From state television to the dark web, antisemitic conspiracy theories are being used by Islamists and white supremacists to blame Jews for COVID-19.
From Facts to Conspiracies, Again
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Experts from the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other research organisations associated the first infections to a live animal market in Wuhan. It is estimated that the virus first appeared in November 2019, with official Chinese statements confirming the outbreak in December. COVID-19 is a type of coronaviruses which causes disease in animals. Seven of them, including the new one, have made the jump from animals to humans. Previous outbreaks included SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2002 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012. According to experts, live markets such as the one in Wuhan pose a heightened risk as live animals’ consumption is difficult to monitor.
Despite these facts being clear, some began associating the virus to the Jews and to the state of Israel. Some Turkish and Iranian politicians and officials blamed the US and Israel for spreading the virus for strategic reasons, while jihadists accused the Jews of an anti-Muslim conspiracy and white supremacists blamed the Jews for spreading the virus to further their global dominance and financial gains. Antisemitic conspiracy theories began spreading even more quickly than the disease itself, on some official media outlets, as well as the regular internet and on the dark web.
This matters, of course, because antisemitic conspiracies can in time lead to a rise in violence against Jews. Moreover, on an international level, according to the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations, the spread of false information is not illegal, so countries that seek to oppose the spread of conspiracy theories cannot easily and legally act against them. These lies may be ‘authenticated’ by those consumers for whom traditional media platforms and official statements are distrusted. All these trends are spreading antisemitism and embedding it deeper among marginalised social groups.
Throughout history, Jews have often been treated as scapegoats, accused of being the cause of society’s problems, perceived as being diseased or as a group deliberately spreading disease among non-Jews. Greek leaders used many negative adjectives to describe Jews in the 4th and 5th centuries. The eastern Roman Emperors Theodosius II and Justinian described Jews with words such as ‘perversity,’ ‘contagion,’ ‘pollution,’ ‘a plague’, and ‘contamination’. During the Black Death pandemic of the Middle Ages (1347-61) Jews were accused of ‘poisoning the wells’. The Nazi ideology framed all Jews as a bio-threat. After the establishment of Israel, some hostile Arab officials blamed Israel and the Jews for spreading AIDS among Arab leaders and officials. Terror organisations such as Hamas have spread the lie that the Zionists use AIDS-infected women to lure Arab leaders to their doom. Islamists and white supremacists are associating COVID-19 with Jews though, typically, they are using the more acceptable dog-whistle code word ‘Zionist’ as a stand-in for ‘Jew’.
Constructing a ‘Jewish’ Pandemic
Islamists have claimed that COVID-19 is a Zionist or a US-Israeli conspiracy. Al Masdar, an Algerian news website recently published a report titled ‘A Zionist organisation is behind the coronavirus and the Zionist entity (Israel) claims to have found the vaccine.’ In Iran, Professor Ali Karami from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-run Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences appeared on Iranian television and described COVID-19 as a ‘biological ethnic weapon,’ created by the ‘Americans and Zionist regime’ to target Iranian DNA. It was this Zionist plot, Professor Karami suggested, that explained the high mortality rate in Iran. When it was pointed out that Italy had also suffered a high death rate the Professor replied, ‘the genetics of the Italian people are very similar to the Iranian people.’
In March 2020, Turkish officials and other public figures accused Israel of population dilution – ‘This virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing,’ the head of Turkey’s Refah party said. He cited approvingly the words of his father Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamist politician and former prime minister of Turkey: ‘Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria that has caused the suffering of people.’ On Turkish television, Abdullah Bozkurt drew attention to a guest who appeared on A-Haber TV station, which is owned by Turkish President Erdogan, saying that ‘Jews, Zionists have organised & engineered #Corona virus as biological weapon just like bird flu & Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). They want to design the world, seize countries, neuter the world’s population.’
The white supremacy website Daily Stormer started sharing antisemitic conspiracy theories about the pandemic straight after the outbreak. As Andrew Anglin, the site editor wrote on 26 March 2020, ‘Coronavirus is now a hoax that is officially on par with the Holocaust and global warming.’ Conspiracy theories proliferate especially luxuriously on the dark web where one can find document titled ‘The Illuminati and The Council on Foreign Relations One-World-Government Conspiracy and The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.’ White supremacy networks blame the Jews for global chaos, starvation and disease. And it is just these kind of ‘authenticated’ sources that are contributing to the legitimisation and promotion of coronavirus-related conspiracies today.
Some white supremacists have begun encouraging their members to spread COVID-19 to ‘cops’ (the authorities) and Jews, if infected themselves. One user on the dark web even pleaded, ‘Please, dear god, let it hit europe as hard as possible, and destroy the whole fucking (((system))) there.’
For many white supremacists, ‘the system’ is Jewish and is responsible for the outbreak. In January 2020, white supremacist and former congressional candidate Paul Nehlen said Israel had ‘unleashed a bio weapon’ against China that was ‘meant to teach you that they control your destiny as well’. Further, he asked: ‘You gonna [sic] let those jealous, vindictive Jews get away with it?’ Former Milwaukee county Sheriff, David Clarke Jr. also accused the Jewish investor and billionaire George Soros of being behind the outbreak. By the end of March 2020, Religious Jews in New York were also accused for ‘spreading the virus’. Truth3, a user on the conspiracy website The Unz Review, wrote in a comment: ‘Coronavirus SARS and Ebola were US DOD bio-weapons conceived and put into play by the Zio controlled Government.’
We need herd immunity from COVID-19 and antisemitism
Throughout history, across great spans of time and space, antisemites have managed to blame Jews for their social and political problems, associating Jews with wars, financial crises, crime and plagues, and using radically different discourses to do so, religious and secular, left and right. Today, traditional antisemitic stereotypes are being updated by Islamists and white supremacists to blame Jews for COVID-19. No virus has shown a greater capacity to mutate than antisemitism. It is up to us to build up our herd immunity to every strain.
 The antisemitic conspiracy theories often include triple-brackets, known as ‘echoes’, a far-right invention. This marking begun as an attempt to identify and mark Jewish Twitter users, so that other antisemites could then attack them online. Anti-racists have sometimes adopted the brackets in the spirit gays and lesbians have adopted the word ‘queer’.
 Topor 2019.
 Schmitt 2017, pp. 160-175.
 Topor & Shuker 2019; Flanagin & Metzger 2000.
 Topor 2019.
 Linder 2008, pp. 150-51.
 Cohn Jr. 2007.
 See Dundes 1984; Wistrich 2013.
 Laqueur 2006, pp. 60-62.
 The document can be accessed on the TOR dark web, http://jah777geov3jayctltl6e3wdungj7nre7vpdpgodrowp6iyla3f4c7ad.onion/illumin.htm
 See the conspiracy post on the Nano Chan dark web site, http://nanochanpwz3xnue76gteysv6wjm5sim3bbcm2lc65x625at774k77qd.onion/l/19101.html
 See comment number 144, https://www.unz.com/article/was-coronavirus-a-biowarfare-attack-against-china/
Cohn Jr, Samuel K 2007, ‘The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,’ Past and Present 196, 1: 3-36.
Dundes, Alan 1984, Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A Portrait of German Culture Through Folklore, New York: Columbia University Press.
Flanagin, Andrew J. and Miriam J. Metzger 2000, ‘Perceptions of Internet Information Credibility,’ Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 77, 3: 515-540.
Laqueur, Walter 2006, The Changing Face of anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press.
Linder, Amnon 2008, ‘The Legal Status of Jews in the Roman Empire,’ in Katz, Steven T. (ed), Judaism, Volume 4, Cambridge University Press, pp. 128-73.
Schmitt, Michael N. (ed) 2017, Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare, Cambridge University Press.
Topor, Lev 2019, ‘Dark Hatred: Antisemitism on the Dark Web,’ Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism 2, 2: 25-42.
Topor, Lev and Pnina, Shuker 2019, Cyber Influence Campaigns in the Dark Web. Cyber, Intelligence, and Security, 3,2: 63-79.
Wistrich, Robert S. (ed) 2013, Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia, Routledge, 2013.