Britain’s Jewish community has been hit hard by Covid-19. Three more British Jews were laid to rest last week after dying from coronavirus, the highest number in a single week for several months. This brings the UK Jewish death toll from the disease to more than 500. It’s clear that our small community of 280,000 or so has suffered greatly during this pandemic. Yet this misery is also being compounded in another way – by the covid conspiracy theories inevitably pinning the blame for this illness on Jews.
Why so many British Jews have died from this illness is not clear. Is it because we tend to live in large cities where there is more social interaction? Is it because British Jews tend to be older than the population at large? Is it because many in the ultra-Orthodox community live in cramped conditions in areas of socio-economic deprivation? All and none of these factors might be the explanation.
But what isn’t up for debate is the cold, hard fact that British Jews have lost loved ones in disproportionate numbers. The pandemic has been as horrid for us as it has everyone else. And yet over the past seven months, conspiracy theories have emerged claiming the Rothschilds planned the outbreak. Lies the Elizabethans and Nazis spouted about Jews spreading infections have re-surfaced. And Israel stands accused of using the pandemic to test its technology.
When people feel powerless and unsafe, conspiracy theories often appeal more than the truth. The pandemic means misery for you and me, but for cranks the ‘new normal’ offers fertile ground for spreading myths and paranoia.
And where there is conspiracy theory, anti-Semitism is only ever a short step away. Contemporary Jew-hatred is rarely expressed as a racial or social dislike of Jews. Even hardcore anti-Semites will stop short of saying they don’t like our culture or religion. You can’t say those things in public any more. So, instead, the insinuations are usually more subtle. Jews are accused of having too much influence and wealth, and using it covertly to manipulate governments, banks and media organisations for our sordid purposes.
Over the past five months, I have heard acquaintances say Israel is using the pandemic to its advantage. People I’ve known since my school days argue that 5G networks are making us vulnerable to the virus’s ravages. Friends have sent me links to articles claiming the virus is a bioweapon engineered in a Chinese lab. And Facebook pals have intimated I’m naive if I don’t understand how the pharmaceutical industry stands to benefit from the outbreak.
Some conspiracies are easy to debunk. There’s plenty of evidence to prove the world isn’t flat. But others are harder to disprove; it is an unhelpful coincidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located in the city where the outbreak was first detected. And while it takes a lot of research to prove something is not true, to provide and marshal actual facts, it takes very little effort to spread misinformation on social media. In this sense, conspiracy theories are a bit like viruses: they are always with us.
And the conspiracy theory of the Jew as deceitful puppeteer, the shadowy figure who poisons wells in the dead of night, who kidnaps Christian children from their beds because their blood is especially coveted for the baking of matzos, has been with us a very long time.
Does it need stating that everything bad that people have ever thought about Jews all too often coalesces in what they now think about Israel, the country at the centre of so many of these mad Covid conspiracy theories? Yet those spreading the smears somehow ignore how Israel – supposedly the master manipulator in this pandemic – is making such a dreadful mess of its own Covid strategy.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has brought the tin foil hat brigade out in force. Anti-vaxxers and anti-5Gers are getting louder by the day. But it is not only those taking to the streets who believe the response to the pandemic is part of some concocted conspiracy. ‘Is it possible that the virus was secretly manufactured by the US and Israel to target their mutual rivals China and Iran?’ asked a yoga teacher and occasional drinker at my local recently. Time was when I would dismiss such views as bonkers one-offs. But this is becoming harder: statements like his are gaining traction in these fearful times.
Perhaps more worryingly, these views are not isolated to any one political faction: the yoga teacher votes Labour, but in recent weeks I’ve heard equivalent bunkum from people on the right, particularly about George Soros in relation to Black Lives Matter. ‘He owns it’, wrote a former classmate in an email. The reality? The billionaire philanthropist’s foundation has announced it will donate £170m to achieve racial equality in America. And for this, Soros is condemned rather than congratulated.
There will come a time when Covid-19 is a thing of the past and we can return to our lives as normal. But what will never go away, it seems, are the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which pin the blame on Jews whenever things go wrong.
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