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After the deadly Hyper Cacher terror attack in January 2015, the social media solidarity hashtag “Je Suis Juif”1 (#JeSuisJuif), or “I Am Jewish,” trended in support of French Jews. Statements such as “We’re all Jews’’ are often intended to reflect solidarity with the Jewish community or concern as antisemitic incidents increase in the United States. According to the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics for 2020, anti-Jewish incidents accounted for 55% of all religious bias incidents and 8.3% of all hate crimes in America2, despite American Jews comprising only 2% of the U.S. population.
However, this very phrase, “We’re all Jews,” was used during a Facebook live stream in June 2021, during the height of the COVID pandemic in the U.S., by Washington State Representative Jim Walsh with a starkly different intent. Walsh, referencing a mandate that all Americans get vaccinated for COVID-19,3 later apologized for wearing a yellow Star of David, but he is only one of the growing number of politicians instrumentalizing the Holocaust.
In an unfortunate display of insensitivity and historical ignorance at best, and manipulation and revisionism at worse, politicians, protesters, and everyday citizens have increasingly compared public health and geopolitical policies to end the pandemic and the Holocaust. These comparisons trivialize the genocide of Jews in the name of free speech and for the gain of political capital.
As Holocaust trivialization is increasing, knowledge about the Holocaust is waning. According to the Claims Conference’s U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, over half (56%) of all millennial and Gen Z respondents could not identify Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, and 63% were not aware that six million Jews were murdered4. That is why it is more important than ever for students to learn about the Holocaust and for civic and political leaders to condemn all Holocaust comparisons, especially those connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As this phenomenon persists, this resource will provide background information and contextual understanding about Holocaust trivialization, analyze how Holocaust trivialization is used for political gain, especially in the context of COVID-19, share policy prescriptions for how to counter this troubling trend.
Holocaust trivialization is not always obvious; a casual observer might miss it without an understanding of the terms, symbols, and relevant history. With that basis, it becomes more apparent why comparisons between the Holocaust and the coronavirus pandemic are more than insensitive, but dangerous. The Holocaust refers to the systematic murder of six million Jews by Adolf Hitler, his National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party, and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Six million Jews—two out of every three Jewish men, women, and children in Europe—were killed for no reason other than being Jewish. This horrifying statistic does not account for the Jewish survivors, who had to re-enter a world largely indifferent to their suffering. It does not account for the five million other victims, such as Roma, Sinti, LGBTQ, disabled, and others deemed “racially impure” by the Nazis.
It does not reflect the often untold suffering of Jews in countries across North Africa and the Middle East, whose leaders collaborated with Hitler, sent Jews to forced labor camps, and eventually expelled them from their homes and countries of origin. Nazi collaborators—leaders, bureaucrats, and even normal citizens who allied with the Nazis—were essential to keeping the machinery of Jewish segregation, detention, deportation, and murder running. Italy and Japan allied with Hitler, and many countries in Eurasia and beyond collaborated after Hitler invaded and installed puppet governments.
The racial antisemitism that motivated Hitler and his followers to target Jews for their inferiority is a mutation of the same anti-Jewish sentiment that had been present in Europe for millennia. Badges, like the yellow star, were used for centuries in both Christian and Muslim communities to identify Jews and reinforce their inferior status. The Nazis introduced it strategically to shame and stigmatize Jews while controlling and tracking their movements.5 During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the yellow Star of David worn around the world to depict being unvaccinated. Anti-vaxxers don the yellow Star of David to imply that public health policies related to the pandemic are comparable to the racist Nazi laws. This action unites anti-vaxxers with neo-Nazis and others, making light of what it means to actually suffer the denial of civil liberties. It is one of the most prevalent instances of Holocaust distortion.
Holocaust distortion is an attempt to negate or downplay the facts of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people, such as minimizing the number of victims or questioning the existence of gas chambers. Distortion can include claims that the Holocaust was exaggerated to create financial gain or sympathy for Jews or for the state of Israel. It also includes the libelous claim that Jews themselves caused the Holocaust. In the Claims Conference study referenced above, 19% of New York millennials and Gen Z respondents believe that Jews caused the Holocaust. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Holocaust Distortion and Denial says that denying or distorting the facts of the Holocaust is a form of antisemitism.6 Denying the scope and mechanisms of the Holocaust is also considered an example of antisemitism by the widely-used IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.7
Holocaust distortion, such as comparing COVID-19 protocols to what the Nazis did to the Jews, is one of many ways Holocaust distortion manifests, but there are other forms as well. Many anti-Israel activists claim that Israel is a “Nazi” state committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Some have said that “Gaza is today’s Auschwitz” or that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is akin to Hitler. These comparisons, meant to highlight alleged human rights abuses and inspire action, trivialize Jewish suffering by downplaying the genocide of twothirds of Europe’s Jews.
Holocaust Trivialization: Recent Examples
In January 2022, Ohio Congressman Warren Davidson compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates with Jewish suffering under the Nazis, tweeting, “This has been done before,” posting a Nazi-era health pass alongside the message #DoNotComply.8
Why it’s problematic: Congressman Davidson sharing this image is problematic for several reasons. First, sharing a Nazi vaccination card serves to glorify Nazi memorabilia, whether intended for that purpose or not. This will serve as a dog whistle for online followers seeking to have their antisemitic views validated by leaders with authority, such as a member of Congress. He followed up his initial #DoNotComply tweet with, “Let’s recall that the Nazis dehumanized Jewish people before segregating them, segregated them before imprisoning them, imprisoned them before enslaving them, and enslaved them before massacring them… Dehumanization and segregation are underway—and wrong.” Again, Rep. Davidson belittles Jewish suffering in the Holocaust by calling himself a metaphorical “Jew,” dehumanized and persecuted.
On February 12, 2022, at an anti-vaccine rally in San Antonio, Texas, a counter-protester held a sign that read, “Gas the unvaccinated,” next to a Nazi swastika.
Why it’s problematic: “Gas the unvaccinated” is a reference to the Nazi method of choice for mass murder: gas chambers. The Nazis used either carbon monoxide or Zyklon-B in gas chambers, often disguised as shower facilities, to murder Jews, the disabled, and others.10 In the image, the Nazi swastika reinforces the Holocaust connection. In this scenario, the counter-protester is calling to gas, or kill, people who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus. Her shameless reference to the Nazi method of mass murder shows an enormous level of insensitivity to all Holocaust victims, not just Jews. Even more dangerous is how her sign could embolden neo-Nazis and others who pose a threat to Jewish safety and wellbeing.
On January 18, 2023, during an annual news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov 12 sparked global outrage by comparing the West’s support of Ukraine, in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion, to Hitler and the Nazi’s plan to systematically murder the Jews of Europe. The “Final Solution13 to the Jewish question” was a euphemism used by German leaders to commit genocide and mass murder against Europe’s Jews, which Lavrov evoked when he accused the United States and its coalition of European countries of scheming to cause “Russia’s strategic defeat. This is not the first time the Russian figure has evoked Hitler and the Holocaust to describe Russia’s treatment in the geopolitical sphere.
Why it’s problematic: Lavrov’s comments reflect an unabashed example of contemporary Holocaust distortion. By the end of the Holocaust, two out of every three Jewish men, women, and children in Europe were murdered, reflecting one third of the entire global Jewish population. The Western coalition in support of Ukraine was formed after a large-scale invasion of hundreds of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine, wherein Russia has maintained a troop presence since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014
Fighting Holocaust Trivialization
Efforts to downplay or deny the Holocaust existed well before COVID-19, and will unfortunately persist in fringe or ignorant circles, online and all over the world, well after the pandemic subsides. Targeted action from informed and engaged citizens can help reverse the trend:
Affixed to the exit of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibit is a famous warning against indifference by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Antisemitism is often called the “canary in the coalmine,” meaning it is society’s barometer of intolerance toward minorities and those deemed “other.” In this way, what might start with the Jews does not end with the Jews—antisemitism affects everyone. Antisemitism is not just a Jewish issue: healthy, democratic societies do not foster antisemitism.
It is incumbent on all of us to speak out against intolerance and not be bystanders in the face of indifference. As we pledge to never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust, part of that responsibility is honoring the lives of those who perished and those who survived. Another is actively countering efforts to distort or trivialize the Holocaust, wherever it occurs.