By Alyssa Weiner

For centuries antisemites have blamed Jews for global pandemics, so it is no surprise that conspiracy theories are circulating linking Jews and Israel with the novel coronavirus COVID-19. They combine several common antisemitic tropes, including dirty Jews spreading infection and Jews getting rich by exploiting a defenseless public. Warnings have been issued about this latest development by civil society leaders and global officials, including AJC CEO David Harris[1] and UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed[2]. But how widespread are they? Who promotes them? How worried should we be?

A review of Twitter posts linking Jews with coronavirus reveals several key trends. They transcend global borders and do not follow the typical framework used to describe sources of antisemitism: far right, far left, and related to religious extremism. They are mainly relegated to alternative platforms on the fringe, although at times they have been amplified by mainstream figures. There may be some reassurance in knowing they are presently on the margins of society, but that can quickly change. Thus, we need to be vigilant and call them out as they appear.

Conspiracy theories about Jews are frequently global in nature, featuring worldwide plots. The same can be said for conspiracies tying Jews and Israel to the coronavirus. As such, the very same content found online, on state or satellite TV in the Arab world, also appears in the West, primarily through first-generation immigrants with ties to the Middle East. For example, Professor As'ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese-American at California State University (Stanislaus), tweeted “the Jewish State will have different medical procedures for Jews and non-Jews” and those “non-Jews will be put in mass prisons” as part of Israel’s coronavirus response. [3]

Antisemitism presents itself in old and new guises. The authoritative IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism offers traditional examples of conspiracy theories and hatred rooted in religious ideology alongside more recent examples related to Israel and the Middle East conflict. All can be found in the current situation, and they are often woven together. Thus, some antisemitic messages claim Jews, Zionists, or the State of Israel itself have created COVID-19 with the sinister purpose of then being able to profit from developing an antidote. In others, Israel is falsely portrayed as caring for its own population while preventing any help for Palestinians. A third set of examples claims that Jews themselves are infected and spreading the deadly virus via their own communities, much as they were accused of spreading the plague in medieval times. These charges may be contradictory, but that matters little to the antisemites who promote them.

Much of the conspiratorial content related to COVID-19 is found on sites that have well-established records of antisemitism, not to mention flagrant views of other minorities as well. COVID-19 has presented them with an opportunity to contextualize those views as global commentary on the current pandemic. Far-right Christian news channel TruNews is notorious for its antisemitic, homophobic, and Islamophobic content, recently making headlines when founder Rick Wiles claimed Jews wanted to kill millions of Christians after overthrowing President Trump (he called the impeachment trial a “Jew coup”)[4].

Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff makes his living by illustrating anti-Zionist antisemitic dog whistles as satirical political commentary. His work, mainly published on sites such as Mondoweiss, is also motivated by rage against capitalism, globalization, and U.S. military intervention[5]. Outrage over Latuff’s  antisemitic cartoon of U.S. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in The New York Times’s online international edition last year led  the Times to discontinue publishing political cartoons.[6] The Bulgarian website Strogo Sekretno, “Top Secret,” is described in its “About Us” section, as “a national political newspaper. It is the only independent newspaper in Bulgaria, which is the only real alternative to the manipulated mass media.”[7]

The most prevalent conspiracy theories linking Jews with coronavirus blame Jews, Zionists, or the State of Israel for engineering COVID-19 for malign and selfish reasons. “Scientific researchers and investigative journalists alike throughout the Middle East appear to be fully abreast of the ‘Who’ and ‘Why’ behind this bioengineered coronavirus pandemic... Zionism always wins, while everyone always loses,”[8] wrote Krassimir Ivanov Ivandjiiski, a former Bulgarian Trade Minister, on Strogo Sekretno.  

Retired Turkish Intelligence Colonel Coşkun Başbuğ said on President Erdogan’s TV network that Jews and Zionists organized and engineered COVID-19 as a biological weapon.[9]

Kevin Barnett wrote for Iran’s English-language website, Press TV, that “UANI [the organization United Against Nuclear Iran] is just one of the many Israel pressure groups running United States foreign policy... And now they're trying to amplify the plague of coronavirus in Iran, which one suspects that they themselves may have actually engineered because otherwise how could an Israeli company claim that they'll have a vaccine against coronavirus in less than two weeks?”[10]

Other conspiracy theories falsify the Israeli response to coronavirus outbreaks in the Palestinian territories. Despite Israel providing training for medical personnel, test kits, and other equipment for Palestinians to respond to COVID-19[11], official Palestinian Authority (PA) press communications have spread false and inciteful information[12] while dehumanizing Israelis and Jews by comparing them with coronavirus.[13] Other theories falsely accuse Israel of only treating Jewish patients who contract coronavirus, such as the one cited above by As'ad Abukhalil.

Others claim the outbreak of COVID-19 in Jewish communities is the result of their religion or ethnicity. Jordanian Islamic scholar Ahmad Al-Shahrouri said on Yarmouk TV that “the Jews are more dangerous than coronavirus, AIDS, cholera, and every disease in the world…. If you want to be saved from these deadly diseases, we should all remember Jihad.”[14]

Rick Wiles, the Florida-based founder and host of the far-right Christian channel TruNews, blamed Judaism for the spread of coronavirus. “There is a plague moving upon the Earth right now, and the people that are going into the synagogues are coming out with the virus,” he said. “You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues.”[15]

Much of the content originally airs on far-right, extremist websites or channels[16], and some can be linked directly to terrorist groups. Alain Mondino, head of the National Rally party for local elections in Villepinte, France, “liked” an antisemitic video on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK). When asked about it, he expressed regret at having engaged with the post, while defensively pointing out that he could have shared the content further but didn’t. He also noted the alternative nature of the social platform: “I am more easily censored for content on Facebook or Twitter.”[17] Soon after Mondino’s VK incident, National Rally, the party led by Marine Le Pen, withdrew its support for Mondino’s candidacy.[18]

Terrorist groups have long utilized satellite TV channels as a way to broadcast their propaganda to their followers around the world while maneuvering around local restrictions to their broadcasting, such as Muslim Brotherhood’s Yarmouk TV, which is banned in Jordan, or Hezbollah’s Manar TV, which has been banned in the U.S. since 2004.[19] [20]

Antisemitic conspiracy theories linking Jews to coronavirus are slowly spreading from the fringes via the Internet and social media to what some term the “mainstream far-right.” Just as we are marshaling all national and international tools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus itself, we need to halt the spread of this antisemitism as well.

Online antisemitism ultimately makes its way into the real world. From antisemitic signs appearing at ill-advised gatherings, such as at pro-assembly coronavirus protests,[21] to violent manifestations of antisemitism and hatred against other minorities, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue or Poway fatal shootings, these acts are usually linked to alternative platforms or encrypted messaging applications that are hard to monitor, such as Gab, 8chan, or Telegram.

Government and civil society are each addressing this issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, where antisemitic hate crime legislation carries criminal penalties, it’s easier to regulate online antisemitic hate speech and hold social media companies accountable to the legally-mandated time frames in which they are required to take down hateful posts.

We also see social media being used as a tool to bring people together and provide vital information on key issues. AJC Paris has created several successful civil-led initiatives, including the Mots Pour Maux[22] and #JeSuisLa[23] campaigns. Mots Pour Maux (“Words for Evils”) highlights commnly used phrases found in global media—such as jihad, antisemitism—and creates engaging videos to describe the content. This initiative also includes videos illustrating the descriptive examples that support the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. #JeSuisLa is a civil initiative centered around community-building and counter-speech. The hashtag, which translates in English to, “I Am Here,” encourages users to highlight acts of kindness to fight online hate.

AJC’s Translate Hate educates online users about how to report hateful content and provides a glossary of common phrases and imagery associated with antisemitism to help general society identify traditional antisemitic tropes.[24]

Mainstream social media channels are held to a higher standard and are expected to do more. There are positive developments, such as YouTube banning TruNews’s channel on February 22, 2020, for violating its hate speech standards.[25] Almost 200,000 subscribers to TruNews’s YouTube channel will need to go somewhere else to watch online antisemitic content.

Because we know that what starts online doesn’t stay online—and since antisemites are creating and posting flagrant content regardless of whether there’s a pandemic in question—government, civil society, and tech companies must all do more to ensure that antisemitic content is removed.

In the U.S., we often hear the argument that First Amendment considerations reign supreme when talking about removing antisemitic content. But since social media companies are private corporations and not an extension of the government, they are not beholden to the same First Amendment constraints that U.S. government bodies are. Just as social media giants are correctly policing their sites to remove false news about the virus or sham claims of unproven remedies, we should continue to remind them that swiftly removing antisemitic hate speech, related to COVID-19 and otherwise, is also part of their corporate social responsibility.

Alyssa Weiner is Assistant Director, International Jewish Affairs, AJC Department of Policy and Diplomatic Affairs.

 

ANNEX

INTERNATIONAL EXAMPLES

BRAZIL

BULGARIA

  • Date: February 10, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Krassimir Ivanov Ivandjiiski for Strogo Sekretno
  • Note: Strogo Sekretno has been run since 1994 by Krassimir Ivanov Ivandjiiski, former Soviet-era Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Trade official
  • Reported Content: “More than any other region of the planet, scientific researchers and investigative journalists alike throughout the Middle East appear to be fully abreast of the “Who” and “Why” behind this bioengineered coronavirus pandemic...The bottom line to the “Cio bono?” question is that Zionism always wins, while everyone always loses... China and Russia both lose. So does Iran. The US and UK will ultimately lose even though they might look like winners. India and Pakistan both lose. The entire Middle East loses again except Israel. Just watch how this pandemic evolves across the planet and we shall see who really started it from their safe haven.”
  • Link:https://strogosekretno.com/index.php?p=newsroom&nid=9498

EGYPT

  • Date: January 27, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Egyptian journalist Ahmad Rif’at/Vetogate.com via MEMRI
  • Reported Content: “...We don't know what that [CNN reporter] was doing there. Did he come to report on the events? If so, why did he leave so dramatically? Did he come there before [the outbreak of the epidemic]? [If so,] what caused him to go there before the coronavirus crisis began?...This war is not only intended to worry China, trouble it and cause it to spend billions of dollars on emergency measures and medicines – which, by the way, will be manufactured by an Israeli company... The U.S. wants to inform the world, and especially China itself, as part of a propaganda war targeting [China's] prestige and status, that [China] is still a backward country whose citizens eat bat soup and which exports diseases and epidemics to the rest of the world!”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/reports/arab-writers-coronavirus-part-biological-warfare-waged-us-against-china#_edn4

FRANCE / RUSSIA

IRAN

  • Date: March 3, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: FARS News Agency, Iranian government news agency, affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps
  • Note: FARS News Agency’s online domain was blocked due to an order by U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), starting on 25 January 2020. An Iranian official in the Ministry of Telecommunications announced the site was up and running, confirming they had done DNS Spoofing to redirect traffic to the site.
  • Reported Content: Head of Iran's Civil Defense Organization Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali said on Tuesday that the outcomes of the coronavirus epidemics and the western states' media propaganda suggest that COVID-19 virus could be a biological attack against China and Iran.
  • Link: http://en.farsnews.ir/newstext.aspx?nn=13981213000410

     
  • Date: March 7, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Kevin Barrett, Press TV (Iranian Government English-language website)
  • Reported Content: US, Israel waging biological warfare on massive scale; “...UANI group is just one of the many Israel pressure groups running United States foreign policy. It's just an outrage. And now they're trying to amplify the plague of coronavirus in Iran, which one suspects that they themselves may have actually engineered, because otherwise how could an Israeli company claim that they'll have a vaccine against coronavirus in less than two weeks….”
  • Link:https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2020/03/07/620357/US,-Israel-waging-biological-warfare-on-massive-scale

IRAQ

JORDAN

  • Date: March 8, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Yarmouk TV via MEMRI
  • Note: Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yarmouk TV does not transmit its programs from Jordan and has not been registered in the country since 2016, Yarmouk can get around this rule by calling in to local channels via satellite.
  • Reported Content: Jordanian Islamist Scholar Ahmad Al-Shahrouri: “The Jews Are More Dangerous Than Coronavirus, AIDS, and Cholera; Jihad Purifies Our Bodies and Souls, Can Save People from These Diseases.”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/tv/jordanian-sheikh-shahrouri-jews-more-dangerous-coronavirus-aids-jihad-purify

     
  • Date: March 29, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Yarmouk TV via MEMRI
  • Note: Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Yarmouk TV does not transmit its programs from Jordan and has not been registered in the country since 2016, Yarmouk can get around this rule by calling in to local channels via satellite
  • Reported Content: “Westerners Are Plagued with Diseases Like the Coronavirus Because They Do Not Wash Filth from Their Behinds with Water Like We Do”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/tv/jordanian-sheikh-ahmad-shahrouri-westerners-plagued-diseases-viruses-because-do-not-wash-with-water

     
  • Date: April 9, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Al-Awal News via MEMRI
  • Reported Content: In an antisemitic article published on the Jordanian news website Al-Awal News, Jordanian author and journalist Kafa Al-Zou'bi writes that the current coronavirus epidemic reminds her of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. This novel describes a global epidemic of blindness that is not only physical but also moral and is manifest in a complete loss of values and humanity as people fight over material resources in a bitter struggle to survive. Implying that the world is in a similar state, Al-Zou'bi writes that the source of the problem is capitalism, which is barbaric, greedy, and also "Jewish" – because it is Judaism that bears the greatest responsibility  for the evil and brutal aspects of capitalism..is a cancer that has harmed humanity from the dawn of its civilized history, "because it regards non-Jews as inferior creatures who are detested by God and can be killed with impunity.”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/reports/jordanian-journalist-judaism-cancer-harms-humanity-barbaric-capitalism-rooted-jewish-ideas

LEBANON (HEZBOLLAH)

  • Date: March 29, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Seif Da'na, Palestinian-American Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for Manar TV, Hezbollah-affiliated satellite station
  • Note: Al-Manar was designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity", and banned by the United States on 17 December 2004.
  • Reported Content: "[Regarding the coronavirus] – more people die every year not just from diseases that you can get vaccinated for, like malaria – from which half a million people [die] in Africa – but also from the West's economic policies – at least in the 20th century and the two decades of the 21st century. More people die every year from the consequences of these economic issues than from what is happening now. This is exactly like what happened with Hitler. Hitler did not do anything out of the ordinary. He did not do anything that had not been done by the Europeans before. In the colonial days, in the countries of the [global] south, they would kill hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. Hitler came to be viewed as Satan just because he did what he did in Europe.”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/tv/palestinian-ameircan-academic-seif-dana-western-economic-policies-kill-more-than-coronavirus-hitler-ordinary

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY

  • Date: February 28, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: PA TV via Palestinian Media Watch
  • Reported Content: Unidentified preacher: "The true meaning of the epidemics is a trial from Almighty Allah and a punishment. A trial for the believers and a punishment for the sinners.… If they have stood firm and place their trust in Allah, then they will receive an enormous reward, and whoever dies in the epidemic merits the reward of Martyrdom… If the epidemic harms non-believers, from among the abusers and the aggressors, then that is punishment…. This [Corona] virus is one of Almighty Allah’s soldiers, and He is unleashing it on those who attack His believers…."
  • Link: https://palwatch.org/page/17544

     
  • Date: March 23, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida via Palestinian Media Watch
  • Reported Content: PA demonization of Israel by comparing it with Coronavirus: “The cartoon shows an Israeli jailor wearing a uniform and helmet covered in protrusions resembling the peplomers on the Coronavirus viral envelope. The jailor is holding an assault rifle and leading a Palestinian prisoner on a rope.”
  • Link: https://palwatch.org/page/17677
  • Note: Palestinian Media Watch has a full channel documenting PA coronavirus hate.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • Date: February 6, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Suadi al-Watan via MEMRI
  • Reported Content: In Saudi daily Al-Watan, writer Sa'ud Al-Shehry claimed that the coronavirus was a plot by American and Israeli drug companies aimed at increasing their profits. He wrote: "A 'wonder' virus was discovered yesterday in China; tomorrow it will be discovered in Egypt, but it will not be discovered either today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow in the U.S. or Israel, nor in poor countries such as Burundi or the Comoro Islands….”
  • Link:https://www.memri.org/reports/arab-writers-coronavirus-part-biological-warfare-waged-us-against-china

TURKEY

  • Date: March 11, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Abdullah Bozkurt, Director, Nordic Research & Monitoring Network, Journalist & Author of Turkey Interrupted Derailing Democracy;  abdullah.bozkurt@yahoo.com
  • Reported Content: Coşkun BAŞBUĞ made comments on President Erdogan’s TV Network: “Jews, Zionists have organized & engineered #Corona virus as biological weapon just like bird flue & Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF)….They want to design the world, seize countries, neuter the world's population.”
  • Link: https://twitter.com/abdbozkurt/status/1237609536652886019

 


 

U.S.-BASED EXAMPLES

UNITED STATES / RUSSIA: Strategic Culture Foundation

  • Date: March 5, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Philip Giraldi, PhD, former CIA officer, Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest via Strategic Culture Foundation (extreme-right propaganda website with a Russian domain)
  • Reported Content: “If one even considers it possible that the United States had a hand in creating the coronavirus at what remains of its once extensive biological weapons research center in Ft Detrick Maryland, it is very likely that Israel was a partner in the project. Helping to develop the virus would also explain how Israeli scientists have been able to claim success at creating a vaccine so quickly, possibly because the virus and a treatment for it were developed simultaneously. And then there is the national security/foreign policy issue as seen from both Jerusalem and Washington. It is difficult to explain why coronavirus has hit one country in particular other than China very severely. That country is Iran, the often-cited enemy of both the U.S. and Israel.”
  • Link:https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2020/03/05/who-made-coronavirus-was-it-us-israel-or-china-itself/?fbclid=IwAR166QxGYk7JlsIjl40coqjkzWCvUOSGFxOxYnYkWji1qMKYO7Fi32beK_c

UNITED STATES: Rick Wiles/TruNews

  • Date: March 10, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: Rick Wiles via TruNews (far-right Christian fundamentalist, but has a White House press credential) via Twitter
  • Reported Content: JEWS FOR CRUZ: WHO WAS MYSTERY CORONAVIRUS CARRIER AT AIPAC AND CPAC? “Let’s talk about AIPAC.... The American news media doesn’t want to talk about it, AIPAC doesn’t want to talk about it, MoC doesn’t want to talk about it… a CPAC attendee went to synagogue services at a temple in New Rochelle, NY and has been in the hospital since March 4… AIPAC… the biggest conference in Washington… it’s where the puppet masters convene to dance their little Congressmen and Senators on their strings… that’s the conference we’re talking about.”
  • Link :https://twitter.com/TruNews/status/1237488678642921472


 

UNITED STATES: As’ad Abukhalil, Professor at CalState University

UNITED STATES: David Duke

UNITED STATES: Former Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr.

UNITED STATES: Nation of Islam Research Group (@NOIResearch)

UNITED STATES: White supremacists inciting attacks against Jews, cops on fringe platforms

  • Date: March 23, 2020
  • Reporter/Source: ABC News via FBI
  • Reported Content: In an alert obtained by ABC News, the FBI’s New York office reports that "members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions." “From pushing the idea that Jews created the coronavirus virus to sell vaccines to encouraging infected followers to try to spread the illness to the Jewish community and law enforcement, as the coronavirus has spread, we have observed how white-supremacists, neo-Nazis and others have used this to drive their own conspiracy theories, spread disinformation and incite violence on their online platforms," said Michael Masters, the head of Secure Communities Network.”
  • Link:https://abcnews.go.com/US/white-supremacists-encouraging-members-spread-coronavirus-cops-jews/story?id=69737522
 

[1] Harris, David. “Crises and Conspiracies.” The Times of Israel. 30 March 2020. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/crises-and-conspiracies/

[2] “COVID-19: States should not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights – UN experts “ Geneva. 16 March 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25722&LangID=E

[3] ANNEX: GLOBAL TRENDS IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES LINKING JEWS AND CORONAVIRUS, p. 11

[4] TOI Staff. “Far-right ‘Jew coup’ media outlet TruNews banned from YouTube” The Times of Israel. 22 February 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/anti-semitic-media-outlet-trunews-banned-from-youtube-for-hate-speech/

[6] Lohr, Steve. “New York Times’s Global Edition Is Ending Daily Political Cartoons” The New York Times. 10 June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/10/business/international-new-york-times-political-cartoons.html

[7] “About Us: What and Who is ‘Top Secret’” Strogo Sekretno. Accessed April 2020. https://strogosekretno.com/index.php?p=aboutus

[8] ANNEX: GLOBAL TRENDS IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES LINKING JEWS AND CORONAVIRUS, p. 6.

[9] “, p. 10.

[10] “, p. 7, 8.

[11] Zitun, Yoav. “Israel allocates some 200 coronavirus testing kits to Gaza” Ynet. 13 March 2020. https://www.ynetnews.com/article/SJ5tz00trL.

[12] Abu Toameh, Khaled. “PA: Israel is an agent of coronavirus” Jerusalem Post. 13 April 2020. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/pa-israel-is-an-agent-of-coronavirus-624537.

[13] ANNEX: GLOBAL TRENDS IN CONSPIRACY THEORIES LINKING JEWS AND CORONAVIRUS, p. 9, 10.

[14] “, p. 8.

[15] “, p. 11, 12.

[16] “, p. 13.

[17] “, p. 7.

[18] “RN withdraws support for candidate who relayed racist comments.” Teller Report. 5 March 2020. https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2020-03-05---rn-withdraws-support-for-candidate-who-relayed-racist-comments-.HkGV8BOR4L.html

[19] “, p. 9.

[20] Mintz, John. “U.S. Bans Al-Manar, Says TV Network Backs Terror” Washington Post. 22 December 2004.https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2004/12/22/us-bans-al-manar-says-tv-network-backs-terror/0df6c836-5e6d-4ca1-957e-7891ea01d799/.

[21] Roos, Meghan. “OHIO GOVERNOR CONDEMNS 'DISGUSTING' ANTI-SEMITIC SIGN AT CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN PROTEST” Newsweek. April 23, 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/ohio-governor-condemns-disgusting-anti-semitic-sign-coronavirus-lockdown-protest-1499796

[25] TOI staff. “Far-right ‘Jew coup’ media outlet TruNews banned from YouTube.” Times of Israel. 22 February 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/anti-semitic-media-outlet-trunews-banned-from-youtube-for-hate-speech/.

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