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Masks, Jews and the Holocaust

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Nathan Abrams explores the similarities between rightwing Americans and orthodox Jews over their refusal to wear masks.

The wearing of masks has evoked contradictory emotions and reactions. Some see it as an important means to halt the spread of Covid-19, as well as a sign of social consideration and altruism. Others have politicised the issue, seeing it as a question of trampling over their individual rights.

These views do not even include the religious sensitives around mask wearing and facial coverings.

An opposition to wearing masks is something that unites right-wing Americans and orthodox Jews in Brooklyn alike. (That an an affiliation for Donald Trump.)

Both groups shun masks and burn them. But right-wingers have gone one step further to compare the wearing of them to the Holocaust and have even produced Holocaust-themed masks.

A cartoon posted on the Facebook page of the Anderson County Review weekly Kansas newspaper owned by a county Republican Party chairman compared a state mandate requiring all residents to wear masks in public with the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.

It depicts Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, wearing a mask with a Jewish Star of David on it, next to a drawing of people being loaded onto cattle cars.

Elsewhere, someone is selling masks emblazoned with images from the Holocaust. One depicts the famous photo of a Jewish mother and child, their hands raised, at gunpoint. Another shows the image of a concentration camp crematorium. A third depicts a man about to be shot in the head at the site of a mass execution.

The website, holocaustfacemasks.com, states: ‘Choose from different Holocaust related images and inspire those around you to think for themselves, and question authority. Our goal is to provide a reminder of what can happen when millions of people follow seemingly innocent ‘orders’ and “rules” … these images are meant to be reminders of what can happen when tyranny is ignored.’

As the website suggests, rightwingers see the masks as ‘muzzles’ that, along with mandatory temperature checks erode their freedom. One group has even started a ‘Burn Your Mask Challenge’ where people post videos on social media of themselves burning their masks and use the hashtag ‘#IgniteFreedom’.

Some believe that wearing a mask is part of the ‘plan-demic‘ conspiracy theory. Inevitably, all conspiracy theories tend to feature Jews at their heart, including Binyamin Netanyahu and ‘those who support the New World Order‘.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, orthodox Jews are also refusing to follow orders and rules. The wearing of masks among the Satmar and other ultra-orthodox communities is rare in public. As reported in the JTA, their main source of news tends to be right-wing talk radio and conservative news sites which downplay the effectiveness of masks.

They have even declared that anyone who davens with a mask (which they call a face diaper) as worshipping Avodah Zara.

Orthodox Jews have even gone as far as to set fire to a pile of masks on the streets of Borough Park. Such mask burnings – unintentionally? – also recall the burning of books and such Judaica as Torah scrolls during the Holocaust.

There is no specific injunction against mask wearing in Judaism. In fact, the opposite may be true. As it may be considered pikuach nefesh, surely the obligation to wear them is compulsory. As one person said, ‘There is nothing greater we could do as an act of kindness, or a mitzvah, than wear a mask. My mask protects you and yours protects me.’ Sephardic Rav Rabbi Ben-Tzion Mutzafi declared ‘those who don’t wear masks in synagogue “are murderers.”’

Earlier this month, in the New York Post, Amy Klein wrote: ‘To my fellow New York Jews, I beg: Wear the damn mask!’

If that wasn’t clear enough, she even translated it into Yiddish: ‘Gey trog a farsholtene maske!’

Who would have thought that a refusal to wear masks is where right-wing Americans and right-wings Jews would unite?

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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