How COVID-19 has sparked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories

In the wake of the pandemic, it has become clear that the Jewish people’s right to a state and self-defense can be questioned in the name of a virus.

Palestinian security forces stop a driver attempting to enter the West Bank city of Hebron, as part of the Palestinian Authority's steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 19, 2020. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Palestinian security forces stop a driver attempting to enter the West Bank city of Hebron, as part of the Palestinian Authority's steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 19, 2020. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

It’s easy to see how the coronavirus pandemic has sparked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They are a part of the classical paradigm; 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, for example the Black Death, which swept through the Middle East and Europe in the years 1346-1353.

The Jews were blamed then as they are today for COVID-19, but it could have been syphilis, tuberculosis or parasites. The bibliography is vast. The late scholar of anti-Semitism Robert S. Wistrich outlined conspiracy theories in the Arab world blaming Jews for theft, rape, the slaughter of gentiles, and an alleged secret coalition of Jews and Freemasons seeking world domination.

Today, however, such accusations are 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 whose true purpose is stealing human organs for profit. I myself recall Hillary Clinton being totally shocked during her first visit to the Gaza Strip when Suha Arafat told her that the Jews were poisoning wells.

Another example, one among many, is when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas told the Parliament of the European Union in Brussels that Israeli rabbis were telling settlers to do the same—and received a standing ovation.

It is my opinion that such accusations can have dire political consequences and must be fought politically.

The accusations coming from the P.A. now 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 briefings on preventive measures. The accusations are manifold. Israelis, they say, are sending Palestinian workers back to their towns and villages from Israel 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 U.S. President Donald 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 to spew the poison—all in the name of freedom of speech. This rhetoric continues to include the terms “territories” and “settlers,” which have always been at the center of the effort to delegitimize the State of Israel.

P.A. Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has not only insisted upon this lie, but has also accused Israeli soldiers of trying to spread the virus by spitting on the door handles of Palestinians’ cars.

The Palestinian Authority’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Milhem, on the other hand, has said that “Israel is not exporting the virus to the Palestinians, but they are agents of this epidemic which is called the occupation.”

So, we have the settlers and the Israel Defense Forces 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 these conspiracy theories.

The underlying message is that the imperialist occupier State of Israel, which represents perfidy, corruption and the imperialism of the Jewish people, is responsible for all of the world’s ills, which it exploits in its quest for world 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 concept of occupation incorrectly. This narrative promotes not only mythological anti-Semitism, but also politically motivated anti-Israel bias.

Take the following prime example: Nickolay Mladenov, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, during a session in which he praised the actions of Israel in helping the P.A. fight COVID-19, underlined, out of the blue, that “not unilateral action” (namely, the annexation of territory in Judea and Samaria, and the Jordan Valley that the U.S. Mideast 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 to help Palestinians, they need not automatically adhere to the Palestinians’ narrative. This appears to be a political byproduct 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 United States and Israel of spreading the virus, and so, too, have Palestinian newspapers such as Al Quds—based in eastern 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, and this reservoir of stereotypes and mendacities is dipped into by both to the right and the left.

However, there is a difference between the degree of danger represented by “traditional” and modern anti-Semitism, and therefore in the scale of priorities for fighting anti-Semitism.

Nobody in the civilized world will agree—not governmental institutions, those in 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. Such purely archeological, disgusting, Nazi-like anti-Semitic expressions are condemned and rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella and others, and will eventually be removed from social media.

However, there is a more sophisticated way to perpetuate anti-Semitism today, 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 a society, an ideological thorn that intersects with basic issues which leaders and relevant groups 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 support it. Nobody, including Western leaders or those inside institutions such as the European Union or United Nations, as well as the media, will share it. They will condemn it. But when more reasonable arguments are presented alongside it, for example the idea that Palestinian infection rates are connected to the occupation, then it may be translated into more responsible political language.

Among the political or the intellectual classes, one hears that the Jews are not directly responsible for spreading the infection, but that the Palestinians are at greater risk from it due to Israel. They suffer because they never had the opportunity of organizing, in a word, because they are oppressed, like so many other sectors of the international community.

Here, the aim is basically moral delegitimization of the State of Israel, which will reverberate throughout international Jewry. Israel-based media watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch shows us that the war around COVID-19 in the Palestinian media is closely connected with delegitimization of the State of Israel itself. In one cartoon carried by a Palestinian media outlet, for example, a man in a medical gown and hood, wearing a mask and gloves, embraces a map of Palestine in which there is no Israel, accompanied by the text: “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 billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros of spreading the virus. As with other anti-Semitic, neo-fascist attacks, such accusations will not go undetected and uncondemned, yet they 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 European Union is certainly right to help the P.A. combat COVID-19. It did well to give millions of euros for this purpose. But why does it not make this aid conditional on the P.A. stopping the most vulgar anti-Semitic expressions? Anti-Semitism is certainly a major topic of discussion in Europe today, so why hasn’t the European Union addressed the Palestinian and the Iranian 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, E.U. representative to the Palestinian territories Sven Kuhn von Burgsdoff again cites the “occupation” as being responsible for the P.A.’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 of former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (delegitimization, demonization and double standards against Israel), 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 the anti-Israel slander that dominates public discourse.

Therefore, for any institution that truly means to combat anti-Semitism, the 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 Israel needs in order to ensure its political, economic and military freedom. The first threat is to the nationalist 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 U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which determined that the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, 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 into institutions, as happened with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), 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-Zionists. Most of the European states that have adhered to the IHRA definition 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, to defend itself. 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. This 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.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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