The myth of Jews as “invisible enemy” emerges again in coronavirus era

Some U.S. officials have taken to referring to the COVID-19 virus as the “invisible enemy.” Such phraseology has been used in the past regarding Polio and other viruses with epidemic potential. This speaks to the fact that the coronavirus is lethal, is beyond a specific place or people, and is hard to identify and control because it is unseen.

As a person who has spent his adult professional life fighting antisemitism, whenever I hear the phrase “invisible enemy” I can’t help but think about that form of prejudice.

There is no better brief descriptor of the thinking of the antisemite than those two words. At their core, and which makes it so different from other forms of bigotry, antisemites see Jews as the “invisible enemy.”

This has been true historically over the centuries. It has been true during the recent resurgence of antisemitism over the past three years. It has been true during the COVID-19 crisis. And it will undoubtedly continue to be true when the crisis ends.

In the Middle Ages, a series of antisemitic conspiracy theories terrorized Jews, all based not on any evidence but on the belief that the Jew was secretly harming society.

The blood libel charge, that Jews abducted Christian children and used their blood for religious purposes, was a product of this thinking.

The desecration of the Host accusation, the charge that Jews were secretly destroying the Christian religious ceremony, hence “killing Christ” all over again, was a product of this thinking.

And the blaming of the Jew for the devastating Black plague, claiming that Jews poisoned the wells, was a product of this kind of thinking.

Historically, these ideas which circulated for centuries and became embedded in Western civilization, reached their climax in the first half of the 20th century, first with the publication of the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and later with the rise of Nazism.

The fraudulent Protocols, claiming to be the documenting of Jewish plans to take over the world, was concocted and believed by millions of people worldwide because the notion of the Jews being the invisible enemy was so widely believed. Here was “proof” positive.

And the Nazi propaganda about the Jew was predicated on this idea: the German people, through Hitler, had to defend themselves against the silent poison coming from the Jew. The famous Nazi propaganda film, “The Eternal Jew,” depicting Jews as rats contaminating the German body politic, was an expression of this thinking.

And during the past three years of the surge of antisemitism in America, the most egregious manifestations of that rise has been the unprecedented violence against Jews. And this violence too, in Pittsburgh, in Poway, in Jersey City, was predicated on the belief that hidden Jewish power had generated terrible evils in society.

Even during the current pandemic, we see claims that the Jews are behind the virus or the Israelis have created it. So, one hears claims that George Soros through one of his companies started the virus to further his goal of global control. Or that Israel had already been working on a vaccine before the virus had even broken out.

This notion that the Jew is not what he or she seems to be – that there is something sinister, poisonous, unseen about the Jew, an invisible enemy if you will – means that whenever there is political, social or economic anxiety in society, demagogues can rise up and say, the real reason for your suffering is not the economy, not a virus, not bad leadership, but the Jew.

It also means that Jews can sometimes be as vulnerable to antisemitic conspiracy theories when they are doing well in society as much as when they are doing poorly and discriminated against. This is a particular hallmark of antisemitism.

Fortunately, in America, the vast majority of people reject this kind of conspiratorial thinking. But as we move forward, as society will encounter challenging and anxiety-provoking times, it will be more important than ever that we be on guard against these kinds of expressions. This is particularly so as social media become the vehicle of choice for such dangerous conspiratorial expressions.

There is a very real invisible enemy that is already exacerbating hate and inequities in our society out there that we must marshal our forces and join together to defeat. The last thing we need is a resurgence of the old monstrous false claim of an invisible enemy, the Jew, that has brought so much harm to millions over the centuries.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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