Anti-Semitism in the Corona Crisis

Conspiracy fantasies, which spread almost faster than the virus itself with the Corona Crisis, prove to be extremely connectable for anti-Semitism. Jews (Jewish women are hardly associated with it) are seen as the originators and profiteers of the virus; at the same time, opponents of vaccination or White supremacists relativize the Holocaust by pinning the Jewish star on themselves at demonstrations against Corona measures.

An analysis by Helga Embacher (Translated by Hilde Mayer)

According to a recently published study by the University of Oxford, 40 percent of a total of 2,500 British men and women surveyed believe that powerful people would deliberately spread the Coronavirus in order to gain control; 20 percent believe the virus is an invention. The British population is no exception, however. German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, for example, signed a letter opposing Corona restrictions, which spoke of forces that would deliberately create panic with the virus in order to create a world government stripped of all control. On social networks, conspiracy theories – actually, conspiracy fantasies – spread almost faster than the virus itself. With the lifting of strict curfew restrictions, various fears as well as enemy images have been expressed at demonstrations. For the most part, these are very heterogeneous groups, ranging from 5G opponents, vaccination opponents, citizens concerned about their democratic rights, to right-wing radicals, identitarians and white supremacists (in the USA). 

Microsoft founder Bill Gates was quickly identified as one of the main authors, who, according to rumors, had a patent on the virus and wanted to force everyone to be vaccinated in order to increase his wealth. Often there is only talk of sinister forces that are responsible for a disaster, a crisis or a pandemic and want to dominate mankind. Such conspiracy theories also proved to be amenable to anti-Semitism. As was to be expected, anti-Semitic stereotypes and world conspiracy theories also came to life with the Corona crisis, as these could be linked particularly well with the Corona conspiracy fantasies. In the following, three main manifestations will be discussed in more detail.

Soros, Rothschild, Israel, the Jews: Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories

Besides Bill Gates, who is sometimes referred to as a Jew or a friend of Jews, George Soros (Hungarian Holocaust survivor, philanthropist and investor), the Rothschilds, Zionists, Israel or „the Jews“ are considered to be the originators and beneficiaries of the pandemic. At a „hygiene demo“ in Stuttgart, for example, a banner read: „Policemen! Don’t make yourselves into the cronies of Bill Gates, George Soros, David Rockefeller and their German governors“. These enemy images did not have to be reinvented, but merely reactivated. Soros in particular advanced to code for a Jewish world conspiracy since the „refugee crisis“ of 2015. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is regarded as the inventor of the „image of the enemy,“ Soros was immediately identified as one of the central sin-bearers after the outbreak of the Corona crisis. In the United States, Trump’s health spokesman Michael Caputo posted a photo of Soros on Twitter with the caption: „The real virus behind everything. He also suggested that Soros needed the pandemic to promote a political agenda. He accused economist David Rothschild (who is not related to the French-British banking family) of a similar position. The latter had previously sharply criticized Trump for his Corona crisis management; Soros is also considered a Trump critic and donated to the Democratic Party.

Conspiracy theories also often remain faceless and allude to the alleged general power of Jews, who are assumed to be financially enriched. According to the University of Oxford study cited earlier, more than 19 percent of British men and women surveyed believed that Jews had created the virus in order to use it to cause a collapse of the economy for their own financial enrichment; 80 percent disagreed. As an FBI intelligence report notes, a White Supremacist group claimed that the virus was a Jewish invention to get rich from vaccinations. Corona sufferers were therefore expected to visit places such as synagogues (as well as mosques) and spread the virus there. In Ohio, a poster featured a rat with a caricature of a stereotypical Jewish face. The text accompanying it read, „The real plague.“ What is meant by this is that not the Corona virus, but the (imagined) Jewish dominance is the real problem. In various postings Jews are accused of having invented the virus in cooperation with China in a Chinese labor. One cartoon depicting Orthodox Jews read, „It’s not Chinese. It’s the JEW FLU!“ This shows the adaptability of anti-Semitism to new social realities.

Powerful people would deliberately spread the Corona virus to gain control

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are particularly widespread in Arab countries as well as in Turkey and Iran, with a focus on Israel and the Zionists, respectively, who would make common cause with the USA. Fatih Erbakan, chairman of the newly formed Yenid Refah Partisi, for example, accused the U.S. and Israel of spreading the virus to secure their domination for strategic reasons. Iranian Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his speech on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, compared the „Zionist regime“ to Corona, which should be eradicated like the virus. At the same time, he called for support for the Palestinian resistance. The speech should be seen in the context of both the Corona crisis and Israel’s highly controversial international efforts to annex parts of the West Bank. However, Khamenei did not do the Palestinians a good turn.

Relativization and Instrumentalization of the Holocaust

In addition to conspiracy theories, the governmental Corona regulations spread relativization and instrumentalization of the Holocaust. In Germany, opponents of vaccination pinned a Star of David with the inscription „unvaccinated“ on themselves at so-called „hygiene demos“; the symbol can also be found on T-shirts and stickers. A black and white poster with two men – the chief virologist of the Berlin Charité Christian Drosten and Josef Mengele, as a doctor in the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz responsible for inhumane medical experiments on prisoners – also appeared. The picture text read: „Trust me, I’m a doctor“. At a rally in Munich, individuals described themselves as „descendants of Sophie Scholl“; in Halle an der Saale, pictures of Anne Frank were shown. In the U.S., too, extremely distasteful Nazi symbols were frequently spotted at demonstrations against stay-at-home orders, most of which were directed against Democratic governors and were at least verbally supported by Trump. In Michigan, the ire was directed at Governor Gretchen Whitmer – chosen by Trump as his favorite opponent – who was compared to Hitler („Heil Withmer“) on posters and depicted with a Hitler beard and swastika. In Illinois, Governor Jay Robert Pritzker, whose family had fled pogroms in Europe, faced comparisons to Hitler and images with the swastika. Further criticism in Illinois was caused by a banner reading „Arbeit macht frei“ („Work makes you free“), an allusion to the cynical inscription at the Auschwitz extermination camp, where people were systematically gassed and destroyed by inhumane working conditions.

In Germany, anti-vaccination activists pinned a Star of David on themselves with the words „unvaccinated.“

Nazi comparisons and thus Holocaust relativizations have been increasingly observed since the 1990s with the dehistoricization of the Holocaust. As the Holocaust mutated into evil par excellence, many saw themselves animated to make comparisons in order to gain the greatest possible attention for their concerns (e.g., opponents of abortion or of animal husbandry that is not appropriate to the species). This deliberate breaking of taboos, however, is a mockery and violation of the actual Nazi victims and their descendants. At the same time, there is little hesitation to take to the streets together with right-wing radicals who deny the Holocaust.

Enemy image Jewish Orthodoxy

Angered that a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (also known as Haredim or Hasidim) in Williamsburg/Brooklyn had held a large funeral for a rabbi despite an enforced curfew, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, „My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple (…) I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summon or even arrest those who gather in large groups.“ The unfortunate choice of wording by the mayor, who is not anti-Semitic per se, to blame the entire Jewish community for the spread of Corona, led to strong reactions from left-wing to right-wing Jewish organizations, especially since the situation was already very tense: On the one hand, some Orthodox communities had particularly high numbers of sick people at the beginning of the pandemic, and on the other hand, Orthodox Jews had been increasingly exposed to anti-Semitic hostility in recent years. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), four Orthodox Jews were killed in physical attacks in 2019: One woman died in an attack by a right-wing extremist on an Orthodox synagogue in San Diego, two other Jewish (as well as two non-Jewish) victims occurred in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, and a rabbi succumbed to serious injuries after being attacked in his home during a Hanukkah celebration. With the Corona crisis, accusations then proliferated, especially on social media, blaming the entire Orthodox community for the spread of Corona. Commentators suggested precautionary segregation from the rest of the community; others wanted to deny Orthodox Jews any medical care as a punitive measure. Postings also echoed traditional anti-Semitic prejudices dating back to the Middle Ages about the „dirty Jews“ who would transmit diseases. Anti-Semitism was not confined to the web, however. In Goshen, a small town in upstate New York, an automotive repair shop refused to service an Orthodox Jew despite an appointment because, as one employee put it, he would spread the virus. In Williamsburg, Jews had their masks torn off their faces, which Mayor de Blasio immediately condemned vehemently. Actions against the Orthodox communities in the USA are in any case a good example of how quickly verbal anti-Semitism can turn into dangerous acts, which does not mean, however, that justified criticism – e.g. of the disregard for Corona rules – can also be accompanied by non-anti-Semitic intent.

Individual cases or a dangerous development?

How dangerous are anti-Semitic statements in social networks? How should „hygiene demonstrations“ or demos against „stay-at-home-orders“ with a few hundred to several thousand participants be assessed? And what can be done against conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism? These questions are not easy to answer, especially since we know from the past that people are not easily dissuaded from their beliefs – or rather superstitions – especially in times of crisis, and anti-Semitism and especially conspiracy theories are very strongly linked to emotions and affects. Educational work, as important as it is, thus sometimes reaches its limits – especially if there is no recovery of the economy and people have to fear for their future. In no case should the danger of the increasing appropriation of the protests against Corona ordinances by right-wing radicals and White Supremacists, who have a high aggression potential both in Europe and in the USA (where they even appear with weapons), be underestimated.

Information about the author: Helga Embacher is a professor at the Department of History at the University of Salzburg.

Information: Latest publication on the topic (together with Bernadette Edtmaier and Alexandra Preitschopf): Antisemitism in Europe. Case Studies of a Global Phenomenon in the 21st Century, Vienna 2019.