Pa. lawmakers just can’t resist comparing things to the Holocaust & Nazis. It’s time to banish this lazy and offensive rhetoric from our dialogue | Opinion

Holocaust survivor Linda Schwab, of Harrisburg, Pa., lights a commemorative candle during a ceremony at the Pa. Capitol on 5/1/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

In the Pennsylvania House and Senate, there is a formality and adherence to long-standing procedures that may seem formulaic, perhaps even archaic.

The purpose, we imagine, is to establish the legislature as a place where, even in heated debate, decorum and civility should b e the rule.

We know too well that this is often at odds with the substance of the debate, especially in our divided times, and sometimes lawmakers understandably abandon formality in the heat of political argument.

But there are lines that should never be crossed, and legislators have a long history of holding each other accountable when their colleagues engage in rhetoric that disgraces their institution and their constituents.

The time has come for Pennsylvania’s legislators to do so again.

In just the last few weeks, Jewish organizations across the Commonwealth have had to condemn elected officials for using inappropriate and offensive Holocaust analogies in the course of current political debates. These instances continue a disturbing trend that has intensified in recent years. The leadership of the Pennsylvania legislature must come together and put a stop to this outrageous and reckless rhetoric.

Inappropriate Holocaust analogies are not simply upsetting, they are dangerous. When the Holocaust or other genocides are invoked, it should catalyze society to act swiftly and strongly against human rights abuses, oppression and hate.

Invoking the Holocaust in everyday political debates only serves to make its atrocities appear commonplace. Once that occurs, it becomes immeasurably harder to fight rising bigotry in the name of “Never Again.” The stakes are far too high to trivialize the Holocaust or any other genocide.

And yet, inappropriate Holocaust analogies have cropped up repeatedly in the Pennsylvania Capitol.

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On the House floor recently, Pennsylvania state Rep. David Maloney, R-Berks, absurdly twice compared government contractors to “the Gestapo,” the Nazi secret police, for enforcing regulations about lemonade stands and other minor-run businesses.

Shockingly, none of his colleagues objected to this insulting analogy, and some lawmakers even applauded at the end of his remarks.

This comparison is beyond the pale. During the Holocaust, the Gestapo played a central role in murder on an unimaginable scale. To cavalierly call government contractors “the Gestapo” minimizes its atrocities and heaps scorn upon the memories of countless Jews and others who were murdered by this monstrous institution.

A few days later during a budget hearing, Pennsylvania State Senator Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, referenced Nazi Germany before appallingly asking acting Health Secretary Allison Beam whether Pennsylvania was treating nursing homes like “death camps” during the coronavirus pandemic in order to save costs.

This was the second time in a year that Dush used an abhorrent Holocaust analogy.

After both incidents, Dush issued “explanations” – they appeared to be attempted justifications rather than apologies – that recast the Nazis as a socialist party.

This is not only historically false – the Nazis were far-right fascists who loathed socialism while misappropriating the term to broaden their political appeal – it also shows Dush’s hand: he is purposefully using Holocaust analogies as a craven political attack against those he disagrees with.

The Holocaust is not a rhetorical device to be manipulated and deployed against one’s political opponents, and to use it as such is contemptible.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, doubled-down on deriding the Holocaust when he called people who promote mask-wearing “Nazis,” following up on his assertion from last year that the Secretary of Health would establish coronavirus “concentration camps.” Both statements are still up on social media despite Jewish organizations’ objections.

Pennsylvanians look to our elected leaders to set the tone in rejecting bigotry.

Sadly, as these repeated Holocaust analogies illustrate, too many have instead decided to inflame the ignorance and divisiveness that allow hate to escalate.

Jewish organizations have joined together to condemn these lawmakers, as we have had to do many times over the past few years when such rhetoric has arisen across the ideological spectrum. We have called on all four caucuses of the legislature to take meaningful action to prevent such incidents in the future.

While state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, made an impassioned and moving speech on the Senate floor, the united bipartisan action we were hoping for has yet to materialize.

As ADL’s just-released Audit of Antisemitic Incidents demonstrates, antisemitism in Pennsylvania and across the nation remained near record-highs in 2020.  Despite the pandemic keeping many people home, Pennsylvania experienced 101 antisemitic incidents, fifth-most in the nation and third-most ever recorded in the Commonwealth.

Antisemitism is integrally tied to all other forms of hate, as illustrated by the high levels of hate crimes based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and disability tracked by the FBI in recent years. The current spike in bias incidents against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community makes it clear that hate is interrelated.

Hate is on the rise and those who harbor antisemitic, racist and other discriminatory attitudes have been emboldened to transform their bigotry from thought to speech to action. The Holocaust and other genocides should teach us the price of allowing hate to grow unchecked. We cannot simply brush off offensive Holocaust analogies that obscure these lessons.

Seven years ago, Pennsylvania passed Act 70 to improve Holocaust education throughout the Commonwealth, but with each unseemly Nazi comparison, lawmakers undermine this critical work. Every Pennsylvania lawmaker should be ashamed that so many of their colleagues continue to employ offensive Holocaust analogies. Voters and political supporters should be outraged and demand accountability.

It is time for the leadership of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to take action. They must come together to make it unequivocally clear that the inappropriate or politicized use of Holocaust analogies is unacceptable and will no longer tolerated.

Shira Goodman is the Regional Director and Jeremy Bannett is the Senior Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Region. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.