‘Appalling’: Scholars say Holocaust symbol has no place in Anchorage mask debate

Many holds up yellow star of david and makes two-fingered gesture of pointing.
Skip Myers stared and pointed at Assembly member Forrest Dunbar after Dunbar objected to the use of the Star of David in a debate over a mask mandate. Myers says his gesture was not antisemitic but meant to emphasize that he wouldn’t comply with the mask mandate. (Creative Commons photo by Paxson Woelber/Alaska Landmine)

Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars say it’s wrong for opponents of an Anchorage mask mandate to don yellow stars, an infamous symbol of Nazi oppression, to protest a public health measure.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson later walked back his words, but at a contentious hearing Wednesday night, he defended the use of Holocaust imagery in the mask debate.

“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight,” Bronson said at the meeting. “But there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that, and the message was, ‘Never again.’ …. And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”

RELATED: Discord over masks escalates with arrests, Holocaust comparisons at the Anchorage Assembly

At the hearing, dozens of mandate opponents pinned yellow paper Stars of David to their chests. A protest message was printed on them, in a faux-Hebrew font.

The tactic is not unique to Anchorage. Periodically throughout the pandemic, COVID skeptics and opponents of mask and vaccine mandates have sought to compare public health restrictions to Nazism.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the Anchorage display was a horrible misuse of a badge that Nazis used to dehumanize and ultimately annihilate millions of Jews.

“I think that many of us find this analogy nothing short of appalling,” he said. “To conflate those who want to save lives with those who wanted to destroy lives is to willfully kind of turn the world upside down.”

The Holocaust is not a “gimmick” to be trotted out to advance a political agenda, said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

A bunch of people, several wearing red clothes and a yeellow star of david, at an assembly meeting
Members of the public packed the Anchorage Assembly chambers on Sept. 29, 2021. The Assembly is considering a mask mandate. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

“Donning a yellow star in opposition to a mask mandate meant to save lives is to defile the memories of those who were killed in the Holocaust and those who died during this pandemic,” Pesner said.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Simon Wiesenthal Center embraces the need for vigorous debate around mask mandates and vaccine requirements. He’s lost family members to COVID-19, and one of his brothers had a serious reaction to the vaccine. But Cooper said it’s “just wrong” to exploit a symbol of Jewish suffering. He said it degrades the lessons of the Holocaust. And, he said, it doesn’t help mandate opponents make their case.

“It clouds the debate,” Cooper said. “It brings further emotion to a discussion and a debate that already has way too much emotion. It brings no clarity.”

Anchorage Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar, who is Jewish, explained to mandate opponents that the use of the star was offensive. 

After that, Anchorage business owner Skip Myers locked eyes on Dunbar. Myers, sitting in the front row of the legislative chamber, held the star aloft with one hand. With his other, he repeatedly pointed two fingers at his own eyes and then at Dunbar. A political blog, Alaska Landmine, published a photo of Myers making the gesture. It went viral before the meeting was over.

Myers said Thursday he wasn’t taunting Dunbar. He said holding the star up was not meant to be antisemitic. He said he was intending to emphasize the words on it: “Do not comply.” He said Dunbar stared at him first and that his gesture was a response.

Mayor Bronson issued an apology Thursday for his comments defending the use of the yellow star imagery.

“I understand that we should not trivialize or compare what happened during the Holocaust to a mask mandate and I want to apologize for any perception that my statements support or compare what happened to the Jewish people in Nazi Germany,” he said, starting off a 400-word statement his office emailed to reporters.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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