Keeping on message is among the difficult elements of a political campaign, when a soundbite receives more attention than the subject of the speech, or when a crowd of supporters defines the candidate rather than the other way around. Last Sunday, Republican gubernatorial contender Rob Astorino stood outside the office of Bronx Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz to protest his bill requiring vaccination for all students to attend classes.
Standing behind the former Westchester County Executive was a woman holding a poster of vaccination needles in the form of a swastika with “Nuremberg Laws” written next to it, and a man wearing a yellow star suggesting that unvaccinated individuals are suffering the same degree of persecution as Jews did in Nazi Germany. Whatever words Astorino had said last Sunday were drowned out by the imagery of the people standing behind him.
“The display of swastikas and yellow Stars of David outside my office today is repugnant and offensive,” Dinowitz tweeted. “People are perfectly free to express their opinion on vaccines or any issue, but to openly display Nazi symbols outside the office of a Jewish legislator is despicable.”
In this instance, Astorino’s message was lost as a result of his supporters carrying offensive signs. “I had no idea until I saw this photo,” wrote Astorino. “If I’d seen it I’d have told them to take the sign down. No comparison to those atrocities & yes, I’ve always condemned anti-Semitism.”
Astorino’s statement did not appear to be an apology. Perhaps he could apologize on behalf of a supporter that he did not know. Instead, he tried to steer the news cycle back to the topic that brought him to Dinowitz’s office. “My offer still stands, Jeff. Have the guts to meet w/ me & learn why so many parents oppose your mandate.” He later added that had he seen the swastika poster, he would have stopped speaking and had it removed.
Dinowitz’s colleagues in the Democratic Party piled on Astorino for associating with anti-Semitic imagery outside the office of a Jewish lawmaker. One can ask whether it is easier to attack Dinowitz for having uncontrollable supporters rather than the merits of his position that vaccination should not be required for in-person classes.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is also running in the Republican primary for Governor, did not address Astorino’s supporters or his failure to directly apologize for standing next to a swastika poster. “The COVID vaccine should not be a requirement for students to attend school. The voice of parents is strong and resolute. They do not want the vaccine to be mandated. This is a personal choice for families to make. I stand with these parents and support their position,” he tweeted.
As one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, Zeldin is in a unique position to call out anti-Semitic tropes in his party. Doing so would give his condemnations of Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib more weight, but as long as he is silent on Nazi imagery among his party’s supporters, Zeldin’s condemnations of anti-Semitism among leftist lawmakers can be cynically viewed as partisan rather than sincere.
Throughout this pandemic, the use of Holocaust images has been visible among some opponents of vaccination mandates, and Republican lawmakers felt conflicted between condemning antisemitic images and alienating potential supporters. Last week in Kansas, anti-vaccine demonstrators wore yellow stars in protest of the mandates at a hearing in the state capitol.
“Senate Republicans reject, in the strongest possible terms, any analogies to the Holocaust. Such comparisons are inappropriate and bear no resemblance to the issues we are debating today,” State Senate President Ty Masterson wrote. His colleague, State House Speaker Ron Ryckman, also condemned the use of yellow stars. “Let me be clear: The issues being debated today are important to KS, but they are in no way comparable to what millions of Jews endured who were ripped from their families, and marked for death by the Nazis,” he wrote.
In Alaska, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson spoke last month in defense of his neighbors who protested vaccination mandates while wearing the yellow star. “We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight,” he said to city lawmakers. “The message was ‘Never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means... I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”
In Washington, State Rep. Jim Walsh wore his yellow star last June at a speech following a church basketball game. “It’s an echo from history,” Walsh wrote on a Facebook page where his speech was posted. “In the current context, we’re all Jews.”
Earlier this year, firebrand Republican freshmen Reps. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia also made Holocaust references to vaccination mandates.
The Holocaust has no parallel in history in terms of the scale and methods that targeted the Jews. The political humor in calling any act of governmental or corporate overreach as “Nazi” trivializes the actual persecutions of the Holocaust. Labeling any real or perceived overreach of governmental authority as Nazi is as ridiculous as crying “Wolf,” and it does little to persuade the public on the merits of the anti-vaccination position.
By Sergey Kadinsky