Is COVID-19 mutating into antisemitism?

Using themes taken straight out of the medieval playbook of European antisemites, various extremist groups have been blaming the Jews and Israel for the virus.

SINISTER HORROR: ‘The diabolical conception of the Jew.’  (photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
SINISTER HORROR: ‘The diabolical conception of the Jew.’
(photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
It’s a tale nearly as old as the Jewish people, one that stretches back to the dawn of our existence as a nation. Targeted by unimaginable hatred, singled out for bizarre and often self-contradictory conspiracy theories, Jews have time and again seen antisemitism flare up throughout history. 
Sadly, in this regard, the coronavirus crisis is proving to be no different, as the dreaded illness wasted little time before mutating into yet another classical and deadly variant: the fear and loathing of Jews.
In its annual report on global antisemitism published earlier this week ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was marked on January 27, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry highlighted the increasing exploitation of COVID-19 by anti-Israel and antisemitic extremists around the world to stir up malice toward Jews.
Using themes taken straight out of the medieval playbook of European antisemites, various extremist groups on both the far Left and the far Right, as well as rogue regimes such as the one in Tehran, have been blaming the Jews and Israel for the virus. 
Reading through the report is a sobering experience if only because it demonstrates just how pervasive and extensive antisemitism can be – cutting across social, religious and ethnic lines as well as national borders. 
And while the various lockdowns and quarantines imposed worldwide due to the virus led to a sharp drop in physical attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2020, for the simple reason that even the haters were forced to stay at home, it seems to have had the opposite effect on attitudes and beliefs vis-à-vis Jews. So much so that the report predicts that, “the rising rates of antisemitic sentiment are expected to lead to a significant increase in violence against Jews and Jewish sites in 2021.”
“Jews, Zionists, and Israel are accused of having created, spread, financed and used the virus to expand their global domination, impose a New World Order, but also as a means for profit,” the study notes, adding that some have gone so far as to allege that COVID-19 is a biological weapon funded by Jews.
Anti-Israel activists have even created and sought to popularize the hashtag #COVID1948 to compare Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel with the spread of the pandemic. 
This sinister line of thought has infected people on both sides of the political spectrum, ranging from white supremacists and neo-Nazis to proponents of BDS and Antifa. In other words, even people with diametrically opposite world views who despise each other are united in the belief that Jews are to blame for the coronavirus crisis.
In historical terms, the association of Jews with the spread of disease and the allegation that they are actively involved in the process can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, when many Europeans believed the nefarious accusation that the Jews were “poisoning the wells”.
AS THE late Joshua Trachtenberg pointed out in his seminal 1943 work, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism, these charges, as ridiculous as they were, nonetheless had a profound and dangerous influence on public opinion. 
“Crowning the diabolical conception of the Jew,” Trachtenberg wrote, “it rendered him a figure of such sinister horror even in that blood-stained, terror-haunted period that it is little wonder that common folk came to despise and to fear and to hate him with a deep fanatical intensity.”
Centuries may have elapsed, and society and technology may have rapidly advanced, but the same old stinking lie continues to live on. 
It is truly difficult to comprehend how any sane or rational person could believe such things. After all, Jewish communities around the world have been devastated by COVID-19, in some cases in greater terms percentage-wise than that of their non-Jewish neighbors. And Israel has played a leading role in vaccinating its population, setting an example that other countries have sought to learn from.
But facts do not seem to matter as much as they should and the ease with which they are overpowered by falsehoods is simply chilling.
Indeed, as Trachtenberg pointed out, “The lie is a more potent weapon, skillfully wielded, than the bare and simple truth…. For the lie can be molded to match the ‘will to believe’; the truth is made of less malleable stuff.”
Nevertheless, despite this alarming situation, we must continue to do battle with the perfidy and prevarication being hurled our way. 
There are of course no easy fixes. Whereas it took less than a year for laboratory scientists to invent a vaccine against corona, social scientists have spent centuries seeking a cure for antisemitism, yet it still persists.
But unlike our medieval forebears, we are blessed with a variety of tools, ranging from our own sovereign state to modern means of mass communication, which make it possible to mount a concerted defense. Israel and Jewish organizations must redouble their efforts to expose the COVID-19 lies and counter them as best as possible. 
The same holds true for each and every one of us active on social media platforms, where you and I have the ability to interact with and educate a broad and widespread audience. In addition to posting photos of your pet, or the latest Bernie Sanders meme, try using your social network to combat misperceptions about Israel and Jews. You might be surprised at the impact you can have. 
In these challenging times, amid economic disruption and social unrest, Jews need to be more vigilant than ever and it falls upon all of us to stand up for our nation and our people. If there is one thing we can learn from the disseminators of hate, you just never know whom and how far you might be able to reach. 
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.