Coronavirus and the Plague of Antisemitism
As part of our focus on Antisemitism and discrimination, today's article is an introduction to a CST research briefing that was published a few weeks ago. This document addresses the concern that despite us living in times of lockdown and isolation, Antisemitism does not hide and continues to appear in all areas of our society.
Antisemitism has often been compared to a virus, but really it acts like a parasite: because whenever there is a major crisis in the world, antisemites use it to spread their hatred for Jews. No matter how much genuine suffering there is, antisemites will always react to it by blaming Jews, and then find a way to spread their particular venom to others.
The COVID-19 pandemic that is currently gripping the entire world is no exception. One example is the phenomenon of coordinated antisemitic ‘zoombombing’, whereby racists and trolls invade virtual synagogue services and other meetings that are held on Zoom and other video conferencing sites to spread antisemitic abuse.
Another is the explosion of antisemitic conspiracy theories that began to populate social media as soon as news emerged of a dangerous new virus spreading across the world. CST has tracked and recorded antisemitic posts on mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in more obscure corners of the internet where extremists gather, like 4Chan and Gab, all of which are consumed with the same hateful obsession: that the Jews must be behind this awful new menace, and that this crisis is the latest opportunity to spread their hatred.
Even when these theories do not start with the Jewish community, antisemities jump at the opportunity to blame the Jews. For example, when the idea spread that 5G towers and networks were causing or spreading the new coronavirus, conspiracy theorists were quick to suggest that Jews either owned the telecommunication industry or were deliberately building towers in ‘non-Jewish’ areas.
One UK user posted to Facebook: “Quick update there are no 5G Towers in Jewish areas I wonder why”. These racist ideas have global reach, with posts and memes from the United States influencing extremist narratives in the United Kingdom, and anti-Chinese xenophobia merging with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
This association of Jews with disease and infection is not original and draws on a long history and deep-rooted antisemitic tropes. The best known, and most dramatic, example of this came in the late 1340s, when bubonic plague – the Black Death – swept through Europe, killing around 20 million people. This staggering death toll amounted to a third of the entire population of Western Europe. In many places, Jews were blamed for causing the plague by allegedly poisoning wells, and they were tortured, put on trial, executed and expelled. Thousands of Jews were murdered for this non-existent crime and hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed.
According to one account from Strasbourg in 1349, “In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells-that is what they were accused of-and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there.” The scale of persecution during the Black Death was so vast that it led to Western Europe being virtually emptied of Jews, many of whom travelled east to begin the great civilisation of Polish Jewry that ended with the Holocaust.
The path to the Holocaust was also built, in part, on the antisemitic association of Jews with disease and infection. Adolf Hitler compared Jews to a “harmful bacillus” in Mein Kampf and spoke of a “Jewish virus” that threatened Germany; Nazi propaganda regularly compared Jews to fleas, lice and other disease-bearing creatures, most notoriously in the film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), which depicted Jews as rats spreading their infection across Europe.
This is the antisemitic legacy that is now echoed in this century by conspiracy cranks and Jew-haters across the internet. The spread of this antisemitism online is particularly chilling because the overwhelming response of people in Britain to this crisis has been to pull together and support the collective effort against COVID-19. The number of people volunteering to help others, whether as part of the national support for the NHS or offering local support for neighbours in isolation, shows the true character of our country. These racist narratives have not, so far, influenced mainstream public debate in Britain, but that is no reason to ignore them: the longer this crisis goes on, with its profound impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and mental health, the more likely it is that people will start to look for scapegoats.
Hatred flourishes when left unchecked, and CST is highlighting the existence of this antisemitic material so that action can be taken by social media companies and law enforcement where appropriate. The antisemitic posts, comments and memes that CST has seen since the spread of COVID-19 began to attract significant attention in this country in late January fall broadly into five different categories, ranging from bizarre conspiracy theories to the sheer nastiness of those who like to see others suffer and even die.
To read more of this briefing which will explain and give examples of each of the five categories please see this link from the CST.