Jews and the Pandemic

The existence of Jewish life in a suffering, transforming world of pandemic, afflicted by a spreading global plague, raises the question how we may expect this to affect Jews, who have suffered historically during plagues. The Jerusalem Report in early April headlined ‘COVID-19 and the Jews: Today’s Black Plague?” and asked if spreading disease would likely ignite a serious outbreak of antisemitism as it did in medieval Europe. The Katz Center at University of Pennsylvania sponsored a blog forum, “Pandemic and Plague: Echoes from the Jewish Past,”in which scholars offered sober reflections on the course of the Black Death and what is similar today and more importantly what is different.

A deeply rooted narrative throughout medieval Christian Europe understood the Jews as the killers of Christ and for their sins punished by God and fated to wander.  The challenge posed by the unfamiliar, deadly bubonic plague in the mid-14th century touched off a search for the sources of the calamity: Europe’s Jews were a handy and suspicious target. People shared views that outsiders had gone around and poisoned the wells.  Pogroms against Jewish existence spread around Europe, taking place in France, Spain, and rising to a crescendo in the Rhineland.  Jewish communities were wiped from history; Jews were bludgeoned and burned to death in an ongoing slaughter peaking in 1347-1350.  These events changed Jewish history and were sources of the shift of Jewish history to Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

We inhabit a sharply different universe today.  Modern science identifies the causes of the bubonic plague of the 14th century not as poisoned wells but the bacterium Y. Pestis as it was spread by rats and fleas.  Science identifies the causes of the COVID-19 as a new strain of virus spread primarily by interpersonal human contact and interaction. Those who contract the disease are carriers of COVID-19 and can spread the acute respiratory condition through the exchange of droplets of saliva via touching, coughing and sneezing, and by infecting surfaces which in turn spread the virus through contact. We also inhabit a universe shaped by the Nazi Holocaust, which once again devasted Jewish history and created a new shift in Jewish history away from Europe to North America and Israel.

In a world today that is less shaped by a dominant, deeply religious Christian narrative, that is, in an increasingly disenchanted world where religion and the sacred in most societies recede to the margins, Jews are one of  numerous religious minorities — from the Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic traditions –who live more or less integrated (not without tensions)  into society.  In this world, most citizens take science  seriously and affirm the guidance offered in matters of disease and sickness by certified medical professionals and research scientists.  Minorities are less likely to be targeted and accused generally in such a world and, where minorities are endangered, the targets are likely to come from a broader, plural pantheon of minorities, with a variety of foreign, racial, and ethnic choices.

And yet, even in the contemporary world there exist deep impulses aimed at comprehending a transforming world which animate varied elements, groups, or social and political movements to search for and identify conspiracies and conspirators whose identification will render the terrible threat more comprehensible. And so familiar themes of blame and judgment from the past continue to inform the present often working in new and surprising ways. Thus, in addition to voices that now seek to locate the causes of the pandemic in a conspiracy that was mounted out of China, which finds support and instigation in the American White House and on Fox Media, other voices located in Europe and the Middle East explain the coronavirus as a product of “the Jews, their “concealed hatred for the entire world,” and understand the pandemic as a U.S. and Israeli project to shore up global control.  Various participants in on-line forums especially message that the Jews or Israel manufactured and spread the coronavirus to advance Jewish global control. In these charges we find true echoes of the era of the bubonic plague and black death and the repurposing of classic themes for contemporary ends.

In addition, in the U.S., among elements of the American far right, agitators see in the coronavirus just “another Jewish world order hoax,” and still others message their followers they should use the virus that the Jews created to actively spread disease in Jewish communities.  Such groups  see the Jews and Jewish leaders as behind the sustained shutdown imposed by state leaders in the U.S. and hold them responsible for the economic disarray and for rising American unemployment. Recent organized right wing protests in Michigan and in Ohio, for example, involved the open display of swastikas and familiar antisemitic discourse and, in a particularly nasty display at the protest in Ohio, the charge that “The Real Plague is the Jew,” marked by an image of a menacing rat with a Jewish star. Some in these groups also emphasize themes of profit and ongoing manipulation pointing to Jewish names active in the search for a vaccine and the involvement of Israel’s bio-tech sector in vaccine research.

Finally, on the anti-Zionist left, agitators accuse Jews of purposefully extending  the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza, even though there has been highly effective joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to minimize the impact of the virus, as reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Such charges make their way onto American campuses carried by student groups where ongoing efforts by the Boycott,  Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement continue under disrupted conditions in an ongoing effort  to use the North American university as a megaphone in the global effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.

We will not see what medieval Europe did, the burning and destruction of Jewish lives and of whole communities, but we will continue to see and hear echoes of that older contagion in repurposed canards and themes emphasizing the perennial Jewish danger.   In Europe, says the head of the European Jewish Congress, “there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it.” There is a recrudescence too of language and imagery from the medieval era when Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells, and controlling economies.  In the U.S. this is less pronounced,  but it is present here as well, and what is remarkable is the way in which such claims from the extremes now penetrate through to the mainstream.  The latest is a claim that the Jews and the Chinese teamed up to create the coronavirus, with the Jews doing the engineering. “The kikes get the credit for that one. It was the kikes.”  “It’s not Chinese but a Jew flu.”  And so it goes….

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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