According to state Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, and other Jewish lawmakers and advocates throughout Ohio, the growing number of incidents where opponents of COVID-19 pandemic-related public health measures use the Holocaust as part of their rhetoric is a troubling sign of a broader problem.

As we near the two-year anniversary of when COVID-19 first entered the country, with increasing frequency opponents of public health measures to combat the pandemic, such as vaccines, face masks and social distancing, are comparing the measures to the persecution Jews faced during the Holocaust.

The most recent incident involved Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy – who in response to a Jan. 11 tweet from Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser reminding residents that proof of vaccination will soon be required to enter many business in the city – compared the requirement to the Holocaust.

That included Davidson’s Jan. 12 tweet: “Let’s recall that the Nazis dehumanized Jewish people before segregating them, segregated them before imprisoning them, imprisoned them before enslaving them, and enslaved them before massacring them.”

For Leland, one of two Jewish state lawmakers, Davidson’s comments speak to a broader problem in the nation.

“We’re in an existential battle in this country right now, for the preservation of our democracy, and the preservation of the rule of law,” Leland said during a Jan. 13 virtual Q&A as part of Ohio Jewish Communities’ briefings with members of the Ohio House Jewish Caucus. “And when you’re in those kind of fights, the truth is always the first casualty.”

The briefing was hosted by the Columbus Jewish News, Cleveland Jewish News, The Dayton Jewish Observer and Ohio Jewish Communities. The event was organized by Howie Beigelman, executive director of OJC in Columbus.

Davidson’s “stupid, obscene and hurtful comments” are “just part of the overall picture that what’s happening in this country, where our institutions – things that we thought that we just took for granted as Americans – are continually under assault,” Leland said.

Beigelman said he and representatives from other Jewish organizations have reached out to Davidson to discuss the matter.

“I spoke with him (Jan. 13) and he was remorseful,” Beigelman said. “We discussed how passionate debate in the public square is expected, but we can’t be making Holocaust comparisons or linkage to Nazi Germany. That cheapens the memory of what is history’s worst genocide, and it trivializes the sacrifice of liberators, the struggle of survivors and the memory of the victims. ... We have to relearn how to debate civilly on the issues at hand. Sure it’s harder to find facts and actually focus on issues. But we need to.”

Davidson issued an apology Jan. 13 on Twitter, stating in part, “Bad things happen when governments dehumanize people. Sometimes, there is a next step – to systematically segregate them. Unfortunately, any reference to how the Nazis actually did that prevents a focus on anything other than the Holocaust. I appreciate my Jewish friends who have explained their perspectives and feel horrible that I have offended anyone. My sincere apologies.”

Lee C. Shapiro, regional director of American Jewish Committee Cleveland, agreed such language degrades the public dialogue.

“Lobbing rhetorical firebombs will only reinforce the positions of the loudest opponents of vaccines and mandates,” Shapiro told the CJN Jan. 13. “There is nothing wrong with having a difference of opinion, but when you support your position with references to the systematic extermination of millions of innocent people, that’s when it’s apparent your moral compass is way off the mark. It’s a road we cannot go down.”

State Rep. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, the other Jewish member of the Ohio House, told the CJN Nov. 12 such language “is dangerous and shows a willful ignorance of the reality of the Holocaust.” Using such language also sets a bad example for these lawmakers’ constituents that can harm them, he said, regarding earlier references to the Holocaust.

“We’re supposed to model good citizenship, right?” Weinstein said. “So when you’re telling them, ‘Do not comply,’ ironically, you’re inspiring people to continue this pandemic because there will be millions of Ohioans that don’t get shots that allow for continued variation and spread of the virus. So, it’s a great irony that by like thumbing their nose at it, they are prolonging it.”

Shapiro agreed that such behavior by lawmakers can be especially problematic.

“Words matter,” she said. “And they matter more when they are being said by politicians with a national platform. Rep. Davidson needs to be accountable for his divisive and offensive rhetoric, especially at a time when antisemitism is on the rise in this country.”

Such language is “a continuation of a disturbing trend being fueled by some members of Congress who are so fervently against vaccine mandates,” she said. “That they feel compelled to equate one of the darkest moments in history into a dialogue about public health is wildly inappropriate and offensive.”

Beigelman also invited Davidson to visit Cincinnati’s Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center. According to Justin Shaw, senior director for community relations at JewishColumbus, groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati are joining OJC in this effort as Davidson’s district is around Cincinnati.

The groups are working to “educate the congressman about the meaning of his words,” Shaw said.

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