Orange County’s Jewish community is pushing back against people comparing coronavirus vaccination efforts to the Holocaust orchestrated by Nazi Germany, which killed at least 6 million Jews over 70 years ago.
“I’m a child of immigrants and my mother was a Holocaust survivor. And the misuse of the rhetoric of the Holocaust is appalling. And it just shows the desperation and ignorance of those using it,” said University Synagogue’s Rabbi Arnold Rachlis in a Wednesday phone interview.
Waves of OC residents showed up to protest a vaccine passport at Tuesday’s county Board of Supervisors meeting.
Many public commenters compared the concept of a vaccine passport to the yellow star Nazis made Jewish people wear in Germany and its territories during the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945. A couple residents also wore a yellow star to the meeting.
“It is the beginning and the end of Nazi Germany! It is, ‘show me your papers please before you pass,’” resident Leigh Dundas said during public comment at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.
Marilyn Harran, director of the Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University, said comparisons like that are offensive.
“These comparisons are totally inaccurate, totally inappropriate and demeaning to the suffering of those who actually experienced the Holocaust,” Harran said in a Wednesday phone interview.
She said the yellow Star of David and the vaccine passport are two completely different things.
“The comparison to a vaccination passport is a driver’s license or a regular passport that expands your freedoms,” Harran said. “The yellow star was meant to separate and limit and ultimately take away any kind of personal freedom or rights. So on that level alone, it is beyond inaccurate and totally inappropriate.”
Last Summer, residents protested masks in front of former OC Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick’s home with her picture, with a Hitler mustache, pasted over a Nazi Germany flag.
This week, rumors of a county-mandated vaccine passport began circulating on social media triggering a large public turnout at the Supervisors meeting with more than 200 speakers relaying concerns about the vaccine passport.
County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau told supervisors that the term was included in the Google and Apple app stores for the Othena app, which is the county’s vaccination registration system.
Chau and County Supervisors repeatedly said the county isn’t mandating a passport, but instead trying to provide residents verified records of getting the shot so they can show businesses who may require vaccinations.
“Can the government do that? The answer now is no. Can the private side do that? The answer is yes,” Chau said. “We don’t make decisions on whether a business will use proof or not.”
He said the digital records are needed after a string of forged vaccination records being sold online.
“People had no vote, no right over whether or not to wear the yellow star, or Jews who had to follow the Nuremberg laws. These were the restrictions on freedoms,” Harran said. “Whether one gets a vaccine or not is a personal right and the desire for passports is to expand people’s freedoms and opportunities, while at the same time protecting public health.”
Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of OC and Long Beach for the Anti-Defamation League, echoed similar concerns.
He said people are right to be worried about potentially mandated vaccine passports and other aspects of the pandemic, but comparing it to the Holocaust delegitimizes their concerns.
“If we’re going to talk about some kind of ‘vaccine passport,’ those are important discussions and conversations we have to have — whether or not they’re mandated. And I can’t agree with my friend Marilyn Harran any more in that this comparison [to the yellow star] completely misses the point and it’s a distortion on what the Holocaust is all about — the evil, the monstrosity. And it doesn’t legitimize their position,” Levi said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Rachlis said the comparisons show a misunderstanding of the Holocaust.
He compared the recent string of Holocaust comments to the Know Nothing Party from the 1850s.
“A desire not to think — in the 19th century there was the Know Nothing Party and they prided themselves on their ignorance. They proudly called themselves Know Nothings. And we’re seeing the resurfacing of ignorance as a badge of courage. Pride in defiance for its own sake,” Rachlis said.
He said many people making the comparisons haven’t carefully studied the Holocaust.
“There is willful ignorance and manipulation of powerful symbols in the service of this pride of defiance,” Rachlis said.
Allied forces began finding Nazi-run death camps early April 1945 — 76 years ago — when they were closing in on the Third Reich on both the western and eastern fronts.
In late April 1945, U.S. troops found the concentration camp, Dachau. Some soldiers were reportedly so enraged at finding stacks of bodies in railcars, they lined up German soldiers and shot them.
“You should never incorporate the Holocaust in anyway to either explain or compare or contrast any contemporary issue. And I don’t care where on the political specturm you fall — no one needs to invoke the murder of millions of people 76 years ago who have no voice of their own. It does not make them sound more legitimate,” Levi said.
He also said such comparisons are becoming increasingly common.
“Furthermore, it normalizes the trivialization of Holocaust rememberence. And that is a foundation for holocaust distortion and holocaust denial,” Levi said.
Rachlis said many people are angry and scared during the pandemic, leading them to group together on the internet and proliferate Holocaust comparisons and conspiracy theories.
“The internet in many ways is a blessing. But it’s also a curse in that it can magnify the craziest theories and not in the service of enlightenment or knowledge — but in monetizing this kind of anger, too,” Rachlis said.
Social media posts of people selling vaccine cards, so-called mask exemptions and other documents have been circulating in recent months.
Meanwhile, Orange County’s coronavirus hospitalizations have remained steady this week.
As of Wednesday, 122 people were hospitalized, including 30 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 4,862 people — roughly nine times the number killed by the flu on a yearly average.
COVID deaths have now surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Reporter Nick Gerda Contributed to this article.