Hatemongers exploiting coronavirus pandemic to push anti-Semitism worldwide

The history of bigots linking disease with Jews, immigrants or other minorities is a long and ugly one.

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Anti-Semitic memes circulating online now look almost identical to those circulated during the Holocaust — such as the image above — “that portrayed Jews as insects transmitting typhus to unsuspecting people in wartime France and Poland,” writes Edna Friedberg, a historian with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Photo provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

While the coronavirus pandemic stretches from weeks into months without end, hate mongers have reverted to one of their usual suspects: “the Jews.”

Their allegations of Jews as schemers take so many forms that it’s hard to enumerate them all. American anti-lockdown protestors complain that the “Jewish media” is exaggerating the risks of COVID-19. A sheriff in Wisconsin tweets that George Soros is involved in what he calls “this FLU panic,” invoking the Jewish financier as the far right’s favorite stand-in for Jewish world dominance.

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Memes circulate online depicting the virus itself as a molecule with a hook-nosed, bearded human face. The images look almost identical to ones circulated during the Holocaust that portrayed Jews as insects transmitting typhus to unsuspecting people in wartime France and Poland.

These refrains echo internationally, a side effect of our digitally intertwined world. On March 17, Al-Arabiya reported from the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, a Shia pilgrimage site closed as a health precaution. A cleric there shouted to the crowd, “We are not followers of the World Health Organization. They are a bunch of infidels and Jews,” inferring that pandemic restrictions are a Jewish plot to obstruct Muslim religious observance.

Elsewhere in Iran, links between Jews or the Jewish state and coronavirus are promoted by the regime itself, part of an enduring (and apparently effective) official strategy to divert blame from government failures. On March 22, Supreme Leader Ali Khameini declared in a speech about the coronavirus: “There are enemies who are demons, and there are enemies who are humans, and they help one another. The intelligence services of many countries cooperate with one another against us,” a reference to the United States and Israel.

Iranian MP Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imenabadi was even more explicit when he tweeted, “I consider the coronavirus outbreak a type of biological attack from America and the Zionist regime.”

Perhaps the most common conspiracy theory about Jews over the years depicts them as profiteers, scheming to make money from the suffering of others. Now these stale allegations have mutated into a new form: Jews are spreading coronavirus to enrich themselves. According to this absurd reasoning, Jews are fostering widespread illness and panic to sell expensive vaccines they have been secretly developing for years.

This Jewish-greed charge emanates from across the political spectrum. In mid-March in Spain, the far-left Basque nationalist political party Herritar Batasuna, published a statement online which read in part: “[W]e emphatically declare that the coronavirus is an instrument of the Third World War that has unleashed Yankee Zionist imperialism. The Anglo-Saxon capitalist and Zionist elite that is the enemy of all Humanity has taken a further step in its criminal and genocidal offensive ... [against a]ll the revolutionary workers.” Similarly, self-proclaimed leftists in Venezuela have accused Jews and “Zionists” of engaging in “biological warfare” against the working class, with COVID-19 as its weapon of choice.

In perhaps the most bizarre twist, those who frequent the darkest corners of the dark web have found a way to transform pandemic headlines into fodder for Holocaust denial.

The social networking app Telegram, with over 200 million users, has become a digital refuge for racists and extremists banned from many other sites. Recently, a number of Telegram posters have fixated on stories about disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims. In a typical example, one person wrote, “China can’t cremate 50 bodies in 2020 because their 6,400 cremation centers are too overwhelmed, but somehow, the Nazis managed to cremate over 4,000 jews [sic] a day in the 1940s.” The post ends with the “Thinking Face” emoji, a most 21st Century way to revive the Holocaust denier’s classic camouflauge — protesting that he is simply asking the obvious questions or innocently pointing out inconsistencies in the established historical record.

The history of bigots linking disease with Jews, immigrants, or other minorities is a long and ugly one. The Holocaust teaches us that in times of instability and fear, people who didn’t previously express or tolerate racist views may find them less offensive, or even appealing.

Last week marked one year since a white supremacist murdered a woman and shot two others at a synagogue in Poway, California. That shooter’s ideology was shaped in the same ether that now stews with antisemitic and anti-Asian vitriol, fueled by the coronavirus. In a world that feels out of control, we are all more receptive to simplistic explanations and scapegoats.

History reminds us that propagandists have always exploited fear to spread their messages. Let us all recommit to calling out hate speech when we see it and demanding the same of the online worlds we populate.

Edna Friedberg is a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

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