By Erika Grumet
When I was a kid, I would occasionally encounter people with numbers tattooed on their arms. I don’t remember a time when Nazis and what they had done to Jews (and by extension, my own family) weren’t a part of my consciousness. I heard the stories first hand from the survivors, in Hebrew school and in history classes. And as I grew up, I also learned more…about who was targeted, about the resistance, about the depth of the atrocities, about the little things that should have sounded alarms and about what everyday people did or didn’t do. In the time surrounding the 2016 US elections, I found myself looking at people I knew and asking if they would be willing to put their safety on the line for my life or the lives of my family-and I can’t say I was surprised by either the range of answers from “Of course, what kind of a question is that” to “you’re ridiculous, that would never happen here,” nor was I surprised by who stood on which side of the question.
Some of the people I asked were the parents of my childrens’ friends. As a parent, I’ve worked hard to raise conscious kids. I’m proud of the job I’ve done so far, and I’ve seen my kids put those efforts into action, writing letters to politicians, speaking up at our city council meetings, asking specifically to attend events like the local Women’s March. But as a parent, I’ve also become even more vigilant about the microaggressions we experience in our lives, both in an effort to protect and to inform my own kids as well as in an effort to check my own behavior. Sometimes it’s more “aggressive” than micro; in 2013, a classmate told my kindergartener that they would “go to the Devil place for not believing in Jesus,” but it’s more often things like parent teacher conferences scheduled on Yom Kippur, or extended field trip days on Passover, or volunteer organizations scheduling required training on Rosh Hashanah. It’s living in a world where the default setting is ignorance of why Christmas is not in fact a secular holiday, no matter how much you try and make it so, or why every invocation at city council meetings doesn’t need to mention Jesus Christ, or having to explain why the high school football team cannot have a chaplain, have coach-/teacher-/volunteer-chaplain-led prayer or bible verses, why religious symbols don’t belong on banners and school spirit wear.
The microaggressions and ignorance are pervasive, and hurtful, but it becomes even more evident how far we’ve fallen in our history education when we start to see stories about businesses like this one in Nashville selling yellow patches shaped like a Mogen David proudly proclaiming one’s unvaccinated victimhood. Yellow stars, like Jewish people in Nazi occupied places were forced to wear–not something they wore voluntarily, but something they were forced to wear to identify their status as lesser than, as non-human, and not worthy of being part of society. Yellow stars that marked them for herding into ghettos, into cattle cars, into concentration camps and gas chambers. Yellow stars marking them for execution by a brutal regime that sought not to solve the major challenges of the time but to scapegoat some people and frighten others.
The store owner followed up the backlash to the patches with an Instagram post asking if people are “outraged with the tyranny the world is experiencing” and telling us that she pays more “respect to history by standing up with the fallen than offering silence and compliance.” Her response makes it clear that she is not open to learning. But maybe someone is reading this drama unfold and wants to know why these little yellow stars represent a threat as well as an insult to the safety of millions of people in this country.
To start with, this isn’t standing up with the fallen. This is mocking the trauma, generational trauma that haunts millions of Jewish people around the world as we tell our story. She goes further and compares the expectation that in the future, unvaccinated people will be segregated from society, marked and will have to continue to wear masks, and suggesting that as things return to something resembling “normal” that in the US, you won’t be allowed to go about your business without showing “your papers.” Celebrities and ordinary people have responded, most of them indignant, calling out the abuse of this symbol, notifying companies who may be doing business with them, some of whom including major millinery companies like Brixton and Stetson, to remove their products and sever any ties they may have with the shop. Others, like Instagram have declined to even acknowledge the hate speech involved here, and some have yet to respond at all. I’m wondering when doing something for your own health as well as the health and well being of those around you became synonymous with tyranny? When did thinking of the greater good become such a burden that it should be equated with oppression?
Why not a Hester Prynne/Scarlet Letter reference instead of a Mogen David? A scarlet U for the unvaccinated? Or red and yellow, since some people seem to be using that for COVID awareness? If the point is to identify yourself as a rebel, there are better ways to do it than to co-opt a symbol of hate and humiliation. Hester Prynne wore her A for adultery and carried her child with pride and confidence, not shame. She refused to let Puritanical society and rules dictate her behavior or how she should feel about the so-called sin she committed, remaining resistant and untamed by the cultural expectations that were trying to demand her compliance. Isn’t that the message we keep hearing about the rest of us being “sheeple” or being brainwashed? That we’re compliant instead of confident in our independence? Nazis didn’t give our Jewish families the choice to not be Jewish the way unvaccinated people are being given a choice to remain unvaccinated. We weren’t given a choice to identify or display our Jewishness or not the way someone might choose or not choose to purchase a patch or other marker identifying themself as not vaccinated. We were forced to comply and murdered whether we did or didn’t. The intent of the yellow stars was control and shame, not empowerment, pride, rebellion or independence, all values espoused by the creator of the “not vaccinated” patches.
Just like some states in the US allow motorcyclists to operate their motorcycles only if they carry a certain amount or certain type of health insurance, people make choices that may increase the risk to themselves and those around them, but they have to compensate for it. Wearing a mask, being excluded from some places or situations, those are the costs or consequences of not being vaccinated when one is able to (obviously there are medical reasons why some people may not be able to be vaccinated, and currently there are also age restrictions on vaccination as well; those are not the situations we’re talking about here). Refusing to get vaccinated puts other people in danger. So does capriciously wearing the yellow Mogen David. It’s not surprising that the common factor in both of these actions is: people who do not value the safety and security of others, even above their own convenience.
It’s easy to feel powerless in circumstances like these, but not everyone is powerless. This sort of dangerous, race baiting nonsense is displayed by leaders in the House and Senate and elsewhere. If we hold people at the top accountable, the sense of responsibility will flow downward from them.
So where does that leave us now? This business owner will experience some consequences for her actions, whether that’s enough to cause a change in her revenue (positive or negative) and customer base (there will be people on both sides, those drawn to her because of her choices and those repulsed by those choices.) Perhaps she’ll lose her business, perhaps not. But will she learn anything? Will she come away from the experience any more aware of the harm she is causing, any more sensitive to the threat she is making? Will she better understand Anti Semitism or microaggressions? Doubtful. Will anyone learn anything? I’m not particularly hopeful about it on a grand scale. It is for that reason that we need to keep talking, especially as Shoah survivors are becoming fewer and fewer, and are no longer here to tell their stories. We cannot lose those stories to time, and must keep having the difficult conversations, calling out the aggressions, micro or not. We must keep telling the stories not because when we do, we relive or reignite our trauma, though we do that as well, but because doing so is our only weapon for the threat that ignorance and forgetfulness causes to historically oppressed and excluded groups.
I didn’t want to write this article for that very reason. When a person comes forward and says: I’ve been hurt, society doesn’t treat them well… “Snowflake,” “whiny liberal,” “sheep,” etc. But my kids are watching. As a disabled Jewish person, these become personal attacks. Your ruse to make a quick buck or to win a seat in the house of representatives does not outweigh my safety and the safety of the people around you.