Living in the shadow of the ‘Black Death’

It’s a tradition! Deadly Jew-hatred in epidemics’ wake


In a febrile atmosphere of intensifying anti-Semitism, Jews ought to be watching the international spread of the coronavirus and the resulting illness of those infected with the kind of alarm that would, even 20 years ago, have seemed eccentric. But no wonder: Such episodes, where you can see the suffering but you’re not convinced that you know all you should about the source of it, are a boon for anti-Semites.

In France last week, a far-right politician named Alain Mondino chose to link the coronavirus panic to a Jewish plot. Using his account on the popular Russian social-media network VKontakte, Mondino made a video entitled “Coronavirus for goyim” — an old Yiddish pejorative for non-Jews that has been mockingly adopted by contemporary anti-Semites — available to his followers. Introduced with a title sequence devoted to the “Jew World Order,” the video went on to advance the theory that coronavirus “was developed by the Jews.”

Mondino added that he was sharing the video “for information, without comment.”

[On Tuesday, it was reported that Iran was accusing Israel of deploying the disease.]

At the time of his post on March 3, Mondino was the head of the slate of the far-right Rassemblement Nationale (RN) party, itself an outgrowth of the neo-fascist National Front, for the forthcoming municipal elections in Villepinte, near Paris. Within a couple of days, the RN announced that it was withdrawing its backing for Mondino. In a terse statement, Stéphane Jolivet, the RN’s spokesperson, explained that Mondino had “broken the rules,” and therefore the party had no choice but to ditch him.

The manner of Mondino’s dismissal leaves much to be desired. Jolivet’s statement, perhaps deliberately, made it sound like Mondino had stupidly broken a “rule” that everyone else knows not to, because the Jews are very powerful after all, and therefore pre-emptive action was regrettably necessary before the inevitable public storm. At no point did the RN explain the character of Mondino’s offense, its place in the pantheon of anti-Jewish libels and its echoes of the propaganda of the Nazi German regime that occupied France during World War II.

Writing about the growing visibility online of conspiracists variously connecting the virus with the Israeli Mossad, the Rothschild banking family and sundry other members of the anti-Semite’s rogues gallery, Marc Knobel — a historian with CRIF, the French-Jewish representative organization — reminded his readers that the linkage of Jews with pandemics goes back at least to the Middle Ages.

On Jan. 12, 1349, Knobel wrote, the Black Death reached Germany for the first time. He then listed the outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence that accompanied the spread of the plague in lockstep. In Freiburg on Jan. 16, the entire Jewish community was burned at the stake. On Jan. 22, it was the turn of the Jewish community of Spiers to be wholly destroyed. The massacres of Jews continued in Germany and then in neighboring Swiss towns right through to the end of April.

“What have we learned from the epidemic of 1349 and the anti-Semitism that struck at that time?” asked Knobel. Wisely, perhaps, he did not answer this question, encouraging us to simply reflect on the parallels between Yersinia pestis, or Black Death, and COVID-19.

Duly reflecting, it’s hard not to notice the conjunction of a viral epidemic that is itself drowning in false information and malicious speculation with a wider context in which political, racial and religious extremism is flourishing. Just as the anti-Semites didn’t need scientific proof in the Middle Ages to support their lies, they don’t need it now, for what is presented to them as a superior set of arguments is thrown back at us wrapped in the label “Jewish conspiracy.”

Because it theoretically explains everything, anti-Semitism in reality doesn’t explain anything. The coronavirus crisis has given us an insight into its actual purpose, which is to strike terror into the Jewish community.

The realization that techniques used seven centuries ago are again in operation against Jews today is certainly a terrifying thought.