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An anti-Semitic wave may hit the world in the aftermath of the pandemic

Like a virus, ten different anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have proliferated on the internet. Español Português

Beatriz Buarque
17 April 2020
The Star of David seen on iron door in Kazimierz, a historic Jewish quarter of Krakow.
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

Hannah Arendt may have been one of the first authors to identify the virulent character of anti-Semitic narratives. In the Origins of Totalitarism, she underscored how anti-Semitism was crystallized in some totalitarian regimes, especially because its virulence was not promptly identified by the public and the so-called enlightened men (the individuals responsible for producing knowledge). Before the announcement of the final solution, Hitler referred to himself as a prophet while describing his plan to bring Germany back to its golden era and he also had a team of researchers who were responsible for legitimising anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as that Jews carry disease.

Over history, the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as truth by authoritative speakers (priests, intellectuals) has been crucial to legitimise this extreme ideology and this movement has been modernized with the advent of digital media. If in the past, the authoritative place occupied by some speakers was consecrated through means of mass communication, now the shift from ordinary speaker to authoritative speaker became even easier with social network sites that enable anyone to set up an account to present messages as truth and reach a considerable number of followers/viewers. It is worth mentioning that, in our society, this considerable number of followers/viewers represents power (individuals with a great number of followers have undoubtedly more power in shaping people's opinions).

As a result, currently, we don't have dozens of individuals legitimising anti-Semitism through the production of conspiracy theories as truth. We have a countless number of individuals engaged in such activity, enhancing even more the virulence of an ideology that thrives during crises, especially crises that drive individuals into a permanent state of fear. A search on Twitter for the words “Jewish” and “coronavirus” from March 20th to April 3rd 2020 revealed the existence of ten different types of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have been associating the COVID19 with the Jewish community.

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In all 207 tweets, Jews are blamed for either the fabrication or the spread of the virus that has already killed more than 100,000 all over the world. Nearly 80% of the anti-Semitic tweets were written as if they were news (an in this sense, as if they were truth, not a personal opinion). In other words, 164 tweets were written in a way that gives anti-Semitic conspiracy theories an appearance of truth.

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This trend is not a coincidence. It is an old strategy used to legitimise anti-Semitism that is now available to anyone with a social media profile. Among these anti-Semitic tweets produced as truth, five have neo-Nazi websites as source. Three neo-Nazi websites were quoted as news source and if you think they have visual displays of anti-Semitism, you may be disappointed. These websites were also constructed to give the reader an appearance of truth. They resemble news providers and the fact people share their “news” on different platforms reinforces the claim that reproducing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as truth is still an important step towards its legitimisation.

When priests go mainstream to incite hate towards Jews

In the past, monks and priests used to demonize Jews and it is no secret they played an important role in the legitimisation of inquisition. The claim that Jews killed Jesus has been reproduced by Christians for centuries and the coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought this narrative to light once more as an attempt to find a scapegoat to the uncontrolled situation witnessed by humankind in present times.

Among the 207 tweets analysed, three mentioned the video in which the American pastor Rick Wiles says God is spreading the virus in synagogues as a punishment for the fact Jews deny Jesus as his son. Although many people criticized the pastor for his anti-Semitic message, dozens of others praised him and retweeted its video. Once again the appearance of truth shows its appeal. The video resembles a newscast and the way the pastor appears places him in an authoritative position insofar he is the main host of the show. Journalists are associated with the truth. They are usually perceived as messengers of truth. If a pastor is presented as the person responsible for presenting the news, the appeal of truth embedded in his message becomes even stronger insofar he combines the prophetic tones of a pastor (he has access to the “divine truth”) with the objectivity associated with journalists (he reports the facts). To turn the narrative even more convincing, the video was live streamed in a website called TruNews, which is presents messages referring to COVID19 as messages from God against the “enemies of the cross”.

As Adorno has envisaged decades before the existence of the internet, anti-Semitism has an impressive ability to modernize itself and it is not restricted to European countries. A Brazilian pastor also used digital media at the end of March to associate Jews with the pandemic. In the video, uploaded on You Tube and viewed by over 19,000 people, Cabo Daciolo says both Christians and Jews see this epidemic as a prophetic sign. The difference is: Christians are waiting for Jesus and the Jews are waiting for a messiah who is the anti-Christ. In the video that received more than 4,000 likes, Cabo Daciolo used his position of pastor to legitimise the claim that Jews are waiting for the anti-Christ. Besides being a pastor, he is also a politician and he ran for the Brazilian elections in 2018.

In only two weeks, ten different types of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were spread on Twitter and videos made by religious authoritative speakers associating the pandemic with Jews became viral. And here we are only talking about narratives using the words “Jewish” and “coronavirus”. Even though it is a small sample, this observation points out similarities between the COVID19 pandemic and anti-Semitism: both of them were already real before the public acknowledged their existence; both of them were taken for granted at the beginning by authorities, academics and policy makers; both of them became stronger in the dark. The difference: COVID19 has already made victims. The effects of the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as truth during this uncertain moment are yet to be felt. However, we may still have some time to prevent a virulent wave of anti-Semitic attacks, and hence, avoid another dark chapter in our history.

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