What has changed since the ‘Black Death’?

It’s hard not to notice the conjunction of a viral epidemic that is itself drowning in false information and malicious speculation with a wider context in which political, racial and religious extremism is flourishing.

The “burning of the Jews” depiction during Europe’s Black Death plague. Source: University of Iowa’s Library.
The “burning of the Jews” depiction during Europe’s Black Death plague. Source: University of Iowa’s Library.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

The numbers are rolling in, and they make for grim reading. In four European countries with significant Jewish communities—France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy—statistics gathered during 2019 by communal organizations and law-enforcement agencies published in the last month noted a steep rise in anti-Semitic offenses across all of them.

Arguably, the most worrying pattern to emerge from this data is the growing tendency among Jew-haters to physically assault their victims. True, such outrages still account for only a small percentage of the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents, but year on year, they are becoming more common. The nature of the violence has ranged from street assaults on individuals wearing kipahs or carrying Jewish religious items to an attempted gun attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle on Yom Kippur last year, foiled only by the heavy doors that separated worshippers from the rampaging neo-Nazi outside.

That there is greater license for anti-Semitic violence mirrors the greater license for anti-Semitic invective we have also witnessed, both in Europe and America. On both sides of the Atlantic, post-World War II discursive taboos are being shattered to the point that they are “ultimately reflected in deeds,” as the head of Germany’s Jewish community, Josef Schuster, put it last week. Schuster was remarking on yet another annual rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes reported in Germany—1,839 incidents altogether, a record, of which 72 involved physical violence.

2019 was a record year for anti-Semitic acts, but it was also notable as the year in which Americans stopped reading about anti-Jewish violence as a mainly European problem, and Europeans stopped thinking about America as a country largely immune from anti-Jewish hatred. The global character of anti-Semitism was rarely more in evidence than last year—an observation that sets a rather ominous tone for this year.

Examining the rise of anti-Semitism in Italy, where a community of just 30,000 experienced more than 250 anti-Jewish incidents over 12 months, Stefano Gatti of the Milan-based Antisemitism Observatory emphasized the surrounding environment in which such attacks are occurring. Anti-Zionist propaganda demonizing Israel as a “Nazi” state is commonly seen alongside the conspiracy theory that non-white immigration into Europe is a Jewish plot against the continent’s native populations. The overlords of occupied Palestinian land, the puppet-masters of the world’s governments and banks; these themes, given a new lease of life in the digital age, are now migrating into the real world in the form of renewed anti-Jewish violence.

In this febrile atmosphere, Jews are watching the international spread of the coronavirus and the resulting illness of those infected (COVID-19) with the kind of alarm that would, even 20 years ago, have seemed eccentric. But no wonder: Such episodes, where you can see the suffering but you’re not convinced that you know all you should about the source of it, are a boon for anti-Semites.

In France last week, a far-right politician named Alain Mondino chose to link the coronavirus panic to a Jewish plot. Using his account on the popular Russian social-media network VKontakte, Mondino made a video entitled “Coronavirus for goyim”—an old Yiddish pejorative for non-Jews that has been mockingly adopted by contemporary anti-Semites—available to his followers. Introduced with a title sequence devoted to the “Jew World Order,” the video went on to advance the theory that coronavirus “was developed by the Jews.” For his part, Mondino added that he was sharing the video “for information, without comment.”

At the time of this post on  March 3, Mondino was the head of the slate of the far-right Rassemblement Nationale (RN) party—itself an outgrowth of the neo-fascist National Front—for the forthcoming municipal elections in Villepinte, near Paris. Within a couple of days, the RN announced that it was withdrawing its backing for Mondino. In a terse statement, Stéphane Jolivet, the RN’s spokesperson, explained that Mondino had “broken the rules,” and therefore the party had no choice but to ditch him.

The manner of Mondino’s dismissal leaves much to be desired. Jolivet’s statement, perhaps deliberately, made it sound like Mondino had stupidly broken a “rule” that everyone else knows not to, because the Jews are very powerful after all, and therefore pre-emptive action was regrettably necessary before the inevitable public storm. At no point did the RN explain the character of Mondino’s offense, its place in the pantheon of anti-Jewish libels and its echoes of the propaganda of the Nazi German regime that occupied France during World War II.

Writing about the growing visibility online of conspiracists variously connecting the virus with the Israeli Mossad, the Rothschild banking family and sundry other members of the anti-Semite’s rogues gallery, Marc Knobel—a historian with CRIF, the French-Jewish representative organization—reminded his readers that the linkage of Jews with pandemics goes back at least to the Middle Ages.

On Jan. 12, 1349, Knobel wrote, the Black Death reached Germany for the first time. He then listed the outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence that accompanied the spread of the plague in lockstep. In Freiburg on Jan. 16, the entire Jewish community was burned at the stake. On Jan. 22, it was the turn of the Jewish community of Spiers to be wholly destroyed. The massacres of Jews continued in Germany and then in neighboring Swiss towns right through to the end of April.

“What have we learned from the epidemic of 1349 and the anti-Semitism that struck at that time?” asked Knobel. Wisely, perhaps, he did not answer this question, encouraging us to simply reflect on the parallels between Yersinia pestis, or Black Death, and COVID-19.

Duly reflecting, it’s hard not to notice the conjunction of a viral epidemic that is itself drowning in false information and malicious speculation with a wider context in which political, racial and religious extremism is flourishing. Just as the anti-Semites didn’t need scientific proof in the Middle Ages to support their lies, they don’t need it now, for what is presented to them as a superior set of arguments is thrown back at us wrapped in the label “Jewish conspiracy.”

Because it theoretically explains everything, anti-Semitism in reality doesn’t explain anything. The coronavirus crisis has given us an insight into its actual purpose, which is to strike terror into the Jewish community.

The realization that techniques used seven centuries ago are again in operation against Jews today is certainly a terrifying thought.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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