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Holocaust Memorial Day: from the Black Death to COVID-19, antisemitism never stops mutating

Wrongly blaming the Jewish community for the spread of diseases and pandemics is an age-old trope that is still flourishing in the 21st century.

Danny Stone
27 January 2021, 12.09pm
A man wears a kippah during a ceremony of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January 2020
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

At a time where all of us are learning to innovate digitally – much of it for good, as will be shown by today’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony – there are some who are trying an innovation of their own: to exploit fear and anxiety in a way that only sows hatred in society.

Sadly, this kind of innovation is being employed by individuals that would seek to disrespect, diminish or even deny the Holocaust and hurt Jewish people. This is particularly true when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the extremes, we have seen far-Right activists call for the targeting of Jews with coronavirus. Sickeningly branded ‘the Holocough’, the command was to ‘spread the flu to every Jew’. However, online, the term spread chaotically and was interspersed with other conspiracies that blamed Jews for inventing the virus – whether or not the posters believed it to be real. In this way, age-old antisemitic tropes were repurposed for a social media crowd with potentially deadly consequences.

Blaming Jews for disease and pandemics is not new. Tens of thousands of Jewish people were falsely accused of poisoning wells in the mid-14th century, wrongly arrested, tortured and burned for supposedly causing the deaths of millions during the Black Death. In New York, in the 19th century, Jewish and Italian immigrants were blamed for tuberculosis, which was branded ‘the Jewish disease’. In the 20th century it was the Nazis blaming Jews for typhus and in 2019, Jews were blamed for a measles outbreak in New York.

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These conspiracies, despite having no foundation in reality, do have real-life consequences. Writer Olivia Fletcher, herself Jewish, has recounted how she felt at seeing a sign displayed during a lockdown protest blaming the restrictions on the ‘Zionist Press’.

A person views an exhibition inside the Auschwitz camp
A person views an exhibition inside the Auschwitz camp | NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

Meanwhile, the Jewish community is still reverberating with shock three years from the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, carried out by a man who thought the Jews were running a migrant caravan, something he’d come to believe through online chatter.

However, there is another aspect of this antisemitic rhetoric, which is perhaps less extreme but nonetheless offensive and dangerous.

Over the summer period last year, the German city of Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi party, banned the display of yellow stars at coronavirus lockdown protests. These notorious symbols were forced upon Jews by the Nazis, so that the former would be publicly identifiable.

In the German lockdown protests, as elsewhere, the stars had messages including “vaccination will set you free”, a play on the words that sit above the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp, “work will set you free”. This equivocation, trivialisation and casual misuse of the Holocaust and its accompanying symbols oversimplifies the past and cheapens it.

Sadly, there are those, even in public life, who appear not to understand this. One Czech MP used a direct Holocaust comparison in opposing the vaccine, and a doctored image was shared online, falsely suggesting an Australian MP had made a similar comparison, presumably knowing the hurt and upset it would cause. There is a particular responsibility for those with a public platform not to engage in or to encourage such discourse. Indeed, it is not just on the far-right over the past five years or so that we have seen attempts to denigrate, revise or trivialise the Holocaust.

At the extremes, we have seen far-right activists call for the targeting of Jews with coronavirus. Sickeningly branded ‘the Holocough’, the command was to ‘spread the flu to every Jew’.

As Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, explained the Holocaust has become a symbol of evil, but the suffering was unique, and that is why the word Holocaust – Shoah in Hebrew – is used, to try and put the unspeakable into words. In making inappropriate comparisons people do a disservice to the past and the present, whether that be the Israel-Palestine conflict or the COVID-19 pandemic. As Pollock rightly said, the survivors deserve their stories to be told in their own right, not through others’ engagement in the world.

In an age where young people on TikTok are pretending to be Holocaust victims in which survivors are dwindling in number and in which we are increasingly subject to clickbait attention-grabbing outrage, it is more important than ever that the lessons of the Holocaust are internalised and our narrative across generations is secure. That means to learn about pre-war and modern Jewish life, to actively oppose anti-Jewish racism and to be accurate in our descriptions and to avoid lazy comparisons. We owe it to the victims and the survivors to do better.

The UK ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day will take place at 7pm GMT and can be viewed here.

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