Antisemitic rhetoric continues to be used by some opponents of COVID-19 measures

Antisemitic rhetoric continues to be used by some opponents of COVID-19 measures

by Sue Jones
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A Winnipeg restaurateur likened public health orders to Nazi brutality. Now, advocates are calling attention to antisemitism on the fringes of the anti-vaccine mandate movement, suggesting it evolved from messaging put forward by the far right in support of other populist causes.

Anti Mask Rally Winnipeg

Protesters are seen holding masks at an anti-mask rally at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg in August 2020, including one sign that equates public health orders with Nazism. Comparisons to the Nazi era are becoming a common sight at demonstrations against public health measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Belle Jarniewski leaned back from her computer, seething with anger after she finished watching a video on Reddit showing a Winnipeg restaurateur accosting public health enforcement officers.

“I’m still shaking after listening to that rant. That was unbelievable,” she said.

The video shows Shea Ritchie, the owner of Chaise Lounge locations on Corydon Avenue and Provencher Boulevard, speaking with officers giving him tickets on Sept. 24 for allowing diners who choose not to be vaccinated to dine inside his restaurant.

“If they’re so dangerous, shouldn’t we be identifying them with something bright, like a yellow star?” Ritchie says in the video, which he filmed and posted to his personal Facebook page and that has since been circulating on social media.

“Why don’t you put them in a camp until they finally comply?”

Belle Jarniewski

Belle Jarniewski, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, says it is ‘unconscionable’ to compare vaccine mandates and passports and other COVID-19 restrictions to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Jarniewski, the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre and a member of the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said this type of rhetoric has become more rampant during the pandemic. 

“We’ve seen these anti-vaxxer protests that are trying to compare the restrictions for COVID to the Holocaust,” she said. “I have to say, he’s gone much further than anyone I personally have seen or heard about.”

Jarniewski is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Her mother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, Jarniewski said, and her father was taken to six different concentration camps.

“To suggest that these restrictions in any way, shape or form are comparable to the suffering of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust is unconscionable. It’s also a distortion of history,” she said.

“The comparison is disgusting.”

Antisemitic rhetoric surfaced at pandemic protests

Though Jarniewski found Ritchie’s comments to be a particularly extreme version, they are representative of what seems to be a shared belief among a fringe of those vehemently opposed to COVID-19 restrictions: that vaccine mandates and passports and other rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus are similar to the ways the Nazis mistreated Jews and other ethnic groups.

Across Canada, some protesters have called public health orders genocide, worn yellow stars like those Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe and even attended protests displaying images of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who died in a Nazi concentration camp and whose diaries were posthumously published and read around the world.

Calgary Vaccine Protest Anti Vaxx Mandatory Vaccination

Protesters in Calgary held signs comparing the plight of Jewish victims of the Holocaust to workers who are being asked by their employers to get vaccinated for COVID-19 (and who can access medical or religious exemptions) at a protest in September. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

CBC News spoke with Ritchie via text message about the video and what happened in his restaurant. When asked about being fined for breaking public health orders, he said it was done in an effort to “honour [those who died in the Holocaust] by taking personal responsibility to ensure never again.”

“We have suspended charter rights, and it very well could happen again.”

Conspiracy narratives share similarities

Some of the most vocal protesters against vaccine passports and other pandemic measures have used or have a history of using antisemitic rhetoric.

Toronto’s Chris (Sky) Saccoccia, for example, who’s been arrested in Winnipeg for breaking public health orders, has a record of doing so, says retired sociologist and hate group scholar Helmut-Harry Loewen.

Anti Mask Protest

Chris ‘Sky’ Saccoccia, who is a leader in the COVID-19 conspiracy movement, has made numerous comments downplaying the Holocaust. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Those who accept aspects of one conspiracist narrative tend to gravitate to other conspiracy theories,” Loewen said in an email. 

“In the case of the COVID-19 conspiracy movement, some of the most prominent leaders — in particular, Chris Sky — have a record of claiming that the number of Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide are inaccurate.”

He has also quoted from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf on his Facebook page, calling parts of it “bang on, like he had a crystal ball into the future” in one 2014 post, according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an agency that monitors and researches hate groups.

Saccoccia again questioned the number of people who died during the Holocaust in a July interview with Rebel News, storming out midway through after accusing the host of implying he’s a Holocaust denier and “feeding every narrative that they’re using to attack me.”

CBC News reached out to Saccoccia for comment on this story but has yet to receive a response.

Yellow vest, anti-Muslim movements shifted focus to COVID

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said the kind of rhetoric now on display didn’t start 18 months ago when the pandemic was declared.

Executive director Evan Balgord argues it’s an evolution from previous movements associated with various causes seen as fighting against the erosion of individual rights and liberties. 

Some, he said, have been affiliated with the far right, which has been sowing discord for years.

The network says some anti-Muslim groups, for example, started pushing a narrative of encroaching “Shariah law,” the influx of foreign terrorists into Canada and a number of other unfounded fears after a motion to address Islamophobia and other forms of systemic racism, known as M-103, was brought forward in the House of Commons in 2016.

“There was no Shariah law and Shariah courts, and all the things they were fear mongering about didn’t come to pass, so they needed a new issue,” he said.

Yellow Vests Red Deer

Yellow vest demonstrators hold a rally in Red Deer, Alta., in February 2019. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network says some members of that movement are now propagating conspiratorial comparisons between COVID measures and the Nazi era. (Dave Rae/CBC)

That’s when some in the far-right movement shifted their attention to the yellow vest movement. It began in France as a populist protest against economic inequality and rising gas prices but spread to Canada and other countries, eventually encompassing a wide variety of grievances, including opposition to illegal immigration.

Balgord says the anti-hate network’s monitoring of different groups suggests that at least one organization, Action4Canada, and numerous individuals with large social media followings who helped spearhead protests against M-103 became involved in yellow-vest protests and are now among the most influential opponents of pandemic restrictions.

Saccoccia, for example, was involved in the yellow-vest movement and is now against lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions, he said. 

“They really set the agenda,” he said. “The far right already had an established propaganda machine. It has its podcasts; it has its shows online; it has its online groups. It knows how to do this.”

Toronto Covid Conspiracy Grafitti

Graffiti on a Toronto building alludes to conspiracy theories that the COVID-19 pandemic is an elaborate hoax. (Bruce Barrett/CBC)

Balgord acknowledges most people who are against COVID-19 restrictions are not part of the far right but may simply share some concerns about pandemic measures and got inadvertently caught up in a web of misinformation. 

Political messaging not immune

Some of the rhetoric around pandemic measures has also crept into political messaging promoted by candidates of the populist People’s Party of Canada during the federal election campaign.

PPC candidates in Manitoba and British Columbia compared vaccine mandates to violations of the Nuremburg Code, a set of ethical research principles developed in response to unethical medical experimentation and atrocities of the Nazi era. 

The party’s leader, Maxime Bernier, also drew criticism from anti-hate groups when he used the phrase “When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our dutyin the context of pandemic restrictions and the rise of what he calls an “authoritarian” government.

That phrase is similar to one used by members of the Three Percenters militia group — some of whom participated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.

A spokesperson for Bernier told CBC News in an email to “get lost” when reached for comment.

‘I’m glad that they didn’t have to experience this’

Jarniewski’s parents died decades ago, but she says they would have denounced any comparisons between the pandemic and the Holocaust.

She’s doing what she can to counter it by educating people about the Holocaust and pushing for stricter anti-hate laws in Canada.

“I’ve often said that, you know, as difficult as it is to have lost my parents so long ago, I’m glad that they didn’t have to experience this, to hear this kind of hate again.”

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