetic to points of view that are not wholly sympathetic towards Jews. In a world where Holocaust imagery has become all-pervasive, there seems to be a negative correlation between ubiquity and knowledge. Of course, the ADL and other groups are right to say that the comparisons being made are outrageous – the covid vaccination programs are in no way similar to Nazi programs of forcible sterilization or ‘euthanasia’.
But when conspiracy theorists use the symbols of degradation that Jews (at different times in different places, as the protestors no doubt know) were forced to wear to brand them as no longer part of the ‘universe of obligation’, they adopt imagery that appears to contradict the sort of antisemitic conspiracy thinking that generally tends to be part of such groups’ worldview. In fact, this is no accident, not a thoughtless or accidental misappropriation. The process at work here is one in which the state apparatus is figured as ‘Nazi’ in its attempts to force people to live in ways other than those they choose for themselves, with the result that, however objectionable things done by modern liberal states might be (one could find far worse examples than these large-scale public health schemes), the vast gulf between American or European states today and Nazi Germany is minimized.
Those who know no better and who have only absorbed the fact that the Holocaust was bad, have no way of judging. In this way, radical right ideas seep into the mainstream under the guise of anti-fascism. The inversion of victimhood under covid is actually a rather extraordinary occurrence. Those who protest against vaccinations are in a position to save themselves and their families, insofar as the vaccine helps. Jews under Nazi occupation could not choose not to wear the yellow star, except at extreme personal risk (as some did). The adoption of Holocaust imagery is thus not just an invalid comparison but a deliberate attempt to sew misinformation about the pandemic and to spread radical right ideas at the same time.