It has been well noted that, whatever their starting points, conspiracy theorists sooner or later get around to blaming the Jews.
During a press dinner in New York last week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is hoping to ride his portfolio of chuckleheaded conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and all sorts of other things into a presidential campaign, went there last week.
“We’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars into ethnically targeted microbes,” he said, delivering his spiel to dining companions who heard him out with increasingly evident discomfiture. “In fact, COVID-19 – there’s an argument that it is ethnically targeted... COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
The dinner took place Tuesday, but videos from the event were first published by The New York Post over the weekend. Kennedy tried to backtrack with a tweet Saturday but, as I’ll show, that fell into the category of erecting what Winston Churchill might have called a bodyguard of lies. Despite his subsequent disclaimer, the import of his words was that Jews were using the pandemic for their own sinister purposes.
Notwithstanding his defense that he was just pointing out facts (none of his assertions was factual) and the assurances from sycophants like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that he’s no antisemite, Kennedy’s remarks were truly and unmistakably antisemitic: He specified that Jews are a population relatively protected from a virus that some unnamed sinister force is targeting to ethnic groups. What else would you call this?
It’s tempting to say that Kennedy “crossed the Rubicon” with his comments, but that would suggest that this was a one-time thing. Actually, Kennedy has exploited antisemitic tropes before.
At a Sacramento appearance in 2015, for example, he called the purported epidemic of autism caused by childhood vaccinations – a connection that has been conclusively debunked – a “holocaust,” using a term that has come to signify the murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazis.
At an anti-vaccine rally last year in Washington, he said that surveillance technologies being promoted by Bill Gates would make Americans less free than were Jews under the Nazis.
“Even in Hitler’s Germany,” he said then, “you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, as Anne Frank did... Today, the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run and none of us can hide.”
Kennedy’s COVID-19 claim – and the others in which he used antisemitic observations to advance his world view – reflect a long history in which anti-science claims and antisemitism have been handmaidens.
“Linking antisemitism to antiscience has a basis deeply rooted in European history going back to the 1300s,” writes vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, a veteran debunker of pseudoscientific claims about disease and vaccines, in an upcoming paper.
The practice intensified under Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The Nazis vilified Albert Einstein, burning his books and papers in Berlin and forcing him into exile (eventually in the US). His theory of relativity was denounced as a “Jewish fraud.”
Today’s attack on biomedical science, Hotez adds, “increasingly embraces both Nazi imagery and Holocaust denialism.” Anti-vaccine activists today have accused Jews of creating the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, and “profiting from sales of vaccines or other COVID-19 prevention measures.”
Hotez, who is Jewish, has himself been “compared to [Nazi doctor Josef] Mengele for developing vaccines or being a vaccine advocate,” he writes. He and other vaccine advocates have been threatened with Nuremberg-style trials or execution – a common threat levied against doctors by the anti-vaccine movement.
Antisemitism has also moved into the Republican Party mainstream, which also has a long history of anti-science policy-making. In a tweet on October 23, 2018, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now the House speaker, issued a tweet accusing George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer, three Jewish billionaires, of trying to “BUY this election.”
That echoed the ancient accusation that Jews plot secretly to rule the world, an allegation that has been so focused on Soros in recent years that this name alone serves as an antisemitic dog whistle to the Republican base.
In a 2018 Facebook post, right-wing crackpot Marjorie Taylor Greene – a Republican from Georgia who was elected to the House in 2021 and is now part of McCarthy’s inner circle – associated the California wildfires that year with financial gains enjoyed by Rothschild Inc., another historical target of antisemites.
Greene conjectured that the fires were caused by “lasers or blue beams of light... coming down to Earth I guess.” Greene’s argument has been ridiculed as the “Jewish space laser” theory, but its antisemitic content shouldn’t be minimized.
Greene also has called Soros a Nazi collaborator, even though he was not yet two years old when the Nazis first came to power in the German Reichstag and 15 when World War II ended.
That brings us back to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Despite his family’s long association with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party – his father, a one-time senator from New York, was slain in 1968 as he launched a campaign for president, and his uncles were president John F. Kennedy and senator Edward M. Kennedy – his pronouncements on vaccines and COVID-19 hew closely to GOP and right-wing orthodoxy.
In his defensive tweet Saturday, Kennedy disputed the New York Post’s assertion that he said COVID may have been “ethnically targeted” to spare Jews.
He tweeted, “I have never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews.”
Rather, he wrote, “I accurately pointed out... that the US and other governments are developing ethnically targeted bioweapons and that a 2021 study of the COVID-19 virus shows that COVID-19 appears to disproportionately affect certain races since the furin cleave docking site is most compatible with Blacks and Caucasians and least compatible with ethnic Chinese, Finns, and Ashkenazi Jews. I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered.”
He linked to the study he said was the basis for his assertion.
Let’s wade into this hurricane of lies. To begin with, the study he cited was not from 2021, but 2020. It was submitted to the journal BMC Medicine in April that year – scarcely four months after the first outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in China, and therefore an early analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 genome at best.
In any case, the paper doesn’t say what Kennedy claimed. The paper was based on DNA lab analyses, not on any findings about ethnic susceptibility to the virus. It came to no conclusions about any “disproportionate” effects of the virus, but only noted that some groups have different genetic characteristics that may or may not affect their susceptibility to infection. The paper’s authors wrote that “these factors are largely unknown.”
The authors did emphasize, however, that mortality and morbidity related to COVID-19 were closely tied to factors such as “age and co-existing health conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular diseases” – findings that have held up over time.
To the contrary, no evidence has surfaced relating the genetic factors the paper referred to – and that Kennedy ran with – to the course of the pandemic.
To validate Kennedy’s claims that different genetic features of human cells contribute to infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, “you would need to show that that actually mattered in the real world of human beings,” says John P. Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
“In the three years since that paper, I’m not aware of any evidence that different human cells and different human populations in cell culture differ in any significant way in their ability to support SARS-CoV-2 infection,” Moore, who spent years battling denialism that HIV caused AIDS, told me.
“There is no scientific basis that is out there for what Kennedy is saying,” Moore says. There has been so much research on the implications of genetic diversity for the COVID pandemic, he says, that “we would know for sure if what Kennedy is saying was true, and there is no such evidence.”
Kennedy’s plea that he “never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews” is undermined by his own words, as recorded in the published video clip. The implications of what he says are crystal clear.
In his defensive tweet, Kennedy ignored the questions of who he thought was doing the targeting of COVID-19 and why it would be targeted at Caucasians and Black people. He failed to elucidate why he singled out Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese in his rundown of supposed immunities. The paper, however, makes no mention of the Chinese, but only mentions DNA analyses of South Asian and East Asian populations, which encompass many other populations in addition to ethnic Chinese.
And why mention Ashkenazi Jews?
Put it all together, and Kennedy is reaching to paint an ethnic picture of the COVID pandemic that is profoundly at odds with actual infection and death rates of nations and ethnic communities worldwide. He does so by treating the rough findings of a study of ethnic genome variations as though they were firm conclusions based on hard evidence, and joins them to claims mired in sheer fantasy about research into “ethnically targeted microbes.”
Has Kennedy now gone too far in his effort to base a presidential bid on conspiracy-mongering? Moore draws a lesson from the eventual defeat of HIV denialists. “We used to expose the stupidity of some of the leaders of the AIDS denialists by pointing out that they also believe 9/11 was a Mossad/CIA hoax, that the Loch Ness Monster was real, et cetera” he says. “That kind of cross-conspiracy craziness costs credibility... not with the hardcore but with the subset that is persuadable.”
Kennedy’s appeal to antisemitism may indeed narrow his appeal, which appears to be exaggerated anyway. The question is who was listening to him, even before this.
The writer is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.