Renee Switzer’s grandparents’ generation lost their family in Auschwitz – the death camp that was part of the Nazi regime’s systemic plan to annihilate Jewish people.
“I’m 70,” says Switzer, “and although I’m too young to have witnessed anything, the stories get passed down from one generation to another.”
The legacy of the Holocaust reverberates in memory and in intergenerational trauma in Jewish communities. “It’s part of your family lineage and your family history and your community’s history,” says Switzer.
It was therefore appalling – and personal – for Switzer when the Roberts Creek resident and board member of the Canadian Jewish Community Forum heard that anti-vaccine protesters stood outside the Roberts Creek Community Association Annual Christmas Craft Fair on Nov. 27 wearing yellow stars to lobby against requirements that patrons be vaccinated and wear masks. Under provincial health orders, indoor organized events with 50 people or more must require proof of vaccination.
As far back as the 13th century, there were periods in Europe where Jewish people were legally compelled to wear badges or distinguishing garments – marking them as “other.” By the 19th century, Jewish badges were abolished in Western Europe until the Nazis reinstituted them. The regime required all Jewish people to wear the yellow six-pointed star on an outer layer of clothing. The practice was to stigmatize and humiliate Jews, says the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
The yellow stars allowed Nazis to segregate, watch and control Jewish people’s movements.
“Six million people were murdered just because they were Jewish,” Switzer says. “To take that symbol and use it to protest because you don’t want to be vaccinated or you’re feeling like your life is being restricted because you refuse to be vaccinated, there’s really not a strong enough word that I can use to describe how offensive that is.”
Fellow Coast resident Donna Shugar says, “It’s crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed. It really opened my eyes on a new level to cultural appropriation and how hurtful that can be.
“In the Holocaust, even if you decided that you would convert and not be Jewish anymore, or had done so prior to the rise of the Nazis, you were still murdered. It wasn’t a choice.”
But both Switzer and Shugar stopped short of calling the protesters antisemitic.
“I would hope that the worst thing I can say would be that they’re ignorant,” says Switzer. “I hope that it’s not anything else, except just a lack of historical context and understanding of past harms, and really, the attempted genocide of Jewish people.”
“I think they have misunderstood what they’re doing and they have misunderstood how hurtful it is,” says Shugar. “I know other people who say this is an antisemitic gesture – I think it’s a thoughtless gesture.”
Shugar did recognize one of the people in the photos and emailed them to express her concerns. They emailed back and said they were “researching an alternate symbol to use in future protests,” says Shugar.
Shugar says that it’s not the difference in opinions when it comes to vaccines that’s offensive to her, it’s the disrespect. “I have friends who are not vaccinated and I visit with them outside. They don’t ram their point of view down my throat. We don’t talk about it,” she says. “We haven’t lost each other over it because we’ve been respectful.”
The Yellow Star has been used in vaccine and other COVID-19 protests in places such as Montreal, London, the U.K., and Germany. Munich banned the use of the “Jewish Star” in COVID-19 demonstrations back in May and there were calls to ban the use in that context Germany-wide.
On the Coast, the protest came the day before the first day of Hanukah, Nov. 28. Jewish community members gathered in Gibsons to light candles for the first night of the holiday. “Lots of people were talking about it and everybody was upset,” Shugar adds.
But that didn’t put a damper on the “magnificent” event, says Shugar. She’s been receiving notes from non-Jewish friends who are appalled by the protest.
On top of asking the protesters to leave during the craft fair, the Roberts Creek Community Association also made a statement condemning the protest. “Drawing a parallel between individuals who have the right to refuse vaccination and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany minimizes the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust and trivializes the lived experience of victims and survivors,” said the letter. “The RCCA stands strongly by our Jewish community.”
“I’m so happy that my community is protecting itself by saying no to this kind of thing,” says Shugar.
The Coast Reporter, too, received several letters stating how unacceptable the Yellow Stars were, which Shugar notes is a good thing.
“It’s important for us to feel safe in our own community.”