Fiamma Nirenstein – How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Sparked Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories
Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of spreading Covid-19 and refusing to explain to the Palestinians how to fight it, even though Israeli hospitals invited Palestinian doctors, including those from Gaza, to brief them about preventive measures.
- Israelis, they say, are sending Palestinian workers back to the territories in order to spark a massive surge in infections and are intentionally infecting Palestinian prisoners and even children.
- Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has claimed that Israeli soldiers are trying to spread the virus by spitting on the door handles of cars driven by Palestinians.
- Al-Hayat al-Jadida – the official daily of the Palestinian Authority – on March 16 published a cartoon depicting the coronavirus as a large tank pursuing a Palestinian carrying an infant.
- The EU is certainly right when it helps the PA combat Covid-19. But why does it not make this aid conditional on stopping the most vulgar forms of anti-Semitism?
- Why hasn’t the EU addressed the Palestinian and the Iranian regime’s insistence on blaming the Jews for Covid-19?
It’s easy to see how the Coronavirus pandemic has sparked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They are a part of the classical paradigm, and the Jews have again become what the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni called “the plague spreaders of 1630.” This has happened every time there has been a plague, as, for example, the Black Death which swept through the Middle East and Europe in the years 1346-1353.
Then the Jews were blamed – as they are today for Covid-19 – for these outbreaks, but it could have been syphilis, tuberculosis or parasites. The bibliography is vast. The late scholar of anti-Semitism Robert S. Wistrich outlined the conspiracy theories existing within the Arab world to include theft, rape, the slaughter of Gentiles and an alleged secret coalition of Jews and Freemasons seeking world domination, like the Elders of Zion.
Today, however, those accusations are now directed at Israel. Doctors, soldiers and nurses who fly across the globe to help during emergencies such as earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones are described as vampires who go with the purpose of stealing human organs for profit. I myself recall Hillary Clinton being totally shocked during her first visit to Gaza when Suha Arafat told her that the Jews were poisoning wells. Another example, among many, is when Mahmoud Abbas said that Israeli rabbis were telling settlers to do the same, and he received a standing ovation at the EU Assembly. It is my opinion that such accusations can have dire political consequences and must be fought politically.
The accusations coming from the PA are that Israel is spreading Covid-19 and refusing to explain to the Palestinians how to fight it, even though Israeli hospitals invited Palestinian doctors, including those from Gaza, to brief them about preventive measures. Their accusations are manifold. Israelis, they say, are sending Palestinian workers back to the territories in order to spark a massive surge in infections and are intentionally infecting Palestinian prisoners and even children. A more abstract but sensitive accusation, is that the pandemic is Allah’s answer to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such accusations are not an academic exercise in anti-Semitism, but rather part and parcel of an elaborate campaign to delegitimize Israel. The State of Israel lies at the heart of this anti-Semitism.
We see here that even the most traditional demonization, with its blood libels and age-old anti-Semitic tropes, finds expression in the modern Israel-centered narrative. It even connects with the concept that lies at the core of the BDS movement’s sophisticated political machine, which legitimizes its intention of eliminating Israel while presenting itself as a defender of human rights. Social media and other platforms are used in order to spew their poisonous banter – all in the name of freedom of speech. Its rhetoric continues to include the “territories” and “settlers,” which have always been at the center of the effort to delegitimize the State of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Milhem, said, “Israel is not exporting the virus to the Palestinians, but they are agents of this epidemic, which is called the occupation.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh not only has insisted upon this lie, but has also accused settlers and has claimed that Israeli soldiers are trying to spread the virus by spitting on the door handles of cars driven by Palestinians. So, we have the settlers and the IDF as poisoners, and Israel in its essence as the bad guy, according to the Palestinian narrative. The Jewish state is politically and officially the protagonist in the conspiracy theories.
The underlying message is a populist invitation to stick to the false message that the imperialist occupying State of Israel – which represents perfidy, corruption, and the imperialism of the Jewish people – is responsible for all of the world’s ills and plays upon them in order to seek dominance. It is the idea that Israel is a “regime of occupation” (discussed by Asa Kasher in the volume Israelophobia and the West edited by Dan Diker) that invites these negative views. It expresses a negative opinion from a moral, religious, or ethical perspective, affirms a discriminatory attitude in historical perspective, and refuses any comparative view. There is no legitimate criticism here because, first of all, it is based on lies, and secondly, because it uses the idea of occupation incorrectly, without engaging in any historical truth. Therefore, it promotes not only mythological anti-Semitism, but also politically motivated anti-Israel actions.
Take the following prime example: Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, during a session in which he praised the actions of Israel in helping the PA to fight Covid-19, underlined, out of the blue, that “not unilateral action” (namely, the annexation that the U.S. peace plan foresees) but cooperation is needed to fight the virus. Yet there is no connection between the two. Just because someone underlines the need of helping Palestinians, they need not automatically adhere to the Palestinians’ narrative. This appears to be a political by-product of the coronavirus campaign.
There have been numerous other cases of anti-Semitism in recent weeks that have not failed to mention Israel, including in France and Germany. Iran has accused the U.S. and Israel of spreading the virus and so, too, have Palestinian newspapers such as Al Quds – based in east Jerusalem – and Al-Hayat al-Jadida – the official daily of the Palestinian Authority – which on March 16 published a cartoon depicting the coronavirus as a large tank pursuing a Palestinian carrying an infant. This is today’s anti-Semitism, even if conspiracy theories about Jews belong to the deep history of anti-Semitism, and this reservoir of stereotypes and mendacities belongs both to the right and to the left.
However, there is a difference in their degree of danger, and therefore in the scale of priorities for learning how to fight anti-Semitism. Nobody in the civilized world will agree –not governmental institutions, those in relevant positions of power, the media, or international institutions – with the thesis that the Jews spread coronavirus for their own interests. This is condemned as a shameful expression of fascist or Nazi anti-Semitism and there is never consensus by democracies on the neo-Nazi theories of racial difference. The purely archeological, disgusting, Nazi anti-Semitic expressions will be condemned and rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella, and others, and eventually be removed from social media.
Nowadays there is a sophisticated way to perpetuate anti-Semitism through clever propaganda against the Jewish people in its most important expression – the State of Israel. Anti-Semitism becomes dangerous when it becomes an organizing principle of society, an ideological thorn that intersects with basic issues which leaders and relevant groups of people consider important.
The idea that Covid-19 is spread by the Jews is in itself old, obsolete, and easy to counteract because no one who holds public responsibility will share it. Nobody, including Western leaders or those inside institutions such as the EU or UN, as well as the media, will share it. They will condemn it. But when more reasonable arguments are presented alongside it, for example, when the idea that infection is connected to occupation, then it may be translated into more responsible political language.
By suggesting that the occupation brings bad consequences, a bad economy and poor hygienic conditions in Gaza, among the political or the intellectual classes you can hear that the Jews are not directly responsible for spreading the infection but that today the Palestinians are endangered by it. They suffer because they never had the opportunity of organizing, basically, in a word, because they are oppressed like so many other sectors of the international community.
Here, the aim is basically a moral delegitimization of the State of Israel, and it will reverberate throughout international Jewry. Palestinian Media Watch shows us that the war around Covid-19 in the Palestinian media is closely connected with delegitimization of the existence of the State of Israel itself. You can see the PA map of Palestine covering all of Israel as Palestine, and a man in a medical gown and hood wearing a mask and gloves embracing Palestine. The accompanying text says, “Stay at home so you can protect the homeland.”
Now, classic anti-Semites throughout the world can flood social media accusing the Jews of having spread the virus, as did the Austrian right-wing extremist Martin Sellner who accused George Soros of spreading the virus. This will not go undetected and uncondemned like other anti-Semitic neo-fascist attacks. Yet the accusations bring back the basic issues of “illegal occupation” “racism,” “apartheid,” “colonization,” and “ethnic cleansing,” which are spreading widely. These charges can become effective and dangerous, and throw a shadow on the morality of all Jews.
The EU is certainly right when it helps the PA combat Covid-19. It did well to give millions of euros. But why does it not make this aid conditional on stopping the most vulgar forms of anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism is certainly a major topic of discussion in Europe today, so why hasn’t the EU addressed the Palestinian and the Iranian regime’s insistence on blaming the Jews for Covid-19? When discussing the virus in Iran, why has it not thought about the possibility of readdressing its sanctions against the country in exchange for aid? In a recent letter, EU representative to the Palestinian territories Sven Kuhn von Burgsdoff again cites the “occupation” as being responsible for the PA’s poor performance, even if in a less harsh tone.
As conspiracy theories grow, they pose a danger to both the State of Israel and to the Jewish people as a whole. Action, therefore, must be political, by identifying those responsible, and hitting them with laws and consequences, despite the Coronavirus pandemic. It has never been so clear that anti-Semitism, according to the three D’s definition, is present in this new form of delegitimization. There is nothing legitimate in blaming Israel for Covid-19. It is anti-Semitism pure and simple, and in order to fight it we must identify it more than ever with the fight against anti-Israel slander, which dominates public discourse.
Therefore, when the intention of combating anti-Semitism is real, and institutions have a real intent to stop it, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism is certainly useful, but it has to be used as a weapon and not as a prayer, just as Trump’s executive order does. Funds and help cannot be distributed among dangerous, active anti-Semites even if we want – and we do want – to help them fight against the virus. They can be stopped.
This new anti-Semitism threatens the life of the State of Israel itself. It undermines not only Israel’s national security, but also the international support it needs in order to ensure its political, economic, and military freedom. The first threat is to the national nature of Zionism, to its necessity, and puts into question the very existence of Israel. The second is to the political, economic and military freedoms it needs in order to defend itself. Israel’s national security can be compromised by the never-ending campaign about “occupied Palestinian territory.”
We have a strong example of that in UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which determined that the Western Wall, among other sites, is in occupied Palestinian territory. The wide spread of anti-Israel/anti-Semitic politics that connects to the delegitimization of Israel brings anti-Semitism inside the institutions, as happened with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who tweeted: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She has never paid a price for this. Those who maintain that they are not anti-Semites must state clearly that they are not anti-Zionist. Most of the European states that have adhered to the IHRA have not adopted the part related to anti-Zionism as condemnable anti-Semitism, in the name of the right to free speech.
Therefore, there are no excuses tied to the confusion and fear of Covid-19. The Jewish people can again be delegitimized and considered deplorable in the name of the virus. This includes questioning its right to a state, and moreover, its self-defense. The consequences of pandemics must never be undervalued. An epidemic can change the course of history, bringing with it the devastation of broad social, scientific, economic and strategic changes. It has already happened in the 14th, 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. It is worth it today to invest in countering its effect on anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism.