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Anti-vaxxers are claiming centuries of Jewish suffering to look like martyrs

Yellow badges were used for discrimination long before the Holocaust

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks at a rally on May 27 in Dalton, Ga. She has suggested that logos indicating people have been vaccinated are similar to badges the Nazis made Jews wear during the Holocaust. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

In mid-May, Southern supermarket chain Food City announced that employees who chose to get the coronavirus vaccine would be allowed to go maskless while working in the store. A logo on the employees’ nametags would indicate that they were maskless because they had chosen to get the vaccine.

Anti-vaccination activists were swift to decry the announcement. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on May 25 compared the logo to the gold Star of David patches that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Hers is a hyperbolic analogy familiar to many who espouse the conspiracies of QAnon, which traffics in antisemitic tropes and memes.

Greene was ready for this moment. Days earlier, in an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, she had derided House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call for masks in the House as akin to the type of Nazi abuse that assigned “people” to wear a “gold star.” Greene did not specifically name the Jewish people in the interview, which itself may be a telling omission. Although Greene expresses support for Israel, more than half of evangelical support for Israel derives from a belief in its need to exist for Jesus’s final return.

It did not take long for Greene’s glib rhetorical appropriation to find a commercial grift to go with it. Gigi Gaskins, who owns a Nashville millinery called Hatwrks, began to sell gold stars for $5 that read “Not Vaccinated” in the center, just as the word “Jew” has been printed in Nazi-era badges. The irony here, of course, is that those who bought the badges were willingly donning them as points of pride, rather than ethnic markers. (After facing protests and losing suppliers, the hat shop issued an apology.)

This kind of appropriation of the yellow Star of David badge is a gross false equivalence. Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers would have us believe that the evil of being encouraged to get a vaccine is the same as the project of ethnic labeling and cleansing undertaken by the Third Reich. It appears at first a farcical analogy, but it’s not without its dangers.

And in appropriating deep symbols of Jewish pain, these bad actors undermine not only the gravity, nuance and suffering of the Holocaust, but also of centuries of historical antisemitism, in service to their need to be public martyrs. They cast about for some touchstone for their perceived injustice, landing on the Holocaust as the ultimate exemplar of persecution in the modern era. In so doing, Holocaust-invokers add themselves to a long and sad history of borrowing the pain of others to lend credence to their own.

By invoking the Gold Star, Greene and many other evangelical followers of QAnon and former president Donald Trump are linking themselves with a much longer history of Christian antisemitism. Use of the color yellow for the purposes of discriminating against, excluding and expelling Jews goes back hundreds of years.

Within both Islam and Christianity, clothing was a common way to separate religious groups during the Middle Ages. In the 9th century, the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil decreed that “honey-colored” garments be worn by Jews, Christians and Zorastrians within the bounds of the Islamic caliphate. Simcha Gross, a professor of ancient rabbinics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that “in Islam, distinction of clothing was part of a range of regulations that differentiated between Muslims and certain kinds of non-Muslims, which have their own lengthy and complicated history.”

How bad analogies undermine our understanding of history

Within Christendom, anti-Jewish sentiment had grown since the late Roman Empire and continued well into the First Crusade of the 11th century, when thousands of Jews were slaughtered by Christian Crusaders on their way through the Rhineland toward Jerusalem. But the precedent for the widespread use of clothing to demarcate, stigmatize and visually label European Jews was codified by an ecclesiastical meeting called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Pope Innocent III convened the infamous early November council in Rome, attended by 412 bishops and more than 800 abbots, clerics and secular representatives to all the major European monarchs. The antisemitic legacy of the infamous church council would reverberate into the 20th century.

Canon No. 68 required all Jews and Saracens (Muslims) to wear distinguishing dress. This directive was broadly realized by local governments in the compulsory wearing of badges by Jewish citizens. In 1217, King Henry III forced Jews in England to wear parchment or white linen badges shaped like the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The English monarch Edward I later changed the size of the badge and the color — to yellow.

By 1290, Jews were expelled from England altogether.

In 13th-century France, monarchs passed laws backed by the church requiring French Jews to wear badges. Badges across Europe were typically yellow and often accompanied by a distinctive conical hat.

By the 15th century, Germany, at the behest of papal legates, also enacted more badge-wearing laws for Jews. This kind of church and state collaboration was also used to discriminate against Jews ranging from the kingdoms of Switzerland to Italy, with Catholics often profiting.

In 1492, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella ordered Jews expelled from Spain with the Alhambra Decree. This resulted in Catholics acquiring extremely cheap property from Jews forced from their homes and given only a few months to exit.

Although use and enforcement of badges waned in early modern Europe, in 1938, Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, suggested that the Third Reich use a “distinguishing mark” for Jews. This mark took several forms within camps and within occupied Europe. Concentration camps identified Jews with a yellow star. Criminals, Roma, political prisoners, those deemed homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses all wore variant colored triangles.

After the invasion of Poland, SS Oberführer Hans Cramer instituted the wearing of a yellow triangle on the back of clothing worn by Jews. Elsewhere, Nazis already forced Jews to wear white armbands featuring the Star of David. By 1941, all Jews ages 6 and older were required to wear a yellow star on black background with the local word for Jew inscribed in the center.

That history makes the use of the Star of David badges by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to protest their perceived plight obviously crass. And it’s not a solely American phenomenon. Numerous German protesters marching against the vaccine have replaced the Nazi use of the word “Jude” (Jew) with “ungeimpft” (unvaccinated) in the center of their voluntarily worn armbands. British protesters have also invoked the imagery of the Holocaust to express their disdain for vaccine shots and masks.

This kind of appropriation is steeped in antisemitism. Felix Klein, Germany’s federal commissioner for Jewish life and fighting antisemitism, recently warned of the Jew-hatred rife in shutdown and anti-vaccination protests in the country. He has stated that although not all protesters against coronavirus mitigation efforts were anti-Semites, anti-Jewish sentiment was the “cement that binds them together.”

Five myths about anti-Semitism

Political leaders in both Germany and Britain, as well as the Auschwitz Museum, have denounced the “instrumentalization” of the badge. Despite these warnings, though, many anti-vaxxers continue to exploit the shock and horror of the Holocaust. They invoke the star in their protests, using the systematic stigmatization and killing of close to 6 million Jews in service to their cause.

The dubious power of this kind of false analogy relies on making you think the Holocaust has an equal weight as an optional vaccine or a mask mandate does. The more insidious work of this false equivalence is how easily it can erode the gravity of the original evil. When non-Jews appropriate the Star of David for their own aims, they contribute to the erasure of the historical suffering of Jews — from medieval to modern times. The problem here isn’t just the gross misuse of a historical symbol, it’s the impact on the explicitly Jewish suffering associated with that symbol.

The visual language used by medieval Christians, and then the Third Reich, to stigmatize Jews is important to recognize and to contextualize. The Holocaust was not a “one-off” example of evil Nazis — it was the extension of a long history of persecution using Jewish symbols to stigmatize a religious group.

In 2016, the Trump campaign deployed both the Star of David and later the iconography of the triangle badges used in Nazi concentration camps. When anti-vaccine Trump supporters then recast that same Star of David to promote false evidence for their own oppression, the analogy annexes and then erases centuries of pain through a fallacy. In the United States, it is predominantly White evangelical protesters who are choosing to avoid the completely voluntary vaccine, but who continue to don a symbol that millions of Jews were compelled to wear as a means of being excluded and then exterminated.

Read more:

Trump keeps pushing antisemitic stereotypes. But he thinks he’s praising Jews.

No one loses a debate over antisemitism. Except Jews.

How U.S. politicians use charges of antisemitism as a weapon

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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