A 12th century libel for a 21st century pandemic

The rise in antisemitism around the world in the last decade has been staggering.

It has emanated from the Left and the Right, and from Muslims in both Europe and America.

But with Covid-19, antisemitism has reached an unprecedented level of visceral, medieval superstition through the recasting of the medieval tropes against the Jews that arose in 12th century England.

The birth of Christianity was by no means the beginning of antisemitism, but it became the precursor to the violent antisemitism that has dogged Jewry to this day.

The foundations were, first, the accusation that the Jews killed Jesus Christ. This was used to fuel competition between Jews and the Jewish-Christian sects for adherents in the Byzantine era. Second, that the Jews, all Jews, bore that responsibility for all time and eternally.

The tropes ranged from the allegation of the ritual using of the blood of Christian children to make unleavened bread (matzo) or drinking their blood, to regarding Jews as swine, and as harbingers of disease.

Over time the libels against Jews came to include the accusation that they were taking over the world’s financial systems and media, that they were responsible for creating communism, and, at the same time, for perpetuating capitalism.

Now Covid-19 has raised the accusation that the Jews are responsible for the pandemic, which is much the same as the accusation that the Jews were responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century.

As if nothing has changed, Covid-19 has produced a range of libels that have one common element: The Jews, the Zionists and/or the state of Israel are to blame for the pandemic and/or stand to gain from it.

Divine punishment

Some see the virus as divine punishment of Jews. Jews have been blamed for creating the virus or for refusing to heed social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

A recent Oxford University study found that 19.1 percent of the British public believes to some degree that Jews caused the pandemic.

On the other hand the success of Israel’s vaccination roll-out has received much praise. Commentator Melanie Philips wrote in her 3 February 2021 newsletter that much has been written about Israel’s astonishing vaccination programme, which started in early January 2021.

As at 4 March 2021, 92.46 of every 100 of the population had been inoculated with the first dose of the vaccine. The Israelis have vaccinated the Arab and other non-Jewish populations of Israel.

According to Phillips, there are two reasons for the speed: first, everyone has to belong to one of four health providers and the competition makes these organisations efficient and creative.

Second, in 2020, even before some of the final safety trials for the vaccines had started, the Israeli government ordered vast amounts of vaccine to cover the entire population and reportedly paid over the odds for them.

Ironically and not uncommonly, says Phillips, this phenomenal success has helped to engender another mutation of the antisemitic blood libel.

Phillips cites an article by David Herman of The Article which states that in the first week of January 2021, Sky News, CNN and the BBC News Channel all misrepresented the story about Israel and Covid vaccinations, and Israel’s alleged obligation and failure to vaccinate the Palestinians.

“In an extraordinary item on the BBC News Channel last Friday [15 January], most of the BBC’s introduction to their item on this story was taken almost word for word from a similarly hostile piece in the New York Times, which also focused on Dr Gerald Rockenschaub, Head of the WHO Office for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Curiously, he forgot to mention to BBC News, France 24 or the New York Times that Israel has no obligation to vaccinate Palestinians living in Gaza or the West Bank — and the BBC interviewer forgot to ask. I wrote to the BBC’s editorial director several times about this. He never replied.” 

No such obligation

Israeli media monitors, lawyers, journalists and others have pointed out that Israel has no such obligation because Palestinian Arabs are not Israeli citizens.

Dan Diker explained the issue in News24. Diker is Research Fellow and Director of the Program to Counter Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress.

Diker has worked with Palestinians in the West Bank for 25 years and helped to provide financial and medical assistance where the Palestinian insurance and medical authorities have fallen short.

The Oslo Interim Peace Accords signed on 28 September 1995, and witnessed and guaranteed by the EU, Russia, the United States and others, provide the following:

  1. Israel neither occupies the Gaza Strip nor the Palestinian areas of the disputed West Bank. Israel withdrew from these areas pursuant to the 1993-5 Oslo Accords, when security and all civilian powers and responsibilities were transferred to the Palestinian Authority, as an internationally recognised proto-state.

2.     The Oslo Accords established an agreed-upon legal administration governing the territories.

3.     Article 17 of the Oslo Accords Civilian Protocol fully empowered and budgeted the PA to take upon itself all responsibilities for health care in the territories under its control. This includes vaccination of the Palestinian population against epidemics.

4.         This agreement applies to the PA’s responsibility for vaccinating its 1.5 million

residents in the West Bank and 1.8 million residents in Gaza.

5.         Therefore Israel is under no legal obligation to vaccinate the             Palestinian population in the territories.

6.         With Covid-19, the Palestinian Minister of Health, Dr Maial-Kaila, who herself was vaccinated by Israel, refused to purchase vaccines from Israel. She wanted to avoid being             called a ‘traitor’, for breaking the PA boycott of all cooperation with Israel.

7.         Israel may, for epidemiological and other medical and moral reasons, provide vaccinations to residents of the territories. However, it is under no legal obligation to do so.

Israel has vaccinated more Arab Muslim men, women and children as a percent of its total population than any other Arab country in the Middle East region.

In 2020 the PA refused planeloads and millions of dollars of UAE healthcare assistance to fight Covid-19 in 2020, because the UAE planes landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

One UAE leader, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that the PA leadership ‘lost them’ with their refusal of UAE health assistance.

Arab frustration

A senior US official who spoke to Diker described Arab frustration with the Palestinian leadership’s snub of Arab countries for normalising relations with Israel. ‘(The) UAE has left the train station together with Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership is still sitting on the station floor, complaining about and condemning their Jewish neighbors.’

The Palestinian government has engaged in massive financial corruption for years, squandering money which could have been used to finance acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines.

In mid-January Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced that the PA had contracted with four Covid-19 vaccine producers. Sufficient vaccines are due to arrive by mid-March.

Ironically one vaccine, the Sputnik V, was co-developed by Israel’s Hadassah Hospital together with Russia’s health authorities.

According to Diker, the PA tried to obtain an entire vaccine inventory free of charge. International organisations and state powers were unwilling to comply. So Israel supplied PA government officials with an initial batch.

Some 20 percent of vaccines are expected to be donated to the PA. Holding out for free vaccines accounted for months-long delays in PA acquisition. Had the PA asked Israel for assistance, the PA would be farther along in vaccinating its public.

David Herman of The Article continues that until recently the PA and Hamas did not ask Israel for help in obtaining vaccines, as Khaled abu Toameh reported in the Jerusalem Post in December 2020. They were working to secure supplies on their own.

That changed, as recorded by Honest Reporting:

‘Israel provided a small number of vaccines while opening discussions with the World Health Organisation with a view to facilitating the delivery through international intermediaries of additional vaccines to Ramallah and Gaza City.

‘In vain, the media outlets referred to above were told that Israeli Arabs are receiving the vaccine like any other Israeli citizens; and that the Arabs of east Jerusalem, who are not Israeli citizens but whose status is different from those living under Palestinian Authority administration on the West Bank, are being offered the vaccine but are largely refusing to have the jab.

‘Astonishingly, the media have simply ignored these facts and continue to promulgate the vaccine libel against Israel. As a result, in a grotesque inversion of roles, the Palestinians have now belatedly jumped on the Israel-demonisation bandwagon that the Western media have provided for them.’

Purported lack of access

In late December 2020 ReutersAssociated PressThe New York TimesThe Washington PostCNN and ABC News among others, carried headlines implying or outright declaring that Jerusalem was responsible for the Palestinians’ purported lack of access to vaccines. Some even claimed Israel was violating international law or enacting a system of’“medical apartheid’.

Phillips suggests three reasons why the Left media persisted with this libel for so long.

First, Palestinian Arabs are no longer the story in the Middle East and there haven’t been any wars recently so ‘the media spotted in the vaccine story an opening at last for malicious attack and now won’t relinquish the opportunity’.

Second, to accept that the Palestinian Arabs are actually responsible for administering their own healthcare drives a hole through the central falsehood that Israel is only an ‘occupying’ and ‘oppressive’ force.

Third, the vaccine libel possesses a key characteristic of antisemitism through the ages, namely, a pathological jealousy that is evidence of Jewish exceptionalism.

Phillips posits that this pathology is so twisted that some are even jealous of the ‘exceptional’ nature of Jewish suffering, which provokes the ludicrous complaint that the Jews ‘suck up all the victimhood so there’s none left for the rest of us’.

So for the Jew-hater, the evidence of exceptional Jewish achievement, particularly exceptional moral achievement, has to be denied, repudiated or twisted into its opposite. It was this moral standard Hitler most hated about the Jews.

For Phillips, this is why attempts to improve Israel’s image by drawing attention to its exceptional record in humanitarian work or scientific advances to the benefit of all mankind, merely multiplies the calumnies.

‘Exceptional depravity’

‘And that’s why Israel’s exceptional achievement in vaccinating its population against Covid-19 has produced a libel aimed at transforming its exemplary focus upon saving lives into an example of exceptional depravity.

‘But of course, the only depravity is to be found among those perpetrating this latest malevolent lie.’

Most Covid-related anti-Semitism is spread on the internet. The 2020 Annual Report on Anti-Semitism published by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs released on 27 January 2021 found:

‘The outburst of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the proliferation of antisemitic conspiracy theories, including the revival of medieval blood libels rebranded and recycled into contemporary forms of antisemitism. Jews, Zionists and Israel are accused of having created, spread, financed and used the virus to expand their global domination and to impose a New World Order, but also as a means for making a profit.

‘The virus metaphor has been widely used to disseminate radical anti-Zionist sentiments, including the characterization of Israel as Covid-19. It echoes the antisemitic “Jewish parasite” stereotype which served to legitimise the persecution of Jews by the Nazis.

The hashtags #Covid4811 and #Covid1948, equating the State of Israel and the coronavirus, had indeed gained great popularity on Twitter.’

Covid-19 has also led to a terminology of Holocaust trivialisation that associates Covid-19 with the Holocaust. Opposition to pandemic restrictions have been compared to policies of the Nazi regime. A nasty example is the wearing of yellow stars. Anti-vaxxers have suggested that those who have not been vaccinated are equivalent to Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany.

‘Anti-vaxxers compare “vaccination stations” to Auschwitz, and claim that the police are developing a dictatorship which will persecute those who refuse the vaccine by sending them to concentration camps….

‘Others have claimed that after being in quarantine, they “now know how Anne Frank felt”.

‘The false media narrative is not just an aversion to Israel, but a conscious strategy of never reporting anything positive about Israel. If the vaccinations have started in Israel, readers might get the idea that this is a good thing. That is why the message has to be turned into its opposite by omitting relevant information, distorting it and outright lies.’

[Image: Martyrdom of Simon von Trent, depiction from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (Nuremberg World Chronicle) of 1493]

Sara Gon is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations and presents the IRR Show every Tueday morning at 9am


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