In the wake of the pandemic, antisemitism goes viral

  • CovidAntiSemitism2
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a unique global wave of antisemitism, according to a special report released by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University in June. And, while limited, this has also been observed in South Africa.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 02, 2020

“In South Africa, antisemitic messaging blaming Jews [and in some cases, Israel] for COVID-19 has been limited to sporadic tweets and Facebook posts,” says David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

“These mainly target Israel, where it has been asserted, inter alia, that just as whites deliberately spread AIDS in black populations, Israel is doing likewise for Arabs/Iran/Palestinians. Also, there is the idea that Israel introduced the disease so that it could ‘cure’ it later and thereby benefit. Then, there is the accusation that Palestinians are being denied COVID-19 treatment, [that Israel/the US] is engaging in ‘medical terrorism’ against Iran through sanctions, and is behind the outbreak in order to enrich its pharmaceutical companies,” says Saks.

“One of the only relatively high-profile perpetrators has been one Sebastian Sebbi Petersen, the leader of the fringe political party, the African Progressive Movement, and the former deputy director of the department of correctional services. His online comments allege that COVID-19 was concocted by Israeli and US pharmaceutical companies.”

Says local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, “It doesn’t come as a surprise that old hatreds have surfaced at this time of crisis. And it’s hardly surprising that Jews are identified by some – too many in fact – as the villains in an as yet unfinished pandemic drama.”

“It needs to be said, however, that other minorities have also felt the wrath of hatred. Here, for example, Chinese South Africans have been stigmatised,” says Shain.

According to the Tel Aviv University report, released on 24 June, “The new wave of antisemitism includes a range of libels that have one common element: the Jews, the Zionists, and/or the state of Israel are to blame for the pandemic and/or stand to gain from it.

“The antisemitism generated by the coronavirus is intensive and fierce, has continued unremittingly for several months, and reflects a high level of anxiety and fear in many populations,” says Professor Dina Porat, the head of the Kantor Center.

The report shows that coronavirus-related antisemitism is manifested throughout Europe, in the Americas, and in the Muslim world. This new type of antisemitism, which partly reiterates classic antisemitic themes, includes conspiracy theories alongside medieval blood libels, now renewed in a 21st century format.

“Coronavirus-related antisemitism is propagated mostly by right-wing extremists, ultra-conservative Christians, and Islamists through their own media in various languages. The phenomenon is reported by many central media channels: social media, television, radio, and the printed press,” says Porat.

According to the report, “Islamists describe Israel as the COVID-1948 virus, after the year in which the Jewish state was established, declaring that this is the most dangerous virus of all. Activists in movements for delegitimising Israel use the same argument. In addition, they accuse Israel of using the coronavirus as ammunition against the Palestinians. An Oxford University study revealed that 19.1% of the British public believe that the Jews caused the pandemic.”

Porat points out that this antisemitism should be seen in the context of others also being blamed for spreading the virus – “the Chinese, 5G antennas, and the authorities who allegedly are not doing enough to stop the epidemic”.

“Universal disasters have been attributed to the Jews and Israel before, giving rise to antisemitic discourse,” says Dr Giovanni Quer, the director of the Kantor Center. “The current wave of antisemitism is unprecedented, however, because, spreading very swiftly through social media, it focused at first on the COVID-19 crisis, and then quickly moved on because of social and political changes. Just a few days passed between the coronavirus crisis and the racism-related social crisis in the United States, but antisemitic discourse remained just as fierce, with its proponents simply adapting their antisemitic narratives to changing social contexts.”

Even though the antisemitic material comes from different directions and entities, it contains many common themes, including classic antisemitism, such as a return to the well-poisoning libel from the time of the black plague. An example is a French caricature of Agnès Buzyn, the former French health minister, who is Jewish, pouring poison into a well and smiling.

Then there is antisemitism toward Haredim, who are seen as “spreaders” of the virus, particularly in the US. In what has been described as a modern-day version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, another antisemitic accusation is that “Jews always seek to rule the world, and this time they will do so by spreading a virus that undermines economies and societies, and by preparing a vaccine and a drug that will be sold worldwide at an enormous profit,” according to the report.

It shows a picture of a man in the US protesting at a rally with a sign saying “the real plague” in the colours of the Israeli flag, with a rat and a Magen David.

There are also claims propagated in Iran and Turkey asserting that, “The Zionists, together with the US, are the source of the pandemic, and will gain from it when thousands of Muslims die in the Middle East, particularly in Iran.”

The virus has also been described as a “G-d-sent punishment to the enemies of Islam, which include many different nations”, according to the report. “Iran’s anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda is also disseminated in South America via Spanish-speaking television channels,” it says.

“Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are constantly accused of spreading the virus by force among Palestinians, especially inmates in Israeli prisons. This claim completely ignores the facts. So far, only one person has died of coronavirus in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. The accusation is especially rife in networks that regularly promote the vilification of Israel,” the report says.

As some of us have seen on social media, lockdown restrictions are sometimes compared to the Holocaust. “Lockdown is likened to the ghettos and release from it to the German slogan, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work liberates) which appeared at the entrance to Auschwitz. The term ‘Holocough’, combining Holocaust with cough, is widespread in social media, especially among neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“Some arguments claim that coughing is a means employed by Jews to harm the white race. In addition, sceptics argue that there actually is no epidemic, and that current events are all part of a Jewish-Zionist plot to take over the world.

“There are calls to attack Jews by spreading the virus among them [for instance the rhyme, ‘spread the flu to every Jew’]. This trend reached a peak in a sign raised in a demonstration in the US, saying, ‘Synagogues are closed – the gas chambers are open.’”

Shain says it’s a combination of new technology and old prejudice. “It’s evident how easily ideas are circulated in an Internet age, and how they continue to resonate,” he explains. “One would have thought this madness would have disappeared after the Black Death in the fourteenth century, but, regrettably, our species appears hot-wired to seek scapegoats.”


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