The coronavirus pandemic has produced many nefarious consequences, poisoning our bodies, our economies and even our souls. Conspiracy theories, hate speech and racism find an especially fertile ground in times of fear. Jews have always been among the most vulnerable victims of hatred (“the canaries in the coal mine”, to quote radicalisation expert Peter Neumann), and COVID-19 has been no exception to the rule. All over the world, antisemitism has been inflamed during the pandemic.
To be clear: nothing new has been invented here. Antisemitic slanders linked to coronavirus perpetuate clichés that have been repeated for centuries, becoming all the more acute in times of crisis. The garment changes, the body behind it remains the same, with extreme ideologies identifying Jews as an epitome of evil.
The main difference today is the existence of Israel as a collective Jewish entity upon which all the malign stereotypes traditionally used against Jews as individuals are automatically transferred. This phenomenon is reflected in the working definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which distinguishes between “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country” and “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”, which amounts to a form of antisemitism. It is worth noting that the IHRA definition has been adopted or endorsed by several Western countries and by the European Union institutions.
Coming to the specific topic of this article, the Community Security Trust (CST)—a British charity whose mission is to fight antisemitism—identifies various social media tropes used against Jews in relation to COVID-19, escalating from conspiracy theories to outright incitement to hatred and violence:
- The virus is fake: it’s a Jewish conspiracy;
- The virus is real: but it’s still a Jewish conspiracy;
- Jews are the primary spreaders of the virus;
- The virus is good when it kills Jews and Israelis;
- The virus should be spread in Israel and Jewish places to cause a “Holocaugh”, the new “final solution”.
In 2021, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue produced a report for the European Commission in which, just focusing on German and French content, it has identified all these tropes across thousands of social media posts of various sources and ideologies.
Indeed, these narratives, as is often the case, come indiscriminately from far-Right, far-Left, and Islamist mouthpieces.
Starting with the far-Right, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked down copious posts on Telegram, 4Chan, and Gab that either attribute the paternity of COVID-19 to Israel and the Jews for murky political or economic vested interests or invoke the “Holocaugh” as a new extermination method (one post, following three coronavirus casualties in Israel, said: “3 down, 5,999,997 to go!”).
The anti-vaccine camp also proved a fertile ground for antisemitism. A 2022 briefing from the CST reports several examples of leaflets and post calling vaccines the “Jew jab”, and vaccination centres the “Jew labs”—in the framework of a conspiracy theories hinting at Jews as the masterminds behind the pandemic. Far-Right terrorist Payton Gendron, who shot thirteen people in Buffalo in May 2022, posted a manifesto before the attack in which he accused pharmaceutical companies of being an instrument of Jewish domination. In a particularly vivid vignette, a Nazi hand stops a Jewish hand holding a syringe.
The American Jewish Committee has further identified a religious twist in far-right antisemitic speech: the far-Right Christian channel TruNews has advanced the twofold (and contradictory) theory that coronavirus is both a plot by Jews to subvert Christian America, and a punishment against Jews due to their rejecting the divinity of Christ. Evidently, Aristotelian logic is not haters’ main strength.
Similar messages have been spread by Islamist haters on social media, but also by authoritative representatives of the Sunni and Shi’a extremist camps.
As to the former, one may notice the typical activism of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in this domain. In Jordan, Islamist scholar Ahmad al-Shahrouri has stated on the MB-affiliated Yarmouk TV (which is prohibited in the Hashemite Kingdom but still transmits via satellite) that “the Jews are more dangerous than coronavirus, AIDS, and Cholera”, while praising jihad as an antidote to these diseases. The website of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, an MB jurisprudential body headed for a long time by the late Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has published an article by one of its members, chair of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama, who calls the virus a divine punishment against “aggressive Zionists” and the “arrogant Chinese” for their treatment of Muslims. In Turkey, Fatih Erbakan, head of the Refah Partisi and son of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist political mentor Necmettin Erbakan, has affirmed that COVID-19 is most likely a Zionist plot to decrease the number of people in the world; he further quoted his father saying that “Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria that has caused the suffering of people.” The last sentence clearly shows that Islamists often use “Zionism” as a mere synonym for “Judaism”, and “Zionists” as a synonym for “Jews”.
While the examples above reflect scattered opinions by independent actors—albeit often coordinated and enjoying state support, as happens with the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey and Qatar—the music changes when we move to the Shi’a side, where Iran has coordinated a centralized disinformation attack against Israel.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has deployed an arsenal of conspiracy theories through its government bodies and its proxies abroad, all aimed at portraying the virus as a Zionist plot. According to state-controlled Press TV, the coronavirus outbreak is “biological warfare on massive scale“ waged by the United States and Israel. A professor from the University of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has added a more refined and imaginative twist, claiming that Zionists stole Iranian DNA to craft a bioweapon, specifically targeting Iranians. These kinds of fabrications are a clear attempt by the regime to catch two birds with one stone, namely fostering the usual anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda while deflecting blame for the disastrous handling of the pandemic onto the usual foreign agents.
As is the nature of the revolutionary regime in Iran, its impact has stretched far beyond its national borders. On its “near abroad”, Iran has mobilized its Middle Eastern proxies to amplify its coronavirus propaganda. The IRGC proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for instance, has hosted on its Al-Manar television station a Lebanese politician arguing that Western regimes, installed by Zionists, have used the pandemic to get rid of the elderly. In Yemen, a scholar from the Iranian-controlled Houthi faction has delivered a sermon accusing Jews of having masterminded a plot to take control of Muslim holy cities, Mecca and Medina, first by installing the “Jewish” Al-Saud family on the throne of Saudi Arabia, and now by spreading COVID-19 in the two cities.
Even more interesting, and perhaps less obvious, is the influence exerted by Iran on Leftist proxies further afield, in Europe and Latin America. The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry reports that the anti-Israeli conspiracy theories invented by Press TV and Al-Manar are endorsed and taken up by the extreme-Left in the Basque area of Spain, by the Venezuelan regime’s broadcaster HispanTV, and by other “anti-imperialist” outlets across South America. Other examples of odd companions come from the UK, where conspiracy movements that saw the pandemic as a Jewish enterprise have brought together “Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, anti-Israel activists, people who had been expelled from the Labour Party and other random conspiracy theorists”.
These phenomena is part of a wider antisemitic tendency that, since the time of the Soviet propaganda, has welded Leftist, far-Right, and Islamist topoi against the Jews as the greedy symbol of worldwide capitalism, blending the vituperation of Karl Marx with an Islamist flavouring. While the glamourous Left has not hesitated to genuflect to the Chinese Communist Party and to blame “consumerism” for COVID-19 (as if it hadn’t originated in Communist China), Islamogauchistes have seized this opportunity to conjoin this rhetoric with antisemitism. Emblematic, from this perspective, is a piece by Jordanian journalist Kafa al-Zou’bi, who identifies the cause of the pandemic in “barbaric”, “greedy” and “Jewish” capitalism. She further calls Judaism “a cancer that has harmed humanity since the dawn of its civilized history”, laying the blame for the most brutal aspects of capitalism and other world horrors at the feet of Jews.
This kind of antisemitism is certainly awful in its explicit nature. However, for this very reason, it is paradoxically less dangerous than more polished lies against Israel coming from more ostensibly reputable and authoritative sources, such as academics and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
For instance, As’ad Abukhalil, professor at the State University of California, tweeted that “Israel will take different measures to treat Jews and non-Jews”, and the latter will be “amassed in prison”. In a similar vein, Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, from San Francisco State University, participated in a webinar where she said that “Israeli interrogators actually infected Palestinian prisoners while they were torturing them with the COVID-19”.
Several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused Israel of exposing Palestinians to a “humanitarian crisis” by various means, including through movement restrictions and denial of medical goods in Gaza. These claims have been echoed in a letter signed by 250 writers, artists, actors and directors who blamed Israel for exposing Gaza to “a mortal threat in the world’s largest open-air prison” (a terminology used even by some Members of the European Parliament).
In fact, the reality is quite different. Besides the fact that Palestinian Territories have been in proportion less struck by coronavirus than many other countries (including Israel), international institutions have lauded the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on this matter. The U.N.’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nikolay Mladenov, described it as “excellent”. The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) certified that “the movement of goods from Israel and Egypt [during the COVID emergency] has continued as previously, including the entry of restricted (‘dual use’) items via the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom Crossing” and that “the Government of Israel has offered to expedite approvals for items needed in relation to the COVID-19 response”. Even the European Union, while condemning the “demolitions of Palestinian structures in the occupied West Bank”, welcomed the “Palestinian-Israeli cooperation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic”.
While criticism against Israel and its state policies are legitimate, as stated above, misrepresenting reality (or spreading lies) to demonstrate its criminal (if not genocidal) intent against non-Jews easily slips into a modern form of the blood libel—yet another ancient antisemitic stereotype, along with the Jew as a world dominator, a greedy capitalist, an infector, a subhuman. The coronavirus is just an updated catalyst for antisemitic tropes—a new cloak for old themes whose substance never changes.
It is high time that we began to address this substance not only when it comes from the Right—as it sacrosanct to do—but also from the Left and from Islam. In 2019, the German Intelligence Agency for Domestic Security finally broke a taboo in this regard, by publishing a report on “Antisemitism in Islamism”. Let us hope that this does not remain an isolated case, but is evidence of a new trend aimed at fighting antisemitism, even beyond the borders of groups it is politically correct to criticize.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.