Paul Samberg: Kansans who compare COVID-19 mandates to Holocaust fuel antisemitism (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Paul Samberg is a senior at the University of Kansas studying journalism, Jewish studies and political science.

“Are there even Jews there?”

The answer to that question, more than any other, was what my friends and family wanted to know when I committed to the University of Kansas. Were there any Jews where I was headed?

Growing up in the New York metropolitan area, I was surrounded by a vibrant Jewish community. Many in that community could not fathom the idea of Jews living in Kansas. They worried how I would do away from the Jewish community that was so tightly intertwined with my identity.

Much to their surprise, and mine, I found an amazing Jewish community in Kansas and at KU — primarily through KU Hillel, but elsewhere, too.

That question “Are there even Jews there?” wasn’t just an inquiry about who I would be surrounded by in my new home, though. It was an expression of concern for my safety.

Even from 1,300 miles away, we heard the stories about the Westboro Baptist Church protesting on campus and the integration of religion with Statehouse legislation.

Conversely, my state representatives were passing legislation requiring that Holocaust and genocide awareness be added to the curriculum of all public high schools. Connecticut was legislating out the possibility of ignorance that is often behind antisemitic acts. Kansas seemed to be heading down the opposite track.

That said, I seldom experienced acts of antisemitism in my three years at KU. Sure, I might hear the occasional quip, but nothing that crossed the line. Recently, though, I can’t say that quite as confidently.

As reported by Kansas Reflector, on Nov. 12 a group of anti-vaxxers attended a hearing at the Statehouse to protest COVID-19 vaccines and mandates. Some of them wore crudely made yellow Stars of David on their clothing, suggesting mandates for vaccines or masks are similar to what victims faced during the Holocaust.

Similar groups of protestors were seen on separate occasions in Lawrence, prompting a response from KU Hillel and others denouncing protestors’ comparisons. One of these protestors also was arrested. As a member of the Jewish community in Kansas, I am astounded by the actions of these protesters, but I’m not surprised.

Six million Jewish people perished in the Holocaust — shot, gassed, starved — solely because of their heritage. Five million others also were killed for their orientation, race, religion, or willingness to aid their Jewish neighbors. Likening the greatest act of antisemitism in history to mask requirements and vaccine mandates is abhorrent and downplays the reality of the Holocaust.

This act of disregard for the Jewish community concerns me personally. Just because there is a larger Jewish community in the Northeast does not mean my home is free of antisemitism.

In fact, according to Statista, incidents of antisemitism in 2020 were most prevalent in New York and New Jersey. In the past 12 months alone, my friends on college campuses from Syracuse University down to the University of Delaware have reported arson, property damage and vandalism perpetrated against their Jewish communities.

My run-ins with antisemitism back home were often apolitical. However, here in Kansas, antisemitism is coming in the form of political protest. I worry these protesters will provide cover for anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to focus their discontent on the Jewish community.

One of the Statehouse protesters is a former mayoral candidate in Kansas City, Kansas. Through his actions, this protester is sending a message to fellow Kansans that it is acceptable to use the Holocaust and its trauma for political ends.

Will this kind of messaging lead to further minimization of Jewish trauma? It concerns me that people choose antisemitic symbolism to express their political thoughts. Antisemitism is already on the rise nationwide, and expressions like these have paved the way for such a surge.

There are ways to protest mask mandates and vaccine mandates. Minimizing the trauma of the Holocaust is not one of them.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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