The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wearing a Star of David, another lawmaker compares coronavirus measures to the Holocaust

In video streamed on Facebook, Washington state Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) is seen in Lacey, Wash., on June 26, speaking while wearing a yellow Star of David. (Video: Jim Walsh/Facebook)
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Washington state Rep. Jim Walsh has decried “vaccine segregation” and likened his state’s lottery encouraging immunization against the coronavirus to the “The Hunger Games.” Then, last weekend, the Republican lawmaker wore a yellow Star of David.

“It’s an echo from history,” Walsh wrote of the star in the comments below a live stream of his talk Saturday in Lacey, Wash. “ … In the current context, we’re all Jews.”

In the covid-19 era, he said later, the symbol was meant to convey how “denying people their rights … can lead to terrible outcomes.”

For some who track extremist rhetoric, it was part of an alarming escalation — the latest example of how comparing mainstream policies and public health measures to Nazi atrocities has spread, propelled not just by fringe groups, but by elected officials. These analogies invariably sow hurt and draw backlash, sometimes prompting apologies. Walsh backtracked Wednesday, calling his star “inappropriate and offensive.” But the comparisons persist.

“Fear sells politically. And the guardrails have come off with respect to what is acceptable for elected officials’ political discourse,” said Brian Levin, a professor at California State University at San Bernardino who studies extremism.

“There are no guardrails now with respect to offense, ignorance and downright stupidity,” he said.

Such comparisons have featured in anti-vaccination rhetoric for years, critics note, but have gained new currency amid resistance to masks and other coronavirus restrictions. Even as they offend, some experts said, the Holocaust rhetoric grabs people’s attention and can appeal to people in various extremist communities.

Imran Ahmed, the head of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, said it is “deeply concerning” to see such language from “a mainstream party representative.”

“Frankly, this is a really worrying signal as to the direction that some people would like to take American politics,” he said Wednesday.

Aside from Walsh, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has compared vaccination and mask requirements to Nazi rule during the Holocaust. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) suggested the same about potential vaccine “passports.” An Alaska state lawmaker last year said covid-19 patients might be “rounded up and taken somewhere,” after comparing health screening stickers to the badges that once singled out Jewish people for persecution.

Greene eventually apologized and visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, after congressional leaders from both parties criticized her and just before a Democratic colleague planned to introduce a resolution to censure her. “The Holocaust is — there’s nothing comparable to it. It’s — it happened and, you know, over 6 million Jewish people were murdered,” said the freshman congresswoman, who in the past has made comments promoting QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers.

“If there are consequences from the leadership … the key to [Greene] is that she was humiliated by her leadership and that damaged her,” Ahmed said. “So consequences matter.”

Researchers note that many Americans have little knowledge of how Jews were persecuted, put in concentration camps and murdered in Nazi Germany and in other countries invaded by the forces of Nazi Germany. One recent study found that two-thirds of millennials surveyed could not identify what Auschwitz was.

Avinoam Patt, director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in June that “Greene’s glib simile is indicative of a far more sweeping problem with the way we teach people about the Holocaust.”

To Brian Hughes, the invoking of the historical atrocity also speaks to “a pervasive self-image of being victimized” on the far right.

“They’re invoking this social shorthand for resistance against absolute evil and oppression,” said Hughes, who co-founded American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL).

His group just finished a study that examined popular narratives and rhetorical styles deployed online against vaccines and the realities of covid-19. One common theme was a fight against dystopian tyranny, Hughes said. Researchers also noticed messages targeting people of color, using the language of social justice and oppression of minorities.

The study did not track Holocaust references specifically. He said he believes they have grown more common since data-gathering finished several months ago.

Walsh, the Washington state lawmaker, was recorded wearing the star at a meeting of Washingtonians for Change, an event he said drew more than 100 people. The conservative group, founded in 2020, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

The live stream posted to his Facebook page captured him speaking broadly about values such as personal liberty and privacy, while denouncing a wide range of policies and ideas, including “lockdowns,” “the closing of churches” and critical race theory, an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

The lawmaker told the Seattle Times that the event’s organizers were “deeply concerned about vaccine passports and vaccine segregation.” Walsh told the Times that he got the star from someone there and that most people in attendance were wearing it. He also compared differing treatment for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to racial segregation upheld in the Supreme Court’s infamous 1896 endorsement of “separate but equal,” echoing other criticisms of coronavirus rules that have evoked racist discrimination as well as slavery.

Criticism built as the video of Walsh circulated and received news coverage. At first Walsh seemed to dig in.

“Orwellian,” he wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon, sharing the Seattle Times article. “Hyper partisans are trying to make a sign of solidarity into … something bad.”

But later in the day, Walsh joined a friend and radio host, Jason Rantz, to apologize. “This was a mistake. … I wouldn’t do it again,” he said.

“It was a huge mistake,” Rantz agreed. Walsh said he would find better ways to convey people’s concerns about their “rights being eroded.”

Miri Cypers, the Pacific Northwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, had earlier welcomed an educational “dialogue” with Walsh in a statement seeking an apology.

She acknowledged the fallout was not new.

“During these challenging times of rising antisemitism, elected officials continue to deepen the pain,” she said.

Read more:

Analysis: Republican men are a central part of coronavirus vaccine resistance

Rep. Greene apologizes for comparing face masks to Holocaust, but stands by Nazi-Democrat comparison

Alaska lawmaker said Hitler was not white supremacist after comparing coronavirus measures to Nazi rule

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