Rabbi, Democratic legislator urge Kansas GOP to denounce COVID-19 critiques tied to Holocaust

Critics of mask, vaccine orders compare policies to murder of 6 million Jews

By: - November 4, 2021 12:58 pm
The Kansas Democratic Party, a Democratic state legislator and an Overland Park rabbi condemned statements by GOP Rep. Brenda Landwehr and Wichita union president Conrad Beard, above, who described the federal vaccination mandate as modern-day persecution that could be tied to the experience of Jewish people. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Democratic Party, a Democratic state legislator and an Overland Park rabbi condemned statements by GOP Rep. Brenda Landwehr and Wichita union president Conrad Beard, above, who described the federal vaccination mandate as modern-day persecution that could be tied to the experience of Jewish people. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rabbi Mark Levin and Democratic state Rep. Dan Osman requested Thursday the Kansas Republican Party and Attorney General Derek Schmidt condemn comparisons of mask or vaccination mandates during the pandemic to the genocidal campaign by Nazis to murder 6 million Jewish people during the Holocaust.

The use of symbolism drawn from the late 1930s and early 1940s amid World War II repeatedly came up during the two-day hearing of the Kansas Legislature’s special committee on COVID-19 overreach as several witnesses linked ongoing public health policies at the state and federal government levels to actions by Germany and its allies to repress Jews, including wearing a yellow Star of David on clothing in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Levin, founding rabbi of the Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, said it would be best if politicians and others dropped the practice of drawing connections to the history of persecution against Jewish people and the still-present horror of the Holocaust when scuffling with others about COVID-19. He said the politics of the pandemic response could be considered without diving into evil intent of Adolph Hitler.

Mark Levin, founding rabbi of the Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, said Thursday it was wrong to compare the experience of Jewish people during the Holocaust to  public health policy on masks and vaccinations for COVID-19. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“Symbols are flexible in the hands of people who don’t understand them and want to turn them to their own political advantage,” Levin said during a news conference organized by the Kansas Democratic Party. “To appropriate something that is demeaning to Jews and dangerous to the Jewish community in order to make that point is simply irresponsible and needs to be repudiated.”

Republican leaders of the Kansas House and Kansas Senate established the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates to turn up the volume on criticism of President Joe Biden and Gov. Laura Kelly and to provide a platform for people in Kansas angry about decisions on masking, social distancing, mass gatherings, business closures and vaccinations. More than 100 people testified before the committee Friday and Saturday in opposition to mandates, but supporters of those directives weren’t allowed to speak.

The campaign and state office of Schmidt, who is a Republican candidate for governor and expected to challenge Kelly in 2022, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Kansas Republican Party likewise didn’t comment.

Osman, a Democratic House member from Overland Park, said there shouldn’t be partisan controversy about pushing back against political use of the Holocaust to drive a political argument during the pandemic.

“If they can’t acknowledge that people are hurt by those words, then we can’t move forward on this issue,” Osman said. “When you hear something that is inappropriate, we need to speak against it. If we don’t speak out for it, it will continue to happen.”

On Friday, Schmidt joined a half dozen attorneys general from other states in a lawsuit seeking to block implementation of Biden’s vaccination mandate for contractors doing business with the federal government.

“No Americans should be threatened by their federal government with losing their jobs because their health care decisions differ from those preferred by the president of the United States,” Schmidt said.


‘Modern day Jew’

On Friday, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Wichita turned to World War II and Nazi orders that Jewish people wear the yellow patch on their clothing. Union leader Cornell Beard expressed frustration with Biden’s directive that government contractors, including union aviation manufacturing workers in Wichita, be vaccinated against coronavirus by Dec. 8 unless granted medical or religious exemptions.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a candidate for governor in 2022, joined six other state attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the federal mandate that government contractors be vaccinated for COVID-19. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“In my opinion, that’s the start of a huge problem because now we’re basically saying you’re the modern-day Jew,” Beard said. “You’re going to wear that star, and you’re going to wear it, and we don’t give a damn if you complain about it or not.”

He said he didn’t “have to be careful” about what he said during the committee hearing at the statehouse because he wasn’t seeking legislative office.

Subsequently, a spokesman for the machinist and aerospace union issued a statement walking back Beard’s commentary. The statement faulted “the offensive and inappropriate comparison of the mandates to the Holocaust made by a member to the Kansas Legislature. Regardless of one’s views on divisive political issues, there is never a place for this type of hurtful rhetoric.”

During the hearing at the Capitol, Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican serving on the special committee, responded to Beard’s testimony by indicating she was moved by his theory that individuals who rejected the government’s push for masks and vaccines were persecuted. She said people who disagreed with government policy on COVID-19 were targeted to the point where “this is racism against the modern-day Jew.”

Levin, the rabbi from Overland Park, said the idea of a “modern Jew” was insulting and potentially dangerous. Ignorance is a terrible thing, he said, because it caused people to express ideas they didn’t fully comprehend.


‘How things started’

When the special legislative committee reconvened Saturday, people granted permission to testify on COVID-19 mandates continued to reference Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust while describing why the government shouldn’t be allowed to tell individuals what to do in response to the virus.

Jeff Geesling, who contracted COVID-19 in 2020, said the federal push for vaccination of government workers and contractors reminded him of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s.

“We all know how that turned out,” Geesling said. “The current state of our country is reminding me of how things started there. If we aren’t careful we will end up like Nazi Germany.”

Augusta resident Bryan Luedeke, who applied for a religious exemption to avoid a COVID-19 shot, said the government’s involvement in the pandemic was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany and the mandate for Jews to identify themselves with an arm band.”

In terms of language invoking the Nazis and the Star of David, Levin said misuse of history and symbols associated with Jewish people contributed to anti-Semitism. Such “bizarre” and “insulting” comparisons desensitize people to Hitler’s relentless campaign to dehumanize, incarcerate and slaughter millions of people, he said.

“It makes fun of those people who suffered and their descendants, and makes light of the pain that continues to be felt even down into this generation,” Levin said. “It would be great if Attorney General Derek Schmidt would simply say ‘this was a terrible mistake on our part, and we apologize to the Jewish community.’”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.