Antisemitism In The Anti-Vax Movement Is Nothing New

In past pandemics, the anti-vax movement has been rife with antisemitism. In the COVID-19 pandemic, we see more of the same.
Anti-Vaccine protestor – August 15, 2021. (Becker1999 from Grove City, OH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Vaccine protestor – August 15, 2021. (Becker1999 from Grove City, OH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

In April 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995), a virology researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s school of medicine, announced he had received confirmation the vaccination he had developed was a safe and effective means of preventing polio or poliomyelitis. A short time later, Dr. Albert Sabin (1906-1993) produced an easier-to-administer oral vaccine that also prevented the development of the disease. Prior to the work of Salk and Sabin, polio had killed or left paralyzed thousands across the globe on an annual basis. Thanks to the work of Salk and Sabin, polio had become, by the 1960s, a minor problem in much of the world.

A decade earlier, Dr. Sidney Farber (1903-1973), then a young researcher at the Harvard Medical School, was able to induce remission in 10 of 16 Boston area young leukemia patients by transfusing them with a new chemical agent. Farber’s work led the way in the development of chemotherapy as a principal means of treating cancer.

Farber was not the first researcher to identify chemotherapy as a means of defeating a serious disease. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paul Ehrlich, from Breslau Germany, was able to cure syphilis by using this technique.

In 1900, Karl Landsteiner (1868-1943), a professor of physiology at the University of Vienna, and, like Ehrlich a Nobel laureate, developed techniques for identifying and classifying blood types – A, B, O. In the absence of Landsteiner’s work modern blood transfusions and most surgeries would be virtually impossible.

The work of Salk, Sabin, Farber, Ehrlich and Landsteiner has saved the lives of millions worldwide. Beyond their commitment to discovery, what else did these five scientists have in common? They were all Jews. (Landsteiner became a Catholic apparently as a means of achieving his appointment at the University of Vienna. At the time of his research the mayor of Vienna was Karl Lueger, a popular right-wing politician who pioneered in the use of antisemitism to win votes in competitive elections.)

This brings us to the current COVID-19 pandemic and to issues of race hatred and antisemitism.

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Thanks, in part, to the public comments of ex-president Trump (“Kung Flu”) and the fact the virus causing the disease began in Wuhan China, Americans of East Asian descent have become the targets of an increasing number of violent assaults on city streets throughout the country. San Francisco, with its large Asian-American communities, seems to be a frequent venue.

Among neo-Nazi groups and conspiracy-based movements (e.g. QAnon) in the United States and their counterparts in dozens of countries in Europe and the Middle East, Jews have been identified as evil-doers responsible for spreading COVID-19. In the Middle East, the Iranian government has taken the lead in depicting Jews and Israel as responsible for promoting lethal Covid infections. Their motive: personal profit.

Jews and Israelis in particular would develop a vaccine to inoculate people against the disease and then sell it, at huge profits, to governments and defenseless populations throughout the world. Almost inevitably the Rothschilds, and George Soros have become targets of denunciations.

Over the past eighteen months, the term “Judeovirus” has entered the vocabulary of anti-Semitic Twitter users and social media in general. The internet may be relatively new, but the accusation that Jews spread dread diseases certainly is not.

We’ve seen overt uses of antisemitic imagery to oppose vaccines:

In more subtle antisemitism, we’ve also seen American anti-vaxxers, from Republican lawmakers to average citizens, appropriate language of the Holocaust, which plays into the trivialization of violence against Jews – one of the core disinformation campaigns of neo-Nazis.

In 2020, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a sermon which maintained that Israel itself was the real virus. His observation was made as his country’s citizens were contracting COVID-19 at an alarming rate. Iranian media outlets began referring to COVID1-948, the year Israel became an independent state.

The Ayatollah’s assertion that Jews were in reality responsible for the pandemic tapped three traditional antisemitic tropes, dating back centuries.

The first trope (see the “Merchant of Venice”,” the Jew of Malta”) has it that Jews are exclusively interested in making money. Because Jewish values focus on acquisitiveness and materialism (Marx), Jews have become bankers and money lenders who charge usurious interest rates to swindle hapless Gentile borrowers. Jews also employ illegal or unethical business practices towards the same end.

The second trope is that Jews are political conspirators aiming at world domination. From the czarist Russian forgery “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (1905) to ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) of the 1980s to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (“the Jews will not Replace us”) of 2017, anti-Semites have concocted fantasies according to which a group of Jews have formed a secret cabal aimed at world domination. Such fantasies/tropes exhibit what the late American historian Richard Hofstadter labeled “The Paranoid Style.”  Others might call them simply peasant superstitions transposed to the internet era.

Third, and finally, Jews intentionally spread disease, particularly maladies whose causes seem obscure or unknown. Among the most widely cited of these allegations was that Jews were responsible for spreading the Black Death epidemic of mid 14th century Europe. Despite the fact Jews seemed to be dying at about the same rate as Christians, many came to believe the plague was brought about by Jews deliberately contaminating water wells: in other words, no Jews, no plague.

COVID-19 may be a unique virus infection, one that has brought death and disaster throughout much of the world. But attempts by anti-Semites to blame COVID-19 on the Jews taps into a series of fantasies, myths, and tropes that date back centuries. Their efforts show just how adaptable and persistent the antisemitic worldview continues to be.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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