Leaders of the Jewish community in Alaska and beyond on Thursday condemned the wearing of yellow Stars of David by people protesting a proposed mask ordinance at Anchorage Assembly meetings this week.
The Holocaust has no place in a debate over pandemic restrictions, said Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of the Alaska Jewish Campus.
“This is a direct disrespect to victims, survivors, the Jewish community and the community as a whole,” he said.
Mayor Dave Bronson on Wednesday night affirmed the protesters’ choice to evoke painful symbolism from the Holocaust to express their disagreement with pandemic restrictions.
“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was, ‘never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget, this will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them,” Bronson said.
The next day, Bronson released a statement saying he should have “chosen his words more carefully.”
The Anti-Defamation League called Bronson’s initial remarks “disturbing and offensive.”
“Last night, Anchorage Mayor Bronson defended the misappropriation of the Yellow Star of David to advance a political point of ‘freedom’ and said that the imagery is ‘actually a credit to’ Jews,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement Thursday.
“During these challenging times of rising antisemitism, elected officials continue to deepen the pain through ignorant Holocaust analogies to COVID-19 health guidelines,” said Miri Cypers, the Pacific Northwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Bronson in Thursday’s statement said “if I offended anyone, I am truly sorry.”
“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,” Bronson said. “That was one of the most evil and darkest times in our world’s history.”
The Star of David has been appropriated by people protesting pandemic restrictions across the country. “Not only is it an inaccurate historical comparison, it undermines the memory of people who actually died at the hands of the Nazis,” Cypers said in an interview Thursday.
Jewish people were forced to wear yellow Star of David badges that were used by Nazi authorities during the Holocaust as a “key element of their larger plan to persecute and eventually to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum. “They used the badge not only to stigmatize and humiliate Jews but also to segregate them, to watch and control their movements, and to prepare for deportation.”
More than 6 million European Jews died in the Holocaust.
In addition to mask opponents wearing the yellow Stars of David, Wednesday night’s meeting was marked by frequent outbursts from the audience, and mask opponents shouted in frustration and anger at Assembly members. At one point in the meeting, a man was escorted out after he called Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who is gay, an obscene word often used in homophobic contexts. Much of the crowd in the chambers cheered at the insult. The man was arrested and charged with trespassing at the meeting after trying to return to the chambers, according to APD. Three other people were also arrested and charged at a meeting, including a man who had a handgun and was charged with disorderly conduct and misconduct involving a weapon.
On Thursday, Bronson also asked people at the Assembly meetings to use “decorum and respect.”
“Members of the Assembly, you have my full support in asking for calm tonight, and my pledge to work with you to ensure all voices are heard in a way that respects everyone as equals,” his statement said.
Later during Thursday’s Assembly meeting, Bronson repeated his apology, asking people not to wear the Stars of David.
“I understand the anger about this proposed mask mandate, and I agree with that anger,” Bronson said. “But I asked our citizens to be sensitive and understanding about the impact that the wearing of the yellow star of David has on many members of our Jewish community. I encourage you to find some other symbols to show your opposition to this ordinance.”
On Thursday evening, the yellow stars had largely disappeared from view — a significant change from the previous night, when they were affixed to the shirts of many of the people testifying against the mask ordinance.
[Video above: Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson apologizes Thursday for “any perception that my statements support or compare what happened to the Jewish people in Nazi Germany to this mandate.” Bronson also apologized for not speaking up in defense of Assembly member Chris Constant when a testifier directed a homophobic slur at him in a previous meeting. (Marc Lester / ADN)]
Bronson also apologized to Constant for failing to stand up and speak in his defense when the testifier called Constant a slur.
Constant on Thursday said he wasn’t surprised that the man insulted him, but the fact that much of the crowd applauded the insult “really took my breath away for a minute.” Constant added that while hatred “continues now, clearly, to be a threat in this room,” hundreds of people had reached out to him in support after the incident.
At the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, several Assembly members and the mayor implored the crowd to be civil and respectful. The atmosphere of the first hour of the meeting was changed from the heated exchanges of the previous two nights. The crowd stayed largely quiet.
The coronavirus is “challenging our humanity,” Greenberg said. “And instead of coming together in our Alaskan tradition in tough times, it could bring out the worst in us.”
Greenberg said the Alaska Jewish Museum was vandalized with a swastika sticker again two weeks ago, after a similar incident in May. This time, the vandal — who has not been identified — etched the sticker into a pane of glass. The center has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of the person responsible.
Greenberg said he believes the world has been shaken by the pandemic and by political polarization.
“There is nothing more dangerous to Alaskans, Americans and the world than political division,” he said. “Especially when we combine it with the coronavirus.”
Debate is healthy, he said. But “it is the responsibility of the leadership to have real, civil conversation.”
Outside of the Loussac Library on Thursday, a group of about 15 labor union workers staged a small demonstration, holding up a large banner that read, “Assembly: Thank you for protecting jobs, health.”
One person in the group held a flag of Israel.
“There was a lot of antisemitism and homophobia on display last night,” said Bronson Fry, the business representative for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “And so we’re here protesting hatred in our city.”