In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, protesters around the world have turned out in large numbers to demonstrate against mask mandates as well as vaccination regulations. What is especially frightening and frustrating is to see how COVID-19-related protests have been turned into opportunities to attack Jews. What do COVID and the Jews have in common? Well, not much. But what is shared is widespread misinformation and propaganda that work to deny historical truths.
Protesters in France have repeatedly taken to the streets to misuse Holocaust imagery. They insist that being unvaccinated is the equivalent to the stigmatization and persecution that Jews experienced during the Nazi era. Wearing fake tattoos on the arms to simulate the numbers inked onto Auschwitz concentration camp inmates, donning yellow stars on their clothing — all reference the suffering that Jews experienced under Nazism. In addition, many marchers combine their feelings of being persecuted by government mandates with antisemitic rhetoric that stretches back hundreds of years.
More specifically, some argue that Jews are behind a global conspiracy to spread the COVID-19 illness in an effort to upend the world. This theory, that Jews engage in global conspiracies to sow chaos and disorder to rise up and control the world is directly related to a forged document from Russia called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” in which 12 Jewish men were reportedly meeting in a cemetery in Bohemia, plotting how to create disorder in order to then rise up and rule the world. So, on the one hand, protesters wish to portray themselves as victims like the Jews were under the Nazi regime. Yet, on the other hand, some of the same protesters argue that Jews are seeking to spread illness and upheaval. These types of attacks are, sadly, not limited to just France, but are occurring right here in the United States as well.
While false equivalencies to the Holocaust may score points on cable-news panels and go viral on social media, this decay of our collective memory comes at a great cost. Just 76 years after the last Nazi concentration camp was closed, Holocaust education in our schools is becoming an afterthought. This, despite the fact that studies have shown that when young people are taught units on the Holocaust in school, they are more likely to stand up to bullying and question wrongdoing when they see it happening. Further studies have indicated a sharp decline in people’s knowledge regarding the Holocaust in general, with one shocking study revealing that many younger Americans could not name a single concentration camp, nor could they explain what had occurred in such torturous hells.
This lack of historical understanding has long-term implications for our society. If people do not understand the very unique types of persecution and discrimination that Jews suffered in the past, they will continue to hold antisemitic attitudes in the present. It means that, potentially, people will buy into false narratives, and swastikas will continue to be painted on synagogues and on Jewish headstones with no real understanding of what those hate-filled symbols actually meant. It means that society will continue to be divided into an “us” versus “them” mentality, with the sense that an existential crisis is looming. Either “we” survive and “they” die, or “they” triumph and “we” die.
The lack of knowledge regarding the roots of antisemitism and its combination with people’s fears regarding the pandemic makes us more vulnerable to misinformation campaigns. The misuse of Holocaust history is also a terrible insult to the memory of all those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Misuse of Holocaust imagery, casting slurs at Jews and hinting about a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” will do nothing to lessen the pandemic. Distorting the Holocaust to serve modern day political movements only results in furthering hateful stereotypes and misinformation.
Instead of twisting history into false narratives and faulty punchlines that aim to divide, during this public health crisis we should be heeding the lessons of our recent past. The Holocaust showed us that misinformation campaigns can lead to a frightening proliferation of pseudoscience. We also know from history that plagues and pandemics will eventually end. When the COVID-19 pandemic ends may depend not only on following the science, but also remembering our history.