To the Editors,
Two weeks ago, a frontpage article in The Jambar included a quote comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. The ubiquity of such assertions, often from people of influence, may explain how it gained a foothold at YSU. As the director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies, I feel obligated to explain why the comparison is misguided, insensitive, and even potentially harmful.
When people compare vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, they generally mean to suggest that through such laws, the government infringes upon our individual liberties, and that in tolerating mandates we acquiesce to an erosion our freedoms. Holocaust analogies can serve as warnings, written in blood, against the potential for authoritarianism at the heart of democracy.
Yet one can make this case without analogizing the Holocaust. Stated plainly and with reference to authoritarian streaks in domestic politics, it would force proponents of mandates to explain why the state or private institutions should have the right to compel citizens to put medicines in their bodies. (We have good reasons for this belief!) The performative hyperbole of the Holocaust analogy, however, renders one’s arguments and position easily dismissible.
The analogy, moreover, turns on a striking ignorance of German history. Vaccine mandates promote the well-being of all members of society without discrimination. Nazism, in contrast, removed Jews, Roma, and other targeted groups from the community of moral obligation, licensing their mass murder. That Nazism likened Jews to a pestilence plaguing the Aryan racial nation only demonstrates the cruel absurdity of the analogy.
In other words, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered Jews, Roma, and other racialized minorities not for failing to comply with authoritarianism, but simply for existing. They could not have evaded genocide by capitulating to Nazism. The Holocaust analogy fails. Closer but still wrongheaded comparisons might have been to Jehovah’s Witnesses or to German antifascist.
This Holocaust analogy is also insensitive. It objectifies Jews and the Holocaust’s enduring trauma to score rhetorical points or to excite a base. Some protesters have even donned Yellow stars. Drawing on long histories of supersessionism, this rhetorical device displaces actual Jews, and so erases their histories and experiences. It often does so under the guise of philosemitism, a love of Jews that can be as objectifying and as weaponizable as antisemitism.
Finally, Holocaust analogies can be dangerous because they transform one’s opponents into genocidaires in waiting, implicitly legitimizing extreme and even violent responses.
I am not arguing that one should refrain from analogizing the Holocaust. Comparison is a historian’s tool. (It would be salubrious, though, if we were to cease reaching automatically for Nazism when we seek to decry one wrong or another, especially because such argumentation tends to cast our opponents’ perspectives as foreign, preventing us from situating them in our shared context.) I am simply saying that this particular analogy is inappropriate and counterproductive.
For those interested, I will be teaching a course on the Holocaust next semester.
Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz