The Holocaust – the systematic murder of six million Jews and millions of others by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II – stands out as a preeminent example of modern-day state-sponsored mass murder. Despite the Holocaust’s distinctive status, or perhaps because of it, politicians, activists and other public figures often invoke inappropriate Holocaust comparisons to highlight the ostensible “danger” of a social or political act.
Even with widespread efforts to educate Americans on the root causes and devastating impact of the Shoah, Holocaust comparisons have become commonplace, including among people speaking out against COVID-19 health mandates, imprisoned for the January 6 insurrection, protesting abortion, criticizing gun control measures and more. Except for extreme cases, such comparisons are generally not indications of antisemitic animus; however, they are often used to further a political agenda. Such references are outrageous and may be profoundly hurtful to Jews, many of whom lost family members or carry memories of the trauma suffered by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents during the destruction of European Jewry.
Holocaust comparisons are also unacceptable when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Claims that Israel is perpetrating a Holocaust against the Palestinians, or that Zionists are equivalent to Nazis, are not only historically specious, but also dangerously malign Israel and its supporters. Inappropriate Holocaust comparisons made in the context of criticizing Israel run the risk of fomenting blatant hostility toward Jewish people, a majority of whom identify with Israel and view a relationship with the Jewish state as an important element of their identity. Although Israel can be subject to criticism just like any other democratic nation, efforts to portray Israel as heirs to Nazi barbarism and brutality go far beyond legitimate criticism and may draw upon or reinforce age-old antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as demonic or uniquely evil.
Pandemic-Era Public Health Policies
The implementation of public health policies designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. sparked protests against state and local government officials. In numerous cases, critics of lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictions invoked Nazi and Holocaust-related imagery and analogies in an attempt to compare government officials to Nazis and their policies to the Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II.
One particularly widespread use of this type of imagery involved comparing government officials to Hitler, including photoshopping Hitler-like mustaches on images of officials or creating signs that replaced Hitler’s name in the slogan “Heil Hitler” with the name of the U.S. government official. Others held signs depicting swastikas and the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”), made infamous by its use on a sign at the entrance of the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.
Nazi imagery seen at a May 2020 protest against California Governor Gavin Newsom. Source: Daily Mail EPA
Nazi analogies also appeared from largescale public rallies to local government meetings. In August 2020, a woman wore a yellow Star of David to a Kansas City Council meeting to protest the extension of the city’s mask mandate. At a Solano County Board of Supervisors meeting in November 2020, residents protesting the local mask mandate gave Nazi salutes and said “Sieg heil.” During the public comments portion of the meeting, the anti-mask protesters again drew comparisons between the COVID-19 policies and the Holocaust, with one resident asking, “Have we all forgotten where this prequel has been seen…The Nazis, the Bolsheviks…Every communist and socialist regime has used these same tactics.”
Lawmakers have also made inappropriate analogies between the Holocaust and COVID-19 policies. In April 2020, Idaho State Rep. Heather Scott criticized Governor Brad Little’s stay-at-home order, calling the governor “Little Hitler” and commenting that the pandemic-related policies were “no different than Nazi Germany, where you had government telling people, ‘You are an essential worker or a nonessential worker,’ and the nonessential workers got put on a train.”
In May 2020, Alaska State Rep. Ben Carpenter asked his fellow lawmakers if stickers being distributed at the State Capitol as part of new health screening measures would be “available as a yellow Star of David.” During a Kansas state legislative hearing in October 2021, State Rep. Brenda Landwehr claimed that mask and vaccine requirements represented “racism against the modern-day Jew.”
COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements
In addition to broader COVID-19 mandates and public health measures, vaccine requirements have been a focal point for Holocaust analogies in theU.S. Like with mask mandates and lockdown efforts, antagonists analogize these requirements with Nazi Germany, comparing vaccine cards to the yellow Star of David that Jews were obligated to wear during Hitler’s reign and equating the U.S. government to Hitler's regime.
This troubling discourse in anti-vaccine spaces is not new, as anti-vaxxers have appropriated the yellow star in anti-vaccine protests in the past, particularly in 2019 during an outbreak of measles across the country. Over the last two years as they grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and public figures alike have appropriated the Holocaust to promote anti-vaccine agendas.
- At an anti-vaccine rally speech in January 2022 in Washington D.C., Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compared modern-day experiences to that of Anne Frank, asserting that things are worse for people today and that Anthony Fauci was orchestrating “fascism.” At the same rally, a protester waved a large yellow sign shaped like the Star of David, with the words “Unvaccinated” written on it.
- Protestors at an anti-vaccine rally in Salt Lake City, Utah in October 2021 held a large flag modeled after the Nazi flag, depicting a swastika created out of vaccine syringes.
Source: Desert News
- In October 2021, Kay Wan, the vice president of the board of a charter school in Douglas County, Colorado, posted on her personal Facebook page a meme comprised of two pictures – one with a woman showing her identity papers to Nazi soldiers and the other with a masked woman seemingly being questioned by police officers. The caption included the comment, “...Show me your papers!! History repeats itself.”
- In September 2021, at least half a dozen protesters wearing yellow stars reading “Not Vaccinated” stood outside the Staten Island Courthouse.
- In August and September 2021, multiple political and community figures in Arizona equated vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust on social media and at in-person events. The chair of Arizona’s Republican party retweeted a post reading, “What’s the difference between vaccine papers and a yellow star? 82 years. We are increasingly living under national socialism. Stop Medical Apartheid.” A few weeks later, a state Senator tweeted an image of the Nazi flag with the swastika made of vaccine syringes and a state Representative claimed in a rally speech that wearing masks was comparable to the tattooing of Holocaust victims. That same week, a school district board member reposted a post on Instagram stating, “If you’ve ever wondered whether you would have complied during 1930’s Germany, now you know.”
- At a protest against vaccine mandates in August 2021 in Maine, Republican State Rep. Heidi Sampson compared mandates to Nazi medical experiments during the Holocaust. She told the crowd during her speech, “We have Josef Mengele and Joseph Goebbels being reincarnated in the state of Maine.” Dr. Mengele, referred to as “the angel of death,” is known for performing sadistic and often deadly experiments on Jews in Auschwitz.
- While speaking at a rally in August 2021, the head of the Chicago police union compared the assurances made by government health officials about the safety of vaccines to the Nazis telling Jews who were sent to the gas chambers that they were merely showers.
- In June 2021, Washington State Rep. Jim Walsh wore a yellow Star of David at a speech he made protesting vaccine mandates. During his speech, at which most attendees were wearing yellow stars, he claimed, “In the current context, we’re all Jews.”
- In May 2021, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted about a grocery store chain’s policy that maskless employees would wear name tags with a special logo indicating that they were fully vaccinated, commenting that “Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s [sic] forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.”
Additional Political and Social Debates
Holocaust comparisons have also been made in a wide range of other contexts related to various divisive political and social issues, such as the January 6 insurrection, climate change, abortion, free speech and gun control. Examples include the following:
- January 6 insurrectionist Jenna Ryan claimed that the backlash she’s received for her involvement in the insurrection is akin to what Jews experienced in Nazi Germany.
- At a large demonstration at the U.S. Capitol in September 2021, where protesters demanded the release of those incarcerated for their actions on January 6, a speaker compared the treatment of the Capitol insurrectionists to Jews being persecuted under the Nazi regime. Reading from a letter allegedly written by one of the imprisoned, the speaker complained “This reminds me of how the Jewish people were treated by the Nazis.”
- As part of its campaign against the proposed Green New Deal, the LaRouche Organization, a fringe political group, displayed posters that depicted windmills in the shape of swastikas and read, “Green Energy: More efficient than Auschwitz.” The group displayed these posters in public areas on multiple occasions in 2021, including in Michigan, New Jersey and New York.
Posters displayed by the LaRouche Organization. Source: Reported to ADL
- The “Genocide Awareness Project,” sponsored by the anti-abortion group the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), is a touring exhibition that has appeared on numerous college campuses over the past 25 years. The display characterizes abortion as a genocide and juxtaposes graphic images of aborted fetuses with photographs from the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and other historical events. The display was seen at multiple colleges in March and April 2022, including Auburn University, Columbus State University and Kennesaw State University.
- In April 2022, popular YouTube family channel “The LaBrant Fam” posted an anti-abortion video that compared the number of people killed in the Holocaust to the number of abortions performed in the United States. The video minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust in an attempt to further their argument about the issue of abortion by making a numerical comparison between those murdered in the Holocaust and the number of abortions performed in the United States. After fewer than two weeks on the site, the video ranked 15th in most viewed videos when searching the term “abortion” and has over 3.1 million views.
- Actor Gina Carano was fired from her role in the “Star Wars” franchise in 2021 after she shared a social media post that implied that the social and political climate in the United States today is comparable to the conditions which led to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Carano shared a meme on Instagram that included the caption, “Most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different for hating someone for the political views?”
- University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Robert Schuyler sparked outrage in early 2021 when he was seen making a Nazi salute and using the phrase “sieg heil” during a virtual conference. Schuyler made the gesture after he was told that the Zoom session “was not the place” to discuss a particular question, commenting, “I’m sorry, but I have freedom of speech, and you’re not going to tell me it’s not the place for me to bring this up.” The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Schuyler, who later retired after the university canceled his classes in the wake of the controversy, “believed his speech was being suppressed, and his decision to use the phrase and gesture was meant to reference the limitations on free speech in Nazi Germany.”
- In January 2020, a Republican state Senator in Delaware compared gun control measures to restrictive laws Hitler passed in Germany. Speaking from the Senate floor about the alleged dangers of implementing gun control, Sen. Dave Lawson stated, “...please don’t forget that everything that Hitler did was legal. Murdering those people was legal. Disarming those people was legal. Do we want to follow that same path? Because I’m telling you, from where I sit, it’s not that far away.” His remarks came directly after a Holocaust survivor spoke to the Senate about her experiences.
Criticism of Israel’s Actions Against the Palestinians
Anti-Israel activists and groups sometimes use offensive and inappropriate Holocaust comparisons to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. These analogies were regularly seen at protests and on social media during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. In many cases, the comparisons not only criticized the actions of the Israeli government but served to vilify Zionists or Jews in general.
- In Brooklyn, a protester held a sign reading, “It was wrong in Auschwitz, it is wrong in Gaza.”
- Anti-Israel protesters at rallies in multiple cities carried signs that read, “One Holocaust does not justify another.”
- A sign at a protest in Queens read, “the Nazis are still around, they call themselves Zionists now.”
- Signs that equated or conflated the Jewish Star of David with the swastika were seen at various protests, including a sign at a rally in Chicago that featured a swastika drawn inside of a Star of David, with text referencing “Nazi Zionist Jews.”
- At a protest outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, one sign included a hand-drawn Israeli flag and the message, “New and improved Nazis.” Another sign at that same protest read, “Lost: Nazi Germany. Found: Nazi Israel” and equated the Israeli flag with a swastika.