History has not usually been kind to the Jews. But even by its low and morbid standards, the 14th century was a time of chaos. From 1348 to 1351 between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population died from the Black Death, a plague that strafed continents. Hundreds of Jewish communities perished too, their inhabitants slaughtered out of hatred and fear. It was a time of mass death and horror, too; and of scapegoating. Bad times for Jews then. And because once a year, we cleaned out our grain supplies for Passover, Jews flushed out the rats that carried the plague and lowered our death count. So they burned and killed and wiped out the settlements and villages and towns. The contagion, you see, it just had to be contained.
Now the plague is here again. We thought these libels were behind us; it turns out we were wrong. As coronavirus has transfixed the world it has done something else, too. It has rebirthed an ancient idea: that the Jews are to blame.
It begins, as it always does, with conspiracy. 'Jews, Zionists have organized & engineered #Corona virus as biological weapon just like bird flue & Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). They want to design the world, seize countries, neuter the world’s population. Comments on president #Erdogan’s TV network in #Turkey', tweeted Abdullah Bozkurt, drawing his audience’s attention to the slander being perpetuated on national TV in a Nato country.
Turkish news points to a wider trend: Islamists are weaponising coronavirus against Jews, and of course Israel. According to an Isis newsletter, the virus is a ‘torment sent by God on whomsoever He wills.’ ‘Illnesses,’ it continues ‘do not strike by themselves but by the command and decree of God.’ The Algerian news outlet Al Masdar recently published an article entitled, ‘A Zionist organization is behind the coronavirus and the Zionist entity (Israel) claims to have found the vaccine.’ In a recent sermon, Gazan Imam Jamil Al-Mutawa praised the virus as sent by Allah to kill Westerners and Jews.
And the attacks come from all sides. In the United States, the far-right conspiracy theorist and pastor Rick Wiles claims that God is spreading the coronavirus in synagogues because he is ‘dealing with those who oppose his son, Jesus Christ.’ Meanwhile, the far-right, in online forums like Reddit and Gab, peddle claims that Israel’s Mossad ‘invented’ coronavirus and that it is a bioweapon funded by the Holocaust survivor and philanthropist George Soros.
It’s a fertile time to spread lies. Coronavirus has the world transfixed. And amongst the speculation, confusion and terror people are now dividing society up: the responsible and the feckless; the useful and the redundant; the well and the sick. Why not push it that little bit further? The right and the wrong, the guilty and the innocent; us and them.
This is why the attacks that come from both left and right, and from both Islamists and fascists (though the latter are in fact easy bedfellows in their toxicity and extremity) are so identical in form and tone. As I wrote in The Spectator last month, coronavirus is a boon to the propagandist because of its immense malleability. Because it’s invisible, it can take on the face of any enemy your narrative – be it left, right, Jihadist or fascist – needs. You can project onto it what you will. And people do and are, in their droves.
Still, we must remember that this is not the Middle Ages. Jews are being blamed (by some) for the virus, they are not being hurt or killed en masse for it. When China’s perceived responsibility for coronavirus means Asian Americans are being assaulted on a daily basis, a sense of moral perspective is required.
What the contemporary moment does show is that while hatreds often evolve or at least mutate, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just metastasize. The Jews no longer poison wells to spread the plague; they engineer it in biolabs. The Devil doesn’t give them immunity from it, Mossad does.
It is easy to dismiss all this as nonsense. I would suggest that this is an error. Coronavirus has shrunk the world’s attention to a degree previously unseen in our lifetimes. People are looking for answers – and once again, scapegoats. This will continue long after we come out of isolation and even after a vaccine is found (should those dates be different). Narratives of Jewish or Zionist culpability now threaten in ways they previously did not. Across the Middle East and in pockets of the West these ideas are the epistemological backdrop to everyday life: their hatred is leavened by their banality. If these societies suffer mass deaths the hatred will remain, the banality will not.
Almost three years ago a man shot up a DC Pizzeria because he believed online reports that Hillary Clinton was operating a paedophile ring out of it. It was the perfect embrace of the sinister and the absurd. Now false reports rise once more. The time of coronavirus is a time of fear and paranoia. If the death count rises it is just a matter of time before acts of violence against Jews rise along with it. And as the cliché goes, what starts with Jews never ends with Jews. The world must resist this poison, and resist it now, for all our sakes.