Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He is senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Saturday morning, thousands of people marched through London to protest against public health measures being contemplated or deployed amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. At least a few reportedly pinned yellow Stars of David to their chests or printed sweatshirts with the symbol, apparently analogizing proposed mandatory vaccination documentation to the symbols that Nazis forced Jews in occupied Europe to wear prior to enacting industrialized genocide.
Such an analogy is, to say the least, both offensive and incoherent. Vaccine distribution is unequal and one of the great challenges facing the globe right now, but the people making these protests live in a country where they have access. They just want the right to refuse the vaccine, to put other people at risk and to avoid all consequences for doing so.
And yet anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protesters are making the analogy more and more frequently. In response, we all need to keep asserting basic truths: vaccinations are safe, public health measures are often complicated and require tradeoffs that we need to be transparent about, and these people cosplaying Holocaust victims are dangerously trivializing the history of the Holocaust.
It’s not just happening in the UK. Germany and Israel are two places where one might expect more reverence for those killed by the Nazis, but in fact that reverence has become ripe ground for exploitation.
Israeli protesters in February held up signs comparing the so-called green passport, which allows vaccinated people to take part in mass gatherings, to both the yellow star and the numerical arm tattoos of Holocaust victims. Last November, German protesters made similar rhetorical and symbolic moves, with protesters comparing themselves to Anne Frank and Sophie Scholl. There have been similar displays in France and the Czech Republic. Holocaust appropriation, fueled by this global pandemic, is going viral.
Then there’s the United States. Far-right Republican lawmakers have compared the idea of some form of digital vaccine tracking program to enable business owners to restrict entry (which does have serious privacy implications!) to Nazi Germany, as did a libertarian group in Kentucky.
Part of the story here is the way the pandemic and the urgency of the need to vaccinate as many people has possible has moved the anti-vaccination movement further into mainstream consciousness.
Dr. David Gorski, who has been tracking the anti-vaccination movement for years, tweeted that anti-vaxxers “latched onto this analogy” in 2015 in their battles against mandatory school vaccination in California. Antivaxxers superimposed images of themselves with pictures of the yellow star to argue that vaccinating their children was comparable to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. Now the analogy is going global just at the moment when vaccination offers a pathway out of this terrible pandemic.
Vaccine passports aren’t new when it comes to crossing international borders (and of course prejudice about immigrants as potential disease vectors is also not new). Likewise, requiring documentation about vaccine status is also common when it comes to education. If you want your kids to share space with other kids, you need to vaccinate them or have a good reason why not (what makes a good reason is, of course, a matter of dispute).
Creating a system that tracks vaccination status in order to enable business owners to determine eligibility for entrance would, however, require deep consideration around issues of data security, privacy and civil liberties and should not be entered into lightly. Still, such questions obviously are just not analogous to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Professor Sheer Ganor at the University of Minnesota, who teaches the history of the Holocaust, told me she is concerned about the intensifying nature of these Holocaust trivializations across multiple countries.
It’s not that we can’t thoughtfully compare other events in both the past and present to the Holocaust; in fact, she said, “there’s a growing group of Holocaust historians who think we have a lot to benefit in understanding the Holocaust in conjunction with other events, in studying and speaking about genocide in comparative terms.” But, she added, “Covid has done something different to this discourse. The anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests [is] such a transnational movement, such a transnational phenomenon, taking this trivializing abuse of the Holocaust to a frightening level.”
She explained that she sees this trend as connected to Holocaust denialism, but instead of denying or minimizing the significance of its evil, these trivializers “work with the assumption that the Holocaust was the terrible catastrophe and a horrible crime. They want to benefit from its moral cachet.”
Even though they don’t deny the genocide, she says, “the effect of their actions is to distort the historical facts.”
History is not just a collection of facts about the past, but interpretation and argument both about what happened and, critically, what it means to us today. The misuse of the yellow star and other symbols of the Holocaust by fringe political actors distracts both from the truth of the Holocaust and the crises we are now facing, right at the moment when we need to see systems of inequality and fight hard to address them.