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Did RFK Jr. cross the line between unwise and antisemitic?

Though he may not have intended it, the Democratic candidate’s outrageous claim that the coronavirus was engineered to spare Jews invokes classic tropes of Jew-hatred.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a demonstration in Milan against the vaccine passport introduced in Italy to combat COVID, Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Renato Murolo 68/Shutterstock.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a demonstration in Milan against the vaccine passport introduced in Italy to combat COVID, Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Renato Murolo 68/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the age of Twitter, controversies in which people are accused of being bigots or antisemites should never be taken at face value. Speaking in public means putting oneself in danger of having words taken out of context, misunderstood and disingenuously misinterpreted as support for something evil. And, regardless of the truth of the accusation, once such a charge has been made, that’s just the beginning of the issue. After it starts, it’s a given that a legion of ideological trolls will take up that smear and spread it on social media while adding on new layers of dishonest demagoguery and dehumanization of the target.

But that doesn’t mean that every statement that starts a Twitterstorm isn’t worth criticizing. There is a fine line between discussing something with antisemitic implications and engaging in open antisemitism. Nevertheless, when public figures—let alone U.S. presidential candidates—skirt the fine line that separates those two things, they have no one to blame but themselves for what follows. That is why the efforts to defend Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for what The New York Times claimed was a “bigoted new Covid conspiracy theory about Jews and Chinese” aren’t likely to persuade many people.

At question were his comments at a press event at a New York restaurant captured on video and then reported by the New York Post. In it, Kennedy is speaking about bioweapons, which he said both the Americans and Chinese are developing to target specific ethnic groups. And that led to a discussion about the origins and the nature of COVID-19.

“There is an argument,” RFK Jr. said, that the coronavirus was itself “ethnically targeted.” He then went on to argue that it “attacks certain races disproportionately.” Citing what he said was a scholarly paper on the subject asserting that the virus impacted groups differently due to the genetic nature of the strain, he said COVID is “structured to attack Caucasians and black people.” He then said the people most immune to it are “Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”

He qualified the statement by saying “we don’t know that it was deliberately targeted or not but there are papers that show the racial and ethnic” differences in COVID’s impact. He went on to assert that the “Chinese are developing bioweapons, and we [the United States] are doing it.” That was, he said, “what all those labs in Ukraine are about,” a reference to claims that the United States is funding bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine.

The reaction to all this was a storm of outrage and condemnation that should have surprised no one. And as is always the case with this controversy, RFK Jr.’s claims were boiled down to his alleging that the pandemic was a conspiracy intended to spare the Jews and Chinese while hurting other Americans.

When put in context, a close reading doesn’t support that interpretation, but by alleging that Jews were not vulnerable to COVID, RFK Jr. was treading on dangerous territory. Accusations about Jews being exempt from suffering that impacted others remain a familiar trope of antisemitism, of which the most memorable example is the Black Death in the 14th century. Upwards of 40% of all people in Europe died from variants of the Bubonic Plague, including Jews. But Jews were nonetheless blamed for it, and as such, were subjected to massacres and persecution.

Indeed, any effort to single out Jews in this matter is potentially dangerous, giving ammunition to antisemitic conspiracy theories.

That is especially true in this case since the evidence that Jews were less vulnerable to COVID than others appears to be negligible. While many feared that it would devastate the entire population—much like the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919—it’s now clear that the threat was primarily aimed at the elderly, and those with other serious diseases and/or pre-existing conditions. Among that sector of the population, Jews were just as much at risk as anyone else with the toll among elderly Jews in the Greater New York region being particularly awful.

Seen in that light, the effort to claim that Jews are somehow less likely to get COVID on the basis of flimsy evidence was irresponsible.

That ought to earn him some criticism. But given his past history of floating all sorts of false conspiracy theories, including a claim about the 2004 presidential election (he said it was stolen by Republicans), linking childhood vaccines and autism, and one about Wi-Fi causing cancer, he has lost the right to claim the benefit of the doubt. A man of the left with a troubling personal history of drug use and wild living, his extreme positions on many issues lend a degree of credibility to the accusations against him.

And though he has some ardent defenders within the Jewish community like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Zionist Organization of America national president Mort Klein, who tout his support for Israel and the Jewish people, he’s also been under fire for past comments that concerned Jews. He expressed support for notorious antisemite Roger Waters after a particularly egregious musical performance in Berlin and then made the unpersuasive claim that he was among the few on the planet who didn’t know that the rock star was an Israel-hater. He also made common cause with hatemonger Louis Farrakhan though he now denounces him. Kennedy also made an egregious comparison between coercive government anti-COVID policies to Nazi persecutions that forced Anne Frank into hiding—something that even elicited a condemnation from his actress wife Cheryl Hines.

So it’s hard to have sympathy for a person with that kind of history who floats an unsubstantiated theory about Jews and disease that can easily be misconstrued to justify antisemitic conspiracies.

That said, it’s also true that the rush to disparage Kennedy in the corporate media is also rooted in an effort to shut down discussion about mistaken government pandemic policies and his skepticism about administration policies about the war in Ukraine. A lot of what he has said in the past is bunk, but his criticisms of coronavirus lockdowns, as well as masks and vaccine mandates, were largely on target.

Nor should the effort to treat all discussions about the origins and properties of COVID as conspiracies—as the Times article seemed to do—be accepted. Given the way the Chinese Communist government in Beijing has stonewalled the issue, the world may never know the truth about the origins of the pandemic. The fact that it began in Wuhan (the same city as a government bioweapons lab) and speculation about it being linked to bioweapons is not off the table for discussion. Indeed, if his gadfly candidacy has any purpose, it is in the attempt to force a discussion about damaging COVID government policies that the political and media establishment doesn’t want to have.

Given the way the Democratic Party has stacked the deck in next year’s primaries in order to ensure President Joe Biden’s renomination, RFK Jr. has little hope of victory. But if he is serious about showing his support for the Jewish community, then he needs to stress his positions opposing the targeting of Israel, and opposition to a new and even more dangerous Iran nuclear deal being sought by his opponent, as well as his opposition to antisemitism from left-wing Jew-haters in the Democrats’ intersectional progressive wing. And he needs to stop invoking ideas that are adjacent to antisemitic conspiracy theories and easily portrayed as hateful.

Such sober behavior may be asking too much of someone like Kennedy. He may not be an antisemite, and he is giving voice to concerns about COVID and Ukraine that deserve to be heard. But his careless linking of Jews to a modern-day plague is additional proof that, regardless of the shortcomings of his opponents, he is also not necessarily the sort of person who should be president.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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