A Washington state lawmaker critical of COVID-19 vaccine mandates wore a yellow Star of David at a speech over the weekend — a symbol the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, had the star affixed to his pink shirt during a speech to conservative activists at a Lacey church basketball gym on Saturday.
"It's an echo from history," Walsh wrote on a Facebook page where a video of the event was posted. "In the current context, we are all Jews."
The misappropriation of the infamous star symbol — used to identify Jews first for exclusion, and then for extermination — was criticized as deeply offensive by a local Holocaust education leader.
"Our government is making an effort to protect their own citizens, not kill them," said Dee Simon, Baral Family executive director of the Seattle-based Holocaust Center for Humanity, which works to teach people about Nazi Germany's murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. "It not only trivializes it, it distorts history."
In an interview Tuesday, Walsh said he had been given the star by someone at the event, where most attendees were wearing one. He described some of the organizers as "deeply concerned about vaccine passports and vaccine segregation."
Washington state has not imposed a requirement to be vaccinated for COVID-19, working instead to encourage people through education and enticements such as $250,000 lottery drawings.
But the state Department of Labor and Industries is requiring that employers verify employee vaccination status before lifting masking requirements in their workplaces, and be able to demonstrate how they did so.
Walsh, known for his fiery, libertarian-oriented rhetoric, did not explicitly refer to Nazis, Hitler or the Holocaust during his 10-minute speech Saturday, but generally urged the crowd of about 100 to push back against government impingement on freedom.
In the interview, Walsh compared the wearing of the stars to the Danish people during Nazi occupation, who, according to a widely-shared story, donned yellow stars to keep the Nazis from singling out Jews. (The Danish tale has been debunked as false by the fact-checking organization Snopes.com, which called it "a touching story but not historically accurate.")
"I won't say publicly whether I am vaccinated or not," Walsh said, likening his stance to the film "Spartacus," in which former slaves, under threat of crucifixion, refuse to identify the title character to a Roman general.
Walsh also likened any disparate treatment of unvaccinated people to the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld "separate but equal" racial segregation laws targeting African Americans.
Activists who oppose mandatory vaccines have deployed Nazi and Holocaust analogies even before the coronavirus pandemic, drawing condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, which say such comparisons are deeply offensive.
Comparing vaccines or masking regulations to Nazi Germany's genocidal violence against Jews, "is offensive to descendants of Holocaust survivors and people who lost family and friends," Simon said.
The ADL has warned in the U.S. and even in Europe, "anti-Covid measures and anti-vaccination demonstrations have become the hotbeds of Holocaust trivialization and antisemitic conspiracy theories and tropes."
Earlier this year, a Nashville, Tennessee, hat shop faced protests and condemnation after advertising for sale an anti-vaccine yellow star like those forced on Jews by the Nazis.
Asked whether he could see how wearing the star would be viewed as offensive, Walsh said, "some people are offended by having to provide vaccine documentation at their work."
He added: "I can't control who is offended by what."
The "Patriot Gathering" at which Walsh spoke was organized by Washingtonians for Change, a conservative group that describes itself as "just common residents exercising our constitutional rights to ensure freedom for all."
Michelle Le, one of the leaders of the group, declined an interview request, but said in a Facebook message the yellow star "was not my idea." She said an attendee asked her to wear the symbol in solidarity with Israel.
Simon, of the Holocaust Center, reinforced the absurdity of comparing any public health rules to the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
Vaccines and masks "are meant to protect people, to prevent death," she said. "The Holocaust, when you tear it down to the bare bones, was the systematic annihilation of a people, with the intent of destroying a race."