CLAYTON — Local Jewish leaders on Monday decried comments by people protesting masks and COVID-19 vaccines at recent St. Louis County Council meetings that compared public health measures to the Holocaust and extermination of more than 6 million Jews.
“The overt antisemitism displayed at our most recent County Council meeting makes me afraid for my congregation and the Jewish community in our region and across our state,” said Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, the only Jewish congregation in the city of St. Louis.
“By daring to dismiss the horrors of the Holocaust, by comparing the loss of freedom of over 11 million who were slaughtered, gassed and burnt, including a million and a half children, comparing that to a mask mandate is not only disrespectful, but it’s dangerous.”
Talve was among three Jewish community leaders who joined County Executive Sam Page at a press conference Monday to denounce the comments made at the Aug. 10 council meeting. James Croft, with the humanist congregation the Ethical Society of St. Louis, also spoke against the comments.
And they demanded an apology from the County Council, including Chairwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, for letting such comments go unchecked during public debate.
“I was appalled because nothing was stopped,” said Stacey Newman, a former Democratic state representative from Richmond Heights. “None of the hate speech was gaveled down during Tuesday night’s meeting. Nothing was done to cut off the antisemitism, or even say it was out of order.”
Newman, director of the statewide social justice group ProgressWomen, said “we insist that the St. Louis Council, along with chair Rita Days, apologize to the Jewish community.”
“And we demand, we demand, that you all cut off and refuse to allow any further hate speech in public commentaries.”
Page said he sent a letter to Days “asking her to use her gavel to call reprehensible behavior out of order, and I’m confident she will.”
Days, in response, told the Post-Dispatch: “I am in no way going to tolerate any kind of racial or religious epithets, or cheap comparisons to the Holocaust.”
Days added, “I did not hear antisemitic comments, but I will look at the video again to make sure of what I heard.”
She referenced allegations by Dr. Faisal Khan, acting public health director, that he endured racial taunts and physical assault by members of a crowd at a July 27 council meeting. Videos from the meeting and testimony from police officers have appeared to contradict Faisal’s claims of assault. A spokesman for the county said Monday that an investigation into the incidents is ongoing.
“We are again having a discussion on what someone heard, someone did not hear,” Days said.
Days also provided the Post-Dispatch with an email from a Jewish county resident and opponent of mask mandates who said comparing the public health order to the Holocaust, while “in poor taste,” was not “an act of antisemitism.”
After the interview, Days released a written statement: “Under no circumstances are racial or religious epithets or cheap comparisons to the Holocaust acceptable. I strongly condemn that behavior and have done so throughout my 20-plus years in public service. ... As the Council chair, when I hear anti-Semitic statements or my attention is called to a specific situation, I will swiftly use my gavel and admonish the individual.”
The statement also called on Page to “eliminate racist behavior” in county government.
At a County Council meeting last week, several speakers protesting a proposal to require masks in public places compared the measure to oppressive practices under the Nazi regime. The meeting was the third in recent weeks to draw a large crowd that gave hours of testimony against the mask mandate.
“This feels more like Nazi Germany, not America, land of the free,” said one opponent who had argued masks were distressing for school children. “We will be seeing the effects of this for generations.”
Another speaker alluded to the Holocaust while denying the existence of COVID-19: “There is no virus; it’s a scam. What did the Nazis say? The bigger the lie, the more will believe it.”
At least two other speakers falsely claimed the COVID-19 vaccines were experimental, and therefore, a violation of the Nuremberg Code, a research ethics doctrine formulated in 1947 with the goal of preventing future medical crimes against humanity like those committed by Nazis on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.
One of the speakers referencing the code of ethics also claimed the vaccine was created by a secretive world order to control people.
Days, who as chairwoman has authority over decisions about how to maintain decorum during council meetings, did not interject during the comments, which were part of more than two hours of testimony from people who largely argued masks were a matter of individual choice.
The Aug. 10 meeting was the third in a row to draw a large, raucous crowd opposed to mask mandates. Some speakers during the public comment period, which Days has extended to two hours at each council session, have denied the existence of COVID-19 or questioned the efficacy of masks and vaccines. Others have called the vaccine a “bioweapon” or suggested it is part of a government population control program.
All the vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States have already gone through clinical trials. Severe allergic reactions to the vaccine are “extremely rare” and “not confirmed to be causally related to the vaccine,” according to the World Health Organization. And according to the CDC, masks are safe and effective to guard against coronavirus spread.
Newman and other Jewish leaders speaking Monday also pointed to a recent meeting in Springfield, Missouri, where about 15 protesters against a nonbinding resolution encouraging vaccinations showed up at the meeting wearing bright yellow, felt stars like those forced on Jews under the Nazi regime.
The comparisons minimize an atrocity, said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. Many Jews in the St. Louis region lost loved ones in the Holocaust or are descendants of survivors.
“We have stories, we have experience, we have family members that we have loved and lost, we have painful memories of oppression, of genocide, of destruction,” she said. “We are not political tools in the debate about COVID health.”
Updated at 6:15 p.m. with comment from Council Chair Rita Heard Days