All suffer in a pandemic. Many lose family, friends, and earnings. For Jews, however, such times also resonate with painful historical memories of persecution and desperate struggles for survival.
Reading Leon Poliakov early in my time under quarantine, I was reminded of the recently elusive concept of “Jewish optimism.” Here is how the French historian concluded his acclaimed History of Antisemitism back in 1968: “Jews are not blamed for revolutions and historical catastrophes any longer; one does not assign supernatural powers to them; delusional or paranoid antisemitism is relegated by public opinions as foolishness or as a form of psychosis.” Oh, the eternal sunshine of the sixties mind, with its Kibbutzim plowmen and belief in the healing powers of technical progress! Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—COVID-related conspiracies on the internet point to the enduring vitality of anti-Semitism in its most aggressive and irrational forms. The times, therefore, demand we at least start asking two unavoidable questions: How will Jews be affected by the ongoing pandemic? And how can they best stand their ground?
7 percent of all virus-related content in North America, Europe, and the Middle East is categorized as “disinformation” or “fake news” by EU and U.S. officials. As a result of these online efforts, 23 percent in the United States and 17 percent in France believe the novel coronavirus was intentionally created in a laboratory. The groups most likely to hold such beliefs in both countries comprise far-right voters and citizens aged 18 to 35. While research remains anecdotal for now and neither penetration nor geographic transmission has yet to be definitively collated, according to both U.S. authorities and Jewish organizations such as the UK-based Community Security Trust and the Wiesenthal Center, a significant volume of coronavirus-related conspiratorial material on the internet appears to be anti-Semitic in nature.
At first glance, anti-Jewish sentiment remains compartmentalized and agile, as it has always been, filling in local epistemological voids as required by the conspiracy-minded. Leaders opposed to Israel in the Middle East, for example, are recycling European medieval tales reminiscent of the 1348 Black Plague. “Israel wants to use demonic force to infiltrate the intelligence systems of Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas. It is well known that the Jews are experts in sorcery and in creating relationships with demons,” an Iranian think-tanker stated on a widely-viewed TV program, echoing rhetoric from Ayatollah Khamenei. In this sense, anti-Semitism is a “hyphen between incompatible positions,” as Poliakov poetically noted.
But if metaphysics is a powerful vector in the Middle East where religious sentiment remains high, Jew-hatred requires another type of lexicon to go mainstream elsewhere: In Europe and in the United States, as Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the European director of American Jewish Committee, has documented, secular narratives about world domination and opportunism in the face of collapse are more widespread. This trend has been ongoing for a while, and appears to be correlated with “the crisis in the current system of liberal, pluralist democracies around the world.” As faith in a liberal ordering of societies breaks down, conspiracies proliferate.
Whatever twist myths take, their effects have proven deadly for all minorities. Academics have recently shown how social media hatred “can act as a propagation mechanism with real-life violent crime.” The data my team has collected, via the FBI, OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) websites, does not demonstrate this correlation regarding anti-Semitism, but it gives an idea of the trajectory that violence against Jews has taken over the past 15 years across the West.
The last financial crisis of 2008 appears to have caused a peak both in the United States and in Europe, though the dual trend appears rather immune to events in its slow but seemingly inexorable rise. Reported violence is much worse for European Jews; there is a 1 in 400 chance of being the victim of a violent anti-Semitic attack in Germany, in France, or in the UK between 2009 and 2018 (80 percent of European Jews reside in these three countries, and 50 percent report such physical crimes to the police according to the FRA). Within the same time frame, the U.S. ratio is 1 in 7000—seventeen times lower than in Europe.
While conspiracies are undoubtedly bad for minorities in general, on both sides of the Atlantic the data on consistently rising violence against Jews suggests special vigilance is required. Needless to say, 2020 may yield especially disheartening news on this front.
Regarding the coronavirus threat itself, at least in the UK, Jewish communities appear to be disproportionally impacted. Theories differ as to why this might be the case, but it’s plausible that the key is that Jews tend to be both more urban and more mobile, while at the same time more likely to congregate, leading to community spread of the virus.
One additional feature further aggravates the situation for diaspora Jews in particular: They tend to be older. 50 percent of U.S. Jews were above 45 years old in 2018. In the UK, 45 percent were that old, with Germany even older at 65 percent. Israel is a much younger country, with the above-45 cohort making up only 30 percent of the population. Given the lethality of COVID-19 for this specific group, the ongoing demographic trend, which suggests that we may soon see more Jews living in Israel than in the diaspora, could well be accelerated. Data indicate this inflection point would have naturally occurred somewhere around 2030, but the current pandemic may expedite this process.
Given that we find ourselves in the early stages of a global sanitary shock that feels like it may be defining for this generation, and in light of the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism, now is not a time for complacency. In the immediate term, more research is needed, with disinformation campaigns and incitement to violence by extremist groups a key focus for both governments and NGOs. Though everyone is hoping for a return to some kind of “normalcy,” all evidence suggests that the process will be fraught at best. And given that severe economic dislocations will be the handmaiden of this disastrous epidemic, the scapegoating of already-vulnerable and already-shrinking Jewish diaspora communities is only likely to increase.