People in the West heard about the plague when it struck Istanbul. Known at the time as Constantinople, stories that made their way west moved almost as fast as they do today. Ninety percent dead, some said. The Byzantine emperor’s 13-year-old son, Andronikos, was struck down, others reported. Overcome with sorrow, Emperor Ionnes the Fourth abdicated his throne. For all victims, according to reports, death was horrific, sometimes taking victims in a single day. Gurgling, writhing, spitting, coughing, burning up with fever, it sounded like hell on earth.
But was it fake news? It was a horrible and horribly thrilling tale, the stuff of scary stories told around a campfire, or today on social media. Even if there were some truth to the anecdotes, listeners reasoned, they were happening far, far away. Tragic, but thank God not us, was the sentiment in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England and among their other nation-state siblings.
Then on a fall day in October 1347, 12 ships showed up in Sicily. Their appearance caused no alarm. Fleets often made harbor there, delivering commonly imported goods from the East. This time, however, the goods were different. This time the primary cargo was teaming hosts of fleas carrying millions of bacteria called Yersinia Pestis, more commonly known today as Y. Pestis. Carried by the ships’ crews coming ashore by day and disembarking rats by night, the citizens of Messina, on the island of Sicily, swatted at the familiar bites of troublesome fleas oblivious to their transfer of the novel microscopic bacteria.
Friar Michele described what happened.
“A sort of boil... the size of a lentil erupted on the thigh or arm, [then] the victims violently coughed up blood, and after three days [of] incessant vomiting... for which there was no remedy, they died... and with them died not only everyone who had talked to them, but also anyone who acquired, touched or laid hands on their belongings.”
Terrified parents shunned their own infected children, the married their spouses, priests their congregants, leaving agonizing victims to suffer and die alone.
By the autumn of 1348, only one year after the fleet of death made port, John Kelly, author of The Great Mortality, describes the Sicilian landscape.
“The dead had come to inhabit Sicily as insistently as the living. Human remains could be found everywhere on the island: on the desolate volcanic wastelands of the interior, in the soft green valleys near the coastal plains, and along the island’s golden beaches. A third of Sicily may have died in the plague; no one knows for sure.”
Like a tsunami in slow motion, the unseen illness had entered Western Europe. Once it did, that half of the continent knew the threat was real. But until Y. Pestis hit their own cities and villages most embraced denial, unable or unwilling to believe that they could be affected.
As Y. Pestis slithered into Genoa, Venice, and then Florence, leaving devastation and unimaginable death, Christian Europe reeled in shock. No one was exempt – not the wealthy, not priests or nuns, not the educated or illiterate, not the righteous or the wicked, and certainly not the poor. Even livestock was ravaged.
When panicked citizens of southern France heard the unrelenting news, there was a frantic search to find a reason for the plague. One theory put forward by Andre Benezei, the vicar of Narbonne, said it was caused by two things: planetary alignments and poisoning. Unable to exact retribution against the planets, the conspiracy theory that took hold was poisoning.
Diabolical infectors were identified as undercover agents posing as traveling monks and pilgrims, sprinkling packets of powder into food, water and onto public benches. For a while it was theorized the agents were political enemies trying to take over the country. Like the planets, however, there was no meaningful way to take action. But the conviction remained: the plague was a plot and its conspirators had to pay.
There was an obvious and tangible suspect that quickly became compelling – the Jews.
The deeply rooted narrative of Christian Europe was, “The Jews killed Jesus” and hence were cursed by God as a living example to all humankind. As such, they should be endured – up to a point. But, in spite of gracious tolerance for financial dealings in related vocations unworthy of good Christians, Jews secretly continued their crucifixion campaign by undermining and assaulting the religion of the Christ they killed.
This framework or lens for understanding the Jews began almost at the start of what came to be known as Christianity. Sometime late in his reign, perhaps in 49 CE, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. The attending consequence on the new Jewish sect, The Way, left only its Gentile converts to carry on the cause, and to do so at the same time as the headquarters of the sect was shifting from Jerusalem to Rome. Acknowledged in the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter 18, the expulsion gave rise to a narrative that God had abandoned the Jews because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. Ignoring the fact that the sect began exclusively by Jews in discipleship to a Jewish rabbi hailed as the Moshiach, Gentile leaders in Rome became belligerent toward Jews who did not, eventually painting all of them with the same rhetorical stripe.
In his letter to followers of The Way in Rome, the Gamliel-educated Jewish disciple of Jesus, Shaul – renamed Paulus – warned Roman believers against the anti-Jewish narrative that was taking hold.
“I say then, God has not rejected his people, has he? May it never be! For I, too, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew ...for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11)
Don’t be arrogant, he implored. Unfortunately for Jews ever since, Paul’s admonitions were an abject failure. From Christianity’s earliest days in Rome, the prevailing narrative flagrantly rejected the notion that God had not rejected the Jews, claiming then, and with rare exception ever since, that He had rejected them, that they were under His curse and that, in fact, Christians had taken the place of the Jews as God’s chosen people.
With this corrupted concept coded into its collective DNA, Christianity became the primary instigator of antisemitism in the West. By the time of the Black Plague, there were extensive precedents for murderous outbreaks against the Jews. Six Crusades to take the Holy Land for Christianity included wholesale slaughter of entire Jewish communities. Reasons given almost always included allegations that, in bloodthirsty opposition to Christ and his followers, Jews were in league with the devil himself.
Exact figures are not known but a reasonable estimate of those who were murdered is easily in excess of two hundred thousand.
Little wonder, then, that targets of Y. Pestis in the early 14th century turned their rage toward Jews, blaming them for the outbreak. The first of numerous “Black Death Pogroms” happened the week before Easter in Toulon, France. On Saturday, April 13, 1348, some 40 Jews, sleeping in the middle of the night, were slaughtered by their Christian neighbors. Subsequent pogroms spread like a moral virus: 300 Jews murdered in Tarrega, Spain; 20 in Barcelona; in Vizelle, France, several Jews were burned at the stake. Then, it exploded north in German-speaking nations.
According to Heinrich Truchess, the Canon in Constance, Germany, “Within the revolution of one year, that is from All Saints Day [November 1] 1348 until Michaelmas [September 29] 1349, all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt and killed.”
It was a wholesale slaughter. Jews were bludgeoned to death, herded into houses to be burned alive en masse, stripped naked and marched to a collective massacre. In the German State of Brandenberg, they were grilled alive in an unimaginable kind of community barbecue.
Could COVID-19 ignite an outbreak of antisemitism?
There are striking similarities between the 14th century outbreak of Y. Pestis and the 21st century’s COVID-19 pandemic. It too began in the Far East and developed under hazy conditions. As China quickly quarantined millions of its citizens, there was an apparent disparity between official reports and what was broadcast through social media by people in the middle of the outbreak. Was it worse than what officials said? Were more people dying than reflected by government tallies?
Denial is the first common feature with the Black Plague. As the COVID-19 outbreak in China made the news, including its devastating impact, for almost everyone in the West it seemed far, far away. As it hit South Korea and then exploded into Italy, the mortal danger of the threat gained some credibility but to many, including the President of the US, it was all overblown. As late as March 9, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment [in the US] there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” That same day he also said, “The Fake News Media... is doing everything within its... power... to inflame the coronavirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, ‘The risk is low to the average American.’”
One week later, a huge and highly credible rebuttal was published. On March 16, 2020, the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team on behalf of the World Health Organization issued its strictly scientific assessment of infection risk to the US and UK. It began with these words:
“The global impact of COVID-19 has been profound, and the public health threat it represents is the most serious seen in a respiratory virus since the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.”
The numbers are another common feature. While the mortality rate of COVID-19 is nowhere near that of Y. Pestis, the number of people who might die could be shockingly comparable.
How serious will it be if the US and UK fail to take any measures?
According to the Imperial College report, projected deaths by the end of August in the US are 2.2 million; and in the UK, 510,000. Pause and read those last two sentences again.
No less sobering is one of the report’s conclusions: “Even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US.”
Taking the best case scenario for the US, 1.1 million deaths from COVID-19, the mortality rate for the US will be 0.336%.
That same percentage relative to the world’s population today of 7.7 billion means... 26 million deaths from COVID-19 – and that is a best case scenario. The final tally is likely to be several times that number.
Any way the numbers are crunched, tens of millions are likely to die from COVID-19. And that is just the mortality cost. The global economic cost and the lives lost because of it paint a scene almost as horrible as the one described by Friar Michele in the 14 century.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES abound today no less than they did in the 14th century. All of them carry a central theme: someone or some group manipulates events in order to accomplish some goal: some elite cabal is deliberately reducing the world’s population by scaring the masses and killing undesirables, all for the sake of enhancing their own wealth and power. For example, Trump has caused it in order to uproot the “Deep State,” canceling elections later this year and declaring himself president for another term; the US created the virus, engineering it to destroy Iranians in an act of biological warfare; China developed the virus in its labs, deliberately released it in Wuhan as a cover for its real agenda to achieve global economic dominance by crippling the West; and more.
Another common feature of today’s world with Western Europe in 1348 is a deeply entrenched, preexisting antisemitic sentiment. This time, however, it is not just from a corrupted vestige of Christianity; it is also from a vibrant expression of extremist Islam. Over the last 10 years, there has been an alarming resurgence of antisemitism in the East and the West. Repugnant images and rhetoric, from Tehran to Ramallah and from Istanbul to Washington, have provoked a growing wave of antisemitic violence against Jews both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.
As they did in the 14th century, conspiracy theories will metastasize into antisemitism.
It is a virtually inevitable dynamic: Global cabals become Jewish cabals; the unseen elite becomes the Jewish elite; political manipulators become “Zionist” manipulators; the wealthy one percent become the Rothschild one percent; and attacks against Chinese Europeans or Americans become attacks against Jewish Europeans or Americans.
As cultures, communities and individuals face the losses of loved ones and livelihood, the seven-part, and repeating, cycle of grief for each one tends to coalesce and stall in the well-known stage of anger. When that happens, whole industries capitalize on the sentiment, stirring it up, feeding its fury, brewing it into a rage no less viral than Y. Pestis or COVID-19.
Almost 600 years ago, that rage ignited murderous pogroms against Jewish communities that, for the most part, were living in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. For any who have thought it could never happen again, it is time to think again.
Not only must Israel and Jewish communities elsewhere in the world make efforts to minimize the outbreak of COVID-19 and its economic impact, they must also prepare contingency plans for a viral outbreak of global antisemitism.
Love him, hate him, or simply tolerate him, what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a television interview on March 21 is true.
“We may be in the midst of not just the worst crisis in a century, but the worst since the Middle Ages. All the world’s medical services are facing collapse because the number of patients will be so astronomical.”
Even though Israel acted quickly, he added, we “still could have tens of thousands of dead. This isn’t spin.”
While science and government do everything they can, the prime minister emphasized an even greater corresponding imperative: “We must pray to the God of the world that this plagues ends.”
Indeed, and especially in such a time as this.