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Holocaust Comparisons Continue to Pop Up in Wisconsin

Blasting patriotic songs like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and chanting “Freedom!,” about 100 demonstrators stood Wednesday evening along the curb of Green Bay’s Baird Place Park.

Passing cars honked in support to cheers. A man stood next to a homemade wooden cross at the intersection of East Mason Street and South Webster Avenue.

Amid the cries of medical freedom was another type of messaging. Some protesters also compared local private health care institutions requiring vaccinations for their employees to the roundup and murder of 6 million Jewish people in World War II.

Those messages take the vaccination issue in another direction — a disturbing one, according to Jewish leaders and historians.

“If someone is doing this deliberately — knowing the history of the Holocaust, knowing that Jews almost uniformly would look at this as anti-Semitic — then this is no longer a conversation about vaccination, this is no longer a conversation about the right to protest or free speech. This is entirely a conversation about hate,” said Rabbi Moishe Steigmann of the Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay.

Along with the rally that sprang up across the street from Bellin Hospital in Green Bay Wednesday was another at Agnesian HealthCare in Fond du Lac, with participants protesting private health care institutions requiring coronavirus vaccines for all their employees.

Protesters at both rallies wielded signs, such as the yellow star of David emblazoned with the word “unvaccinated” and comparing employers’ vaccine mandates to the state-sanctioned genocide of Jewish people. Many signs said some version of “Mandated experimental drugs is Nazism,” referencing the Nazis who tortured and experimented on prisoners with neither consent nor safeguards.

A state lawmaker who attended the rallies doubled down on the comparisons in an interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette, asserting that “totalitarianism” has been even deadlier than the Holocaust.

Religious leaders of the Jewish faith have raised concerns that such messaging says more about hatred than it does about the freedom to protest. For Steigmann, propagating imagery of the Holocaust “undermines the entire message of the protest.”

The First Amendment declares, among other things, that citizens of the United States have the right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These rights did not exist for the 6 million Jewish people and 11 million additional people systematically murdered, he said. 

While Steigmann empathized with the difficult choice the hospital mandates have presented to concerned health care employees, he also emphasized the workers still have the choice to be employed with their private health care institution or else seek out employment elsewhere. 

“You are championing here your right to protest. Jews and other people murdered in the Holocaust had no voice, they had no rights. They had everything taken away from them,” Steigmann said. “To use that as an analogy for requiring vaccinations diminishes the history of the Holocaust. It makes insignificant those 6 million lives.”

Samantha Abramson, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, shared Steigmann’s concerns.

“These sorts of comparisons, invoking the Holocaust and applying it to different events and different facets of life has gotten pretty common,” Abramson said. “It’s very frustrating for those of us in the field who are trying to expand public knowledge of the Holocaust.”

In the expansion of public knowledge of the Holocaust, Abramson cited the 2021 Wisconsin Act 30 signed into law in April by Gov. Tony Evers. The law has created a new standard for social studies courses, requiring instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides in both Wisconsin middle schools and high schools. Its passage is an important one for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, she said, and one from which every individual in the state can learn. 

“I think education is the key here,” Abramson said. 

Comparisons to the Holocaust will always fail against issues engendered by an organization, she said. The Nazi Party and its collaborators executed millions for religious and political reasons. 

“It’s not only offensive to the Holocaust victims, but it paints a very inaccurate picture of what the Holocaust was. It misrepresents both the Holocaust history and all the issues we are facing in today’s world,” Abramson said.

State Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Gibson, has participated in three Wisconsin rallies in the last two days, including the one organized in Green Bay. He “disagrees completely” with Abramson. 

“The reason I disagree is we are holding up some horrendous things and we don’t want to end up here,” Sortwell said. “We’re not saying ‘Oh the Holocaust is so great, we want more of that.’ This was a terrible, horrible thing for a society to do to its population.” 

Sortwell said while Hitler’s Germany is often put up as the exemplar of atrocities, “the communists were just as guilty of Holocaust not only against the Jewish people but against a whole lot of other populations in the USSR. Totalitarianism has killed over 100 million people in the world in the last 100 years.”