How Antisemitism Killed Christians and How Anti-Science Is Now Killing People of All Faiths
The Black Plague (also called the Black Death) that erupted in Europe in 1347 would prove to be the deadliest plague ever. It ended in 1352, when herd immunity was achieved at the reported cost of the death of more than 30 percent (some say as much as 50 percent) of the European population.
In the 14th century, there was no scientific understanding of how the plague arose or was transmitted. Instinctively, healthy people avoided infected victims (partial social distancing) and disposed of bodies quickly, but few other precautions were in place beyond those.
European cities were notorious for filth, and thus breeding grounds for disease. For the vast majority of peasants and commoners, personal hygiene ranged from the primitive to non-existent. Most bathed occasionally, others never; the same water was often used by entire families. Social distancing and isolation were not possible for most of the poor population, who lived in crowded extended-family environments. The rich, meanwhile, could flee to their country estates for fresh air, relative social distancing, and clean environments.
Because the plague predated the understanding that germs cause disease (introduced by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century), it is not surprising that strange explanations for the outbreak flourished. These included the wrath of God, demonic forces, and other conspiracy theories, which alleged that the plague was not a natural event, but an unnatural one inflicted intentionally for punishment or retribution.
One of the most popular conspiracy theories was that the Jews were responsible for the plague.
This made sense to the Christian Medieval European population, which was consumed with virulent antisemitism. After all, if the Jews — as was believed — kidnapped and killed Christian children to use their blood for making Passover matzah (the blood libel), the notion that they ”poisoned the wells” to set off the Black Plague did not seem far-fetched.
Moreover, anecdotal reports declared that far fewer Jews than Christians fell victim to the plague. How could that be, many asked, unless the Jews initiated the plague?
When that antisemitic conclusion swept through Europe, Jews were viciously attacked and slaughtered. According to Jewish History.org “in January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned.” Accounts of two other brutal massacres — among the many throughout Europe documented here — report that 2,000 Jews were burned to death in Strasbourg (now modern France) and 12,000 were murdered in Mainz, Germany.
Although there is no historical evidence that Jews fared better than Christians during the plague, there is reason to believe that this may be true. As part of religious rituals, Jews practiced public health measures that society as a whole would not adopt for at least another 400 years. They washed their hands at least three times a day before praying, and often before and after other activities. Ritual bathing (the mikvah) was another practice that contributed to cleanliness.
Ironically, since it was commonplace throughout Europe in Medieval times for Jews to be confined to separate quarters — even before the first walled lockdown ghetto was established in Venice in 1516 — they lived apart from the Christian population, whose environments, public and private, were petri dishes for disease.
The BBC TV documentary Filthy Cities describes the streets of London, typical of European cities in the 1300s. They were filled with ankle-deep mud, rotting fish and other animal remains, garbage, animal dung, and human feces and urine dumped into the street or thrown out of windows. The stench was horrific.
Rather than embracing a conspiracy theory, had Christians asked, “What are the Jews doing differently from us that accounts for their lower plague rates?”, tens of thousands or more lives might have been saved.
Just as the antisemitic mobs that blamed and slaughtered Jews for the Black Plague ignored the plea of Pope Clement VI to stop the violence (he insisted that the Jews did not start the plague — “You were seduced by that liar, the devil”), today’s science deniers turn deaf ears to doctors’ pleas to follow safety measures that can prevent and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Today, science has given us proven facts about the cause of diseases and how they spread. Yet a mind-boggling number of Americans ignore, challenge, or defy science. Some even embrace a bizarre conspiracy theory: “The death rate from the coronavirus is inflated — doctors are making money by jacking up the numbers.”
Furthermore, doubters and deniers are not impressed that the number of infections and deaths have spiked when the recommendations of medical experts have not been followed. These skeptics continue to travel during holidays, attend crowded events without masks, and ignore social distancing. Nor do they care to note that infection and death rates are falling — even before vaccination protections kick in– now that the year-end holiday celebrations and football season are over, and many violators have restored pandemic safety measures.
Had science deniers asked, “What are those who have not contracted the coronavirus doing differently from us?” — and paid attention to the answers — countless numbers of lives might have been saved.
So here is a message for those who have not heard the latest news: The 14th century is over. Please don’t bring it back. Wear a mask, maintain social distancing, avoid crowds, and get a vaccination when available. Otherwise you will, in effect, be “poisoning the wells.”
Bernard Starr, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College; his latest book is Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art.