Op-Ed: I Am Not a Nazi for Promoting Public Health

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The first time it happens to you, it comes as a huge shock. But eventually you just become numb.

The first time I was called a Nazi was almost 2 decades ago. In 2002, I co-authored an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle with Michael Wilkes, MD, PhD, who is also a Jewish physician, in which we discussed the research on the value of routine screening for prostate cancer using the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. We argued that the best available evidence at that time suggested that routine screening with PSA did more harm than good. We noted that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force did not recommend such routine screening, nor did the British and Canadian governments.

Within hours of our piece being published, our email inboxes became jammed with hundreds of threats and abusive messages. As we described in an article in The BMJ, we were on the receiving end of an orchestrated attack by prostate cancer charities and support groups who disagreed with our views.

Amid the angry messages telling us we would have the blood of thousands of men on our hands or wishing that we would die a slow painful death, the ones that stood out the most were those that called us Nazis. One man specifically compared us — two Jewish doctors — with Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death who performed medical experiments on Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The first time I was called a Nazi, it was like a punch to the gut. But it happens so often now that I just try to become emotionally inured to it, so that I don’t feel shell-shocked every time.

Like many Jews, I have a painful family history. My grandfather Max was born in 1905 in the town of Kuliai, Lithuania. He went to school in Germany as a teenager, and then in 1924 he went to South Africa, where I was later born. His sister Sheinale (Yiddish for “beautiful”) stayed in Lithuania and became a pharmacist. She and her family were massacred by Nazis in a forest during the Holocaust in Lithuania, which led to the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jews.

The first time someone said that I was just like my family’s executioners — that I was exactly the same as the Nazi soldiers who killed my family in cold blood and left their bodies in a mass unmarked grave — it left me reeling.

But 20 years on, and with the rise of social media, Jews like me who work in public health and who are visibly engaged in the public communication of science regularly experience this kind of antisemitic hate. My Wikipedia page notes that I am Jewish, and I often discuss my Judaism in public forums, so when people accuse me of being a Nazi, they know their words will cause a very specific kind of distress.

During the COVID-19 pandemic I have experienced more frequent antisemitism online, as have my Jewish colleagues. This is no surprise. The scapegoating of Jews during infectious disease outbreaks and the stereotyping of Jews as vectors of disease has a long, ingrained history, going back to at least the 14th century when Jews were blamed for the Black Death. Adolf Hitler famously resurrected this theme when he wrote: “I feel I am like Robert Koch in politics. He discovered the bacillus and thereby ushered medical science onto new paths. I discovered the Jew as the bacillus and fermenting agent of all social decomposition.”

Last year, documented antisemitic attacks rose in the U.S. and worldwide, including in Germany. “It is sad, but not surprising,” says the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, “that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered yet another eruption of this poisonous ideology. We can never let down our guard.”

Along with the “Zoom bombing” of online synagogue services by Jew-hating trolls, antisemitic conspiracy theories have gained life online on sites like Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan, and Gab. One analysis of these theories conducted by the Community Security Trust, a British charity that protects Jews from antisemitism, identified five antisemitic tropes that have emerged during COVID-19:

  • The virus is fake, and it’s a Jewish conspiracy
  • The virus is real, but it’s still a Jewish conspiracy
  • Jews are the primary spreaders of the virus
  • The deaths of Jews from COVID-19 should be celebrated
  • The coronavirus should be deliberately used to kill Jews (anti-Semites have dubbed this “the Holocough”)

Coupled with these ghastly tropes, antisemitic groups have a tendency to become enraged when you promote COVID-19 control measures. As sure as night follows day, if I make public statements in support of such measures — particularly vaccines, masks, or shelter-in-place — I will receive antisemitic insults from anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and lockdown skeptics.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories are deeply entrenched in the anti-vaxxer movement, and have intensified during COVID-19. In his study on antisemitism among anti-vaxxers, John Mann, the U.K. government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, examined the online Facebook activity of public and private anti-vaxxer and anti-lockdown groups in September and October 2020. These groups have names like “Against Covid19 Vaccine,” “No Vaccines No Bill Gates No Fauci,” and “Fake Pandemic: The Truth Behind Coronavirus.” Out of 27 groups analyzed, 79% had posted antisemitic content.

It’s now commonplace for anti-mask and lockdown-skeptic groups to compare the wearing of masks and the use of lockdowns with the Holocaust. Members of these groups have been photographed wearing yellow stars at protests, analogizing their defiance of public health measures with being Jewish during the time of Nazism. In Germany, those who have marched to oppose public health measures have compared themselves with Anne Frank. Some lockdown skeptics have called themselves the White Rose, the name of the Nazi resistance group led by a group of students from the University of Munich, including Sophie Scholl.

It’s hard to put into words just how offensive it is that these groups say that vaccines, masks, and lockdowns are equivalent to the murder of 6 million Jews. But don’t take it from me. Here’s what the Auschwitz Memorial said: “Instrumentalizing the fate of Jews who were persecuted by hateful antisemitic ideology and murdered in extermination camps like #Auschwitz with poisonous gas in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a symptom of intellectual and moral degeneration.”

I’m tired of being called a Nazi for promoting public health. But it’s clear that wherever there’s anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-lockdown sentiment, antisemitism will not be far behind.

Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH, is a professor of global health and public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he directs the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.

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