Plagues, Pandemics, and Anti-Jewish Pathology
The Mongols — fearsome warriors on horseback — conquered China. Yet their greatest impact on world history came when Mongol armies transported rats, infected with a deadly bacterium, to their siege of a Crimean city from which Genoese merchants fled by ship.
From Italy to France, Spain to England, and ultimately to Germany and Poland, the Black Death or Bubonic Plague probably halved Europe’s population of 80 million between 1348 and 1352.
The Black Death altered Europe’s demographic destiny; Jews were not spared, despite lower fatality rates possibly linked to superior hygiene. It also transformed European Jew-hatred. From the ancient world’s deicide accusation to medieval Europe’s obsession with blood libels, antisemitism had evolved. Yet no prior antisemitic mania ravaged entire societies like the pathogenic hatreds unleashed by the Black Death.
From Barcelona to Kraków, Jews were burned at the stake or expelled from hundreds of cities. In Mainz, Europe’s largest Jewish community, Jews defended themselves. A Christian mob exacted revenge, killing 6,000 Jews.
Historians used to debate whether such pogroms were largely “from the bottom up,” carried out by mobs of artisans and peasants, or “from the top down,” led by knights, princes, and prelates with grievances against Jewish moneylenders.
Recent scholarship suggests that the Black Death caused the disintegration of European societies, with Christians at all levels uniting in murderously scapegoating Jews as menacing “others.” Jews were pervasively demonized not just as poisoners of wells, but as polluters of society. Violent antisemitic ideology became the death-dealing alternative to the explanation that the plague was divine punishment of Christians for their own sins.
After 1348, medieval Christian Europe visited upon its Jews a horror of a previously unknown magnitude by marrying fears generated by the Black Death to homicidal antisemitism on a massive scale. There is a continuous thread, so it’s argued, that ran from the Black Death to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Could a potentially cataclysmic killer like today’s COVID-19 virus fuse with antisemitic ideology in a deadly 21st century synthesis? Coronavirus’ full lethality is still being charted, but the 75 million deaths, including 675,000 Americans, claimed by 1918’s Spanish Flu may be a harbinger. The Spanish Flu initiated a fateful, hateful decade during which Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler joined hands across the Atlantic to promote a reinvigorated antisemitism presaging future genocide.
In terms of a new linkage of a pandemic with extreme antisemitism, consider that the World Health Organization (WHO) already warns against “trolls and conspiracy theories” exploiting COVID-19.
Pro-Putin Bulgarian websites blame “joos” and Zionists for coronavirus, and some Arab outlets are already blaming Israel.
In the US, antisemitic corona-conspiracy theories abound.
A George Washington University sophomore was attacked for wearing his kippah. One attacker yelled: “Oh! Yahood! Yahood! We’ve got a yahood over here. … You produced it!” California State University Professor As’ad Abukhalil warns Israel will institute racist caging of infected Palestinians.
According to Trump booster Sheriff David Clarke, George Soros is responsible for the virus. The ADL has documented white supremacists who rejoice when Israelis are afflicted, and found 4chan and Gab posts identifying the virus as an Israeli bio-weapon.
Virally linked to delusional antisemitism since the Middle Ages, pandemics still menace Jews today.
Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).