As news of COVID-19 broke, there was a high level of concern expressed by Jewish organisations around the world that antisemitism would likely spike as a result. This concern was based on past experience in which, at a time of crisis, antisemites regularly seek to blames Jews for the latest tragedy and at times this can become more mainstream raising overall levels of antisemitism. The phenomena can be seen as far back as the Middle Ages when, at the heights of the Black Death in Europe, 200 Jewish communities were destroyed after they were blamed for the plague.
Each year the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University collates data from Jewish communities around the world and releases an annual report on antisemitism in the preceding year. Breaking with this approach, the latest report, released on April 20th, also includes analysis on COVID-19 related antisemitism in early 2020. The report provides examples of online content that accuses “Jews”, “Zionists” and “Israelis” of causing and/or spreading COVID-19. Sometimes a specific person is targeted, sometimes it is the group as a whole who are targeted. The researchers have highlighted the need for more data on the source of the accusations, their prevalence, and the level of public attention they receive.
The Kantor Center report notes that antisemitic narratives based on COVID-19 have been seen from right wing extremists, ultra conservative Christians, Islamists, and to a minor extent on the far-left. Antisemitic narratives related to COVID-19 have been based on older antisemitic narratives including well-poisoning, deicide, power conspiracy theories, and accusations of profiteering. There were also allegation by “regime dignitaries and scientists” in Iran and Turkey that Israel, Jews and America created COVID-19 as a weapon against Iran and Muslims in general. The report highlights that the examples it shares are individual data points and should not (without further evidence) be taken as proof of a wider public mood or atmosphere. Researchers, they warn, should “be careful not to readily attribute to Jews the status of a scapegoat in these exceptional times” given that there are a range of other narratives which may be more dominant. The narratives they list including anti-Asian racism, Muslim views of COVID-19 as divine retribution for China’s treatment of the Uygur population, and views of COVID 19 as divine punishment within different religious communities.
On the 17th of April the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, released a statement in which he said, “I am extremely concerned to see that certain religious leaders and politicians continue to exploit the challenging times during this pandemic to spread hatred against Jews and other minorities”.
An op-ed in Haaretz looked at the dark web and reported that Coronavirus was being linked by the Alt-Right on these platforms to conspiracy theories of a Jewish plot for world control. The article used a few examples of this narrative highlighting how it was comparable to historic allegations of Jews as plague carriers and well-poisoners.
The United States
In the United States, antisemitism had risen sharply prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, explained in January that while the number of Americans with antisemitic views remained about the same, “more of the millions of Americans holding antisemitic views are feeling emboldened to act on their hate.” Gary Rosenblatt, Editor at large of The Jewish Week of New York, wrote in the Atlantic in March that antisemitic “attacks are the main topic of discussion among an American Jewish community shaken to its core” and that he had “never encountered such a level of palpable fear, anger, and vulnerability among American Jews”.
The Coronavirus pandemic has intersected this heightened antisemitism in the United States. The ADL noted that antisemitic content related to COVID-19 began circulating early in the pandemic within fringe platforms such as Telegram, 4chan and Gab, “but as the virus spreads, it has gotten easier to find xenophobia, antisemitism and conspiracy theories on mainstream social media platforms”. The main messages among extremists on the smaller platforms were: support for Jews dying from the virus, encouraging other extremists to spread the virus to Jews if they get ill, claims Jews are responsible for the virus, claims Jews are spreading the virus, conspiracy theories that Jews are using the virus to increase Jewish control of society, reduce global population, or to generate profits. Some extremists took the narrative of Jews or Israel being behind the virus, either as a tool to kill non-Jews or in order to profit from a vaccine, from fringe platforms onto Twitter and Facebook. A separate article from the ADL on March 17th gives a number of examples of these narratives as well as examples of extremists seeking to use COVID-19 to promote Sinophobia and homophobia. One article over a month later on antisemitism and Covid-19 reused the same examples with minimal new evidence. There has also been a particular rise of hate in comments on mainstream social media sites which are directed against the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community in New York and New Jersey.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, primarily about the death at the hands of police of George Floyd and a growing number of other Black Americans, is also in part influenced by inequalities, including access to testing and health care, which are leading to Black Americans dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.
The image above, which looks to be from Black Lives Matter, calls for an end to “Jewish Privilege”. It highlights the number of Jewish people who attend top US universities. The image has been widely reposted to social media by individual members of the Jewish community in a range of countries including Australia. Each time it has been posted it has triggered high levels of engagement broadening its audience. The material is in reality an antisemitic poster created by the far right at least three years ago and which aims to create animosity between the Jewish community and Black Lives Matter. It was plastered around the University of Illinois at Chicago along with other posters in a similar style in March 2017.
The United Kingdom
In the UK the CST has noted how “posts and memes from the United States [have been] influencing extremist narratives in the United Kingdom” and how “anti-Chinese xenophobia [has been] merging with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories”. The assessment as at early April was that the “racist narratives have not, so far, influenced mainstream public debate” but that “the longer this crisis goes on, with its profound impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and mental health, the more likely it is that people will start to look for scapegoats”. The CST noted 5 categories of antisemitism related to COVID-19: (1) Coronavirus is a hoax and part of a Jewish plot to mislead the public, (2) Coronavirus is real and was created as part of a Jewish/Zionist plot aimed at global depopulation, or it was developed by Jews and blamed on China to start World War III, or that Jewish (and non-Jewish) business leaders created it to profit from selling a vaccine, (3) Jews are responsible for spreading the virus, one basis for this in the UK was media reports that the Jewish community was over-represented in both infections and deaths – this saw some shift from calling it “Wu flu” to “Jew flu”, (4) Celebration of Jewish deaths among far-right antisemites, (5) extremists on sites like Gab and 4chan have called for people to deliberately infect Jews if they fall ill.
Turkish social media has promoted antisemitic Covid-19 narratives such as the idea that “Jews manufactured and spread the virus to end western civilization”, “We will annihilate the global masters behind the virus,” “The virus is only a minor part of a bigger game that targets Turkey,” and that “The virus was created to overthrow Erdo?an, leader of the umma”. The small Islamist political party Yeniden Refah, said the “virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing” and went on to say “Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria that has caused the suffering of people”. In this context Zionism is clearly being used as a code word for Jews.
In Iran the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, claimed the virus was the result of a magical attack against Iran, and while Jews were not mentioned directly his office later issued a clarification saying that “Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs”. This was promoted by the cyberwarfare division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The Iranian Government also ran the “We Defeat Coronavirus International Cartoon Contest”, which featured a number of antisemitic submissions, as well as anti-American submissions.
The submission to the Iranian competition by Amir Hossein Jafari Nejadian from Iran, for example, depicts COVID-19 as a Jewish virus which is being made to look more dangerous through efforts by the United States. As has been seen with Iran’s Holocaust denial cartoon competitions, run through the same platform as this competition, once generated as a result of the competition, hate cartoons have the ability to circulate through social media for years.
Research from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry has examined COVID-19 related antisemitism posted by Australians on Gab. The platform has quite deliberately become the home for white supremacists and other extremists who are increasingly being excluded from mainstream social media. The ECAJ research notes 10 themes to antisemitism related to COVID-19:
- The reposting by Australians of images which refers to Jews as a virus
- Allegations that COVID-19 was created by Jews. This includes: allegations that Jews were the real power behind the Wuhan Lab or China in general, allegations COVID-19 was related to Israel/Iran tensions and was a bio weapon, and allegations COVID-19 is parts of a Jewish plot for White Genocide.
- Allegations Jews are spreading COVID-19 and calls to spread the virus to Jews
- Conspiracy theories alleging COVID-19 is a Jewish plot for world control through economic chaos, lock downs and a reduction in rights and freedom. One notable example is the doctoring of Victorian Government campaign material where the word “together” was replaced with “SubJewed” so it read: “Staying Apart Keeps Us SubJewed. To help keep us SUBJEWED, visit…”. ECAJ noted there was also opposition within the far-right community to these conspiracy theories blaming Jews for COVID-19 with some pointing out that it did not sit well with what they see as the goals of the Jewish conspiracy their believe in.
- Claims that COVID-19 is a hoax made by Jews
- Claims COVID-19 is a scam for Jews to make money were common. This includes the idea that Jews were profiting from lending money to governments, benefiting disproportionately from welfare support, and buying companies up cheaply to profit.
- Some anti-vaxxer material linked the vaccines to Israel and suggested they were a Jewish plot
- Christian religious antisemitism which implied COVID-19 was a punishment for the Jews
- COVID-19 discussion was linked to Holocaust denial and distortion related memes
Other reporting from ECAJ also noted how conspiracy theories were being rejected within far-right circles as the idea led to inconsistencies with pre-held beliefs. Chief amongst these is that the far right is in favour of border closures and more authoritarian control, while they view Jews as the primary cause of opposition to such policies. COVID-19 has empowered nationalist politics, a point the far-right recognises.
Our own analysis at the Online Hate Prevention Institute also found occasional efforts by antisemitic individuals to link COVID-19 to Jews, however, such efforts did not gain much traction. Our own analysis supports the ECAJ evidence that efforts to connect COVID-19 to antisemitic conspiracy theories were little more than assertions that “Jews control everything” therefore “the Jews must be behind COVID-19” and were unconvincing even to other antisemites in the face of alternative narrative and discussion.
In communities like /pol/ on 4chan where antisemitic conspiracy theories alleging Jewish control of banks, media and governments are a staple, there were occasional messages asserting Jews were responsible for Coronavirus, but far more focus on China, particularly from Australian posters.
The usual antisemitic messaging, however, still appeared. A thread promoting an interview between Sky News Australia journalist Sharri Markson and Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky soon attracted a comment from a self-declared White Supremacist who denounced the journalist as a “zionist kike” and referred to her as “(((Sharri Markson)))” using the echo notation to signal a Jew. The same message went on to promote the conspiracy theory of Jewish media control by wrongly asserting that “Rupert Murdoch was born in Melbourne, Australia, to Jewish parents”. This misinformation has been promoted by antisemitic sites like Jew Watch for decades. Mr Murdoch is not Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. It highlights how the regular antisemitism in these forums is still sprinkled in amid COVID-19 content.
While there was some use of the term “Jew Flu” for COVID-19 on 4chan, its use was far exceeded by other terms and was almost exclusively confined to /pol/ which as we noted in a previous report was radicalised with white supremacist ideology some years ago. References to terms such as “Wu Flu” and “Kung Flu” with other terms such as “China Flu” and “wuhan flu” also appearing far more regularly than “Jew Flu”. Content on 4chan has a very limited lifespan, from a few hours to a few days depending on which part of the site it is on and level of traffic it receives. A search on June 15 returned the maximum of 10 pages of results on 4chan for the following searches: Coronavirus, “Corona Virus”, covid, wuflu, “Wu Flu”, “Wuhan Flu” and “kung flu”. In contrast: Jewflu 1, “Jew Flu” 2 (all but 1 post was on /pol/), “China flu” 7 and Kungflu 7. Limiting the search to /pol/ gave 10 pages for: Coronavirus, “Corona Virus”, covid and wuflu. On /pol/ “Wu Flu” 1 (1 result), “Wuhan Flu” 7, kungflu 3, Jewflu 1 (3 results), “jew flu” 2, “kung flu” no results. The /pol/ forum is deeply antisemitic and a search for kikes gives a full 10 pages of results, in fact a search for “gas the kikes” also gives 10 pages of results. “Jew flu” is a very minor part of the regular antisemitism in the forum, it is present enough to allow researchers to gain examples, but it is not a major theme among the regular volumes of antisemitism.
[Footnotes can be seen below]
Add Your Comments and Support
Comments on this briefing can be made on this Facebook Post.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute is a Registered Charity that tackles all forms of online hate. You can support our work by making a donation at https://ohpi.org.au/donate/. You can also join us on Facebook, or join our mailing list.
The Online Hate Prevention Institutes has a series of campaigns throughout 2020 and we are currently running a fundraiser to expand our June campaign of Tackling Antisemitism. The full plan for our campaigns in 2020 can be seen here.