Christine Hill sits in the Municipality of Anchorage Assembly's chambers on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, wearing a yellow Star of David reading "do not consent" to protest the implementation of masking requirements in public places meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo / Paxson Woelber, The Alaska Landmine)

Jewish groups say Holocaust comparisons a worrisome trend

Imagery at COVID-19 protests draws strong rebuke from Alaskans

The use of yellow Stars of David to protest potential COVID-19 mitigation measures in Anchorage drew swift rebuke on social media and words of contrition for potentially offending people from the mayor of Alaska’s largest city, who initially defended protesters’ use of the symbol.

But the public co-opting of Holocaust imagery is just the latest incident in which the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others, including Romani people, homosexuals and people with disabilities; and Nazi Germany have been used as a point of comparison during the pandemic.

Several state lawmakers have compared elements of the COVID-19 pandemic to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and have faced criticism for doing so.

In September, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, submitted a motion for the Alaska House of Representatives to state the Nuremberg Code — the ethics codes against human experimentation passed in the wake of the Holocaust — was still valid, arguing the COVID-19 vaccine was experimental. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, apologized for saying during floor debate that experiments on Nazi prisoners, “produced results.”

In August, Gov. Mike Dunleavy expressed resistance to mandating COVID mitigation measures, and at an Aug. 26, news conference said “this isn’t someplace in Europe in 1939,” when asked about vaccine mandates.

In June, Rep. Ron Gilliam, R-Kenai, shared an image of a public hanging alleged to be the execution of medical professionals who worked for the Nazis. Accompanying the photo was a caption stating members of the media and medical community were executed for misleading the public during WWII. Carpenter defended his comments to the Associated Press and Gilliam said he meant nothing by it, according to the Kenai Peninsula Clarion.

In May 2020 when the Alaska State Legislature announced it would be screening people entering the Capitol complex in Juneau for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms, Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikkiski, asked in a social media post if the screening cards came in the shape of a yellow Star of David.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly had its own debate on masking Wednesday and ended up extending the city’s mask mandate until March 2022. Public testimony at CBJ’s meeting was forceful at times with allusions to Jewish billionaire George Soros, but there were no reports of yellow stars worn by protesters.

But the events in Anchorage were still upsetting, said Patricia Turner Custard, board member for Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Juneau.

“Really, if we put all the masks vs anti-masks stuff aside, one of my biggest problems is these people do not realize the trauma they are inflicting on their community,” Turner Custard said Thursday in an interview with the Empire. “There is such a thing as generation trauma. It’s such a traumatic symbol; it highlights how these people are not thinking about others in their actions and their behaviors.”

The Pacific Northwest Region office of the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish advocacy organization, called Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s initial statement defending the use of Stars of David disturbing and offensive.

“The yellow Star of David was used to not only stigmatize and humiliate Jews, but also segregate and control them during the Holocaust,” ADL regional director Miri Cypers. “We refuse to allow our elected leaders to engage in the gross misappropriation of the systematic murder of six million Jews – this rhetoric and behavior have no place in our society.”

In an interview with the Empire Thursday, Cypers emphasized the Holocaust was a unique event in history and its complexity made comparisons difficult and often offensive.

“Hasty political comparisons and extremely offensive to those who have a connection to these events,” Cypers said. “We encourage people to find other sources and tools to express their frustrations with public health guidelines.”

Cypers said the ADL had seen an increase in comparisons recently, saying the organization had received an increased number of complaints from community members, both Jewish and otherwise.

In an email, Andrew Hollinger, communications director at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said the museum has issued several statements over the years why contemporary issues to the Holocaust are inaccurate and offensive to survivors.

Hollinger shared a May 28, letter written by Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum asking people to refrain comparing those events with contemporary ones.

“We also watch with great dismay a persistent and increasing tendency in American public life to invoke the Holocaust for the purpose of promoting another agenda,” the letter said. “It is deeply painful for us to see our personal history—the systematic destruction of our families and communities and murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children—exploited in this way. What we survived should be remembered, studied, and learned from, but never misused.”

[Holocaust awareness in Alaska is low, survey shows]

Cypers and others pointed out Jewish people in Germany and occupied Europe were forced to wear badges as a way of stigmatizing them as a prelude to genocide and extermination from German society.

“The intent of COVID restrictions are for public health reasons,” Cypers said, while the Stars of David were “meant to segregate people with the intent of wiping out a separate group of people.”

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted a study of Holocaust awareness among young people in all 50 states last year, and Alaska came in 41st. Claims Conference President Gideon Taylor told the Empire at the time there was a disturbing lack of awareness among young people about the events and details of the Holocaust and a fair amount of misinformation.

According to that survey, 13% of Alaskan respondents said the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust has been exaggerated and seven percent said the Holocaust never happened. Equally troubling, according to Taylor, was that 16% of Alaskan respondents saying an individual holding neo-Nazi views is acceptable.

Taylor and other groups have attributed the increase in Holocaust denialism and misinformation to the proliferation of extreme views of social media. U.S. Holocaust Museum historian Edna Friedberg wrote in a 2018 essay using Holocaust analogies oversimplifies issues and is dangerous.

“More dangerous, today the internet disseminates insensitive or hateful remarks with unprecedented ease and influence. Online discussions tend to encourage extreme opinions; they allow people to live in echo chambers of their own ideologies and peers,” Friedberg wrote. “Weimar Germany — the period between the First World War and the Nazi rise to power — is an exemplar of the threats that emerge when the political center fails to hold, when social trust is allowed to erode and the fissures exploited.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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