Past Pandemics Spurred Violent Antisemitism. Prepare for More
Recent days have seen an outbreak of antisemitism related to the coronavirus and Covid-19.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that fights bigotry, reports, “Extremists hope the virus kills Jews, but they are also using its emergence to advance their antisemitic theories that Jews are responsible for creating the virus, are spreading it to increase their control over a decimated population, or they are profiting off it.”
The actress Rosanna Arquette claims, falsely, that Israel has been working on a coronavirus vaccine “for a year already,” indicating advance knowledge of the virus, and that a Jewish-run company is poised to profit from it. A speaker from the 2016 Republican National Convention, David Clarke, blames Jewish-born billionaire George Soros for the virus and associated panic.
The head of a Turkish political party, Faitih Erbakan, declared, “this virus serves Zionism’s goals,” according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.
If history is a guide — and there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t be — expect even more of this as the pandemic worsens.
In the 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, Laura Spinney reports that in 1919, when “an international bureau opened in Vienna with the express mission of fighting epidemics,” one of the first things that happened was that “antisemitic elements started lobbying for Jewish refugees to be quarantined in eastern European concentration camps.”
Earlier pandemics yielded similar hatreds. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry on the Black Death that raged in Europe from 1348 to 1350, for instance, reports, “The Black Death not only resulted in the immediate destruction of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives and the loss of Jewish homes and property in hundreds of communities, but had more far-reaching consequences. Popular imagination invested the already odious image of the Jew with even more horrible characteristics. It was this image that helped to shape the stereotype of the Jew represented by antisemitism and racism in modern times.”
Philip Ziegler, in his 1969 book The Black Death, reports that Jews were charged with causing the plague by poisoning wells.
Ziegler writes, “On 21 September, 1348, the municipality of Zurich voted never to admit Jews to the city again. In Basle all the Jews were penned up in wooden buildings and burned alive. … At Speyer the bodies of the murdered were piled in great wine-casks and sent floating down the Rhine. … In most cities the massacres took place when the Black Death was already raging, but in some places the mere news that the plague was approaching was enough to inflame the populace.”
“In all, sixty large and one hundred and fifty smaller communities are believed to have been exterminated and three hundred and fifty massacres of various dimensions took place,” Ziegler writes. “It is a curious and somewhat humiliating reflection on human nature that the European, struck by what was probably the greatest natural calamity ever to strike his continent, reacted by seeking to rival the cruelty of nature in the hideousness of his own man-made atrocities.”
The world has changed significantly since 1919 or 1348. Ziegler’s attribution of the anti-Jewish violence to “human nature” reads as pretty grim. Given, however, that there is already a fairly significant baseline level of anti-Jewish violence in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, the prudent course is to prepare for more. I hope I am wrong.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.