Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star by the Nazis – it has no place at an anti-lockdown march

The yellow badge was a way of identifying and assisting the killing of millions upon millions of Jewish men, women and children – do the anti-lockdown protesters have any idea how offensive they have been?

Crowd gathers for anti-lockdown protest in central London

I spent much of the weekend seeing, and then trying not to see, images from Oxford Street, where a large group of protesters marched “for freedom”, railing against lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccinations. They shouted at shoppers to “Take off your masks!”.

The past year has been hard, and frightening, and lonely. We are living in a profoundly disturbing time, of hidden trauma and unspeakable grief. How strange it has been, and how awful. We all want the pandemic to be over, finished with, done. This, I understand.

What I do not comprehend, although I have tried, is exactly what it is that those marching through London on Saturday afternoon want. Is it for the UK population to mix, unmasked, unvaccinated, until the situation resembles that of the horrendous scenes in India? What would that achieve? As a writer, I pride myself on my ability to think myself into the head of almost anyone. Here, I find myself stumped.

This protest has left many – NHS workers, in particular – in deep distress. So yes, these opinions – that the lockdowns are oppressive, that vaccines are wrong, that proposed vaccine passports may infringe free movement – are unpopular. (Although not nearly as unpopular as one might think.) Those who hold them may well feel like a persecuted minority. We live in a country where freedom of speech is permitted, and they are able to say so.

A number of protesters, however, had fashioned themselves a yellow star, which they wore from lanyards, or pinned to their lapels. For those unaware, the yellow star is indeed a symbol of oppression of a persecuted minority. It is a symbol of the oppression of Jews.

Since at least the 13th century, Jewish people were forced to wear distinguishing badges or garments. It was an idea embraced by the Nazis, beginning in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. By the end of 1939, Jews in Nazi territories were required to wear badges. Those who refused could be shot on the spot.

Why force Jewish people to wear badges? It was a quick way of identifying, scapegoating and, ultimately, assisting the killing of millions upon millions of men, women and children.

As a spokesperson for the Auschwitz Museum, where close to a million Jews were murdered, said: “Instrumentalisation of the tragedy of Jews who suffered, were humiliated, marked with a yellow star, and finally isolated in ghettos and murdered during the Holocaust, in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline.

I could say that having a free, publicly funded healthcare system that will force oxygen into your virus-ravaged lungs is not the same as being forced into a concrete bunker and gassed. I could say that being offered a vaccine (which you can refuse) – a vaccine that will significantly reduce your chances of being hospitalised by a new and deadly virus – is not the same as having your race virtually eliminated.

But, really, such is their sense of injustice, of entitlement, would these protesters even listen? “My body. My choice. I do not consent”, read one sign. To that person, I say, fine. Carry on not consenting. That is your right.

Those protesters will have returned home, removed their badges. They will have embraced their loved ones, had a cold glass of wine and a hot meal, a long bath, maybe, before clambering into a comfortable bed.

Here is what did not happen to them, on Saturday night. They did not see their families taken away by the authorities, disappearing forever, one by one. They were not loaded into cattle trucks. They were not reduced to walking skeletons, riddled with lice, working until they dropped. Their children were not wrested from their arms. They were not slaughtered. They do not have to live with the fear that stalks Jews, that it could happen again.

Here is the thing about being Jewish that most people do not understand. You are born into it, the richness and the history and the horror. It’s not a cosy cabal or a fancy club. And it is not a template printed out from some dark and dirty corner of the internet, cut carefully from cardboard with kitchen scissors, that one can unpin from one’s jacket when the day is done.

“Take. That. Off.” tweeted the Jewish writer and comedian David Baddiel. Please, I beg of you, never forget those whose yellow stars could not be taken off, and who paid the highest price.

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