Antisemitism During Coronavirus: From Pandemic to Pandemic

Illustration of a plague doctor. Via Wikimedia.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t found time to concern myself with prom being postponed indefinitely or my spring break plans being uprooted. I can’t help but view things from a sociological perspective; every class, race, and ethnicity bears the brunt of this pandemic differently, some clearly more severely than others. Black people are dying at much higher rates than white people in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. Asian Americans are continually the target of xenophobic attacks, even from the President at a press conference in mid-May. Antisemitic conspiracies are flourishing and Jews are being singled out all over the world.

Antisemitism is, unfortunately, not a unique response to a pandemic. Most notably, during the Black Plague in medieval Europe, Jews were slandered and singled out because they were infected much less frequently than their Christian counterparts. This is largely due to Jewish restrictions on handling the dead, and traditional hand washing before and after meals. European society, however, ignored this fact and scapegoated Jews, accusing them of poisoning wells with deadly bacteria. Jewish communities were ransacked and massacred, while civil authorities turned a blind eye. To this day, the association of Jews with vermin, disease, and impurity still lingers, and has made an unfortunate comeback as a result of the Coronavirus.

Today, antisemitism seems to be most prevalent in the US’s biggest COVID-19 hotspots, which also happen to be the cities with the largest Jewish populations. New York City is the main example of this, with Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s tweet explicitly singling out the Jewish community. DeBlasio’s generalization about the entire Jewish community and finger-pointing at a specific group is clearly problematic and irresponsible, but it’s important to remember why he did so. He was blatantly associating the Jewish community, more specifically the ultra-Orthodox community, with filthiness and disease. Whether he did so consciously or not, DeBlasio’s singling out of Jews, especially referring to the diverse NYC Jewish community as a single entity, reinforces the medieval antisemitic tropes that are finding their way into the 21st century.

Conspiracy theories involving Jewish contributions to the pandemic are running rampant. There are theories about Jews collaborating with Chinese laboratories in order to produce and release the virus, harkening back to classic conspiracy theories about Jews' perceived control over the global economy and the establishment of a “New World Order.”

Lawrence Garbuz, the man dubbed New York’s “patient zero” is a Jewish lawyer from New Rochelle, NY. I fear that this fact will be weaponized and manipulated by conspiracy theorists, who are already incorporating Jews into all of their speculations. Neo-Nazi and far-right groups are already scapegoating Jews, and it seems that Garbuz’s identification as the first New Yorker to have COVID will simply add fuel to the fire.

Right-wingers have recently taken to the streets in the “Re-open America” protest in state capitols across the country, and they bring antisemitic tropes with them. In Columbus, OH, a man was photographed holding a sign with a caricature of a Jew as a rat with the caption “The Real Plague.” Protesters in Chicago held signs with various references to the Holocaust directed at the city’s Jewish mayor as well, such as “Arbeit Macht Frei, Pritzker.”

In the wake of Yom HaShoah and the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in Europe, the resurgence of Nazi ideology serves as a disheartening reminder of how we as a society haven’t come as far as we may believe. During a time of fear and anxiety, people are regressing back to a worldview centered around medieval stereotypes and conspiracy.

Yet again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by helplessness during this pandemic. How can I effectively combat and speak out against antisemitism that infects so many aspects of contemporary society? In a global issue as complex as the impact of the Coronavirus, antisemitic rhetoric somehow finds a way to weave itself in. As this pandemic continually reveals the ugly underbelly of our horribly inequitable society, anti-Jewish hatred is also given a space to exist. I watch as this pandemic escalates every sociological phenomenon, and antisemitism is no exception. I feel an obligation to simultaneously fight the impacts of COVID-19 and antisemitism, and it has proven to be no easy task. My efforts must be in two places at once, all while sheltering in place.

For now, I feel obliged to at least attempt to dispel harmful conspiracies about Jewish people while socially distancing. I need to work with my community to educate and heal the wounds this rhetoric leaves (and has left for centuries). Although I am fearful for the evolution of antisemitism as a result of this pandemic, I am prepared and willing to combat injustice and baseless hatred whenever it arises.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Fogel, Ari. "Antisemitism During Coronavirus: From Pandemic to Pandemic." 21 August 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/antisemitism-during-coronavirus-pandemic-pandemic>.

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