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The fevered world of antisemitic vaccine conspiracies

As the pandemic rages on, age-old prejudices are colliding with junk science

Last week, a coronavirus conspiracy group on Telegram posed a question to thousands of followers: “Is Israel tricking the whole world to add restrictions against non-vaccinated people?” 

Dozens of comments rolled in rapidly. “It’s always those damn Jews,” one user replied. Then came the memes: A video of a person thrashing around on fire underneath a blue Star of David; a caricature of a hook-nosed Jewish man with the body of an insect; a young woman giving a Nazi salute. “They aren’t giving the vaccine to their people,” read another response. 

Within minutes, the exchange had encapsulated an online collision of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories that is taking place right now, in which people who subscribe to a range of reactionary ideologies are intermingling and feeding off one another’s narratives. 

Among the most toxic results is a growth of antisemitic vaccine conspiracies, which are popping up everywhere from Neo-Nazi websites to Covid-19-skeptic communities. While such ideas existed long before the coronavirus, experts say that the convergence of anti-vaccine advocacy and antisemitic views has deepened during the pandemic. One possible reason is that many people are spending much more time online during widespread lockdowns, creating an avenue for extremists to spread their ideas to wider audiences.

“The intersection between anti-vaccination and antisemitism has definitely been more prominent since the start of Covid-19,” said Dr. Michael Jensen of the University of Maryland, whose research concentrates on extremist groups and domestic radicalization. 

“One of the more fascinating things about the merging of anti-vaccination and antisemitism in the last couple of months has been the diversity of actors that have come together to spread these narratives,” he added, grouping together everyone from white supremacists to militia groups and QAnon affiliates.

The conspiracies now doing the rounds draw on well-worn themes and typically originate in neo-Nazi and far-right circles: A cabal of powerful Jews engineered the vaccine to control the global population; Zionists, the Rothschilds or George Soros masterminded the pandemic in order to establish a New World Order; longtime vaccine advocate Bill Gates is a secret “Jewish aristocrat;” the coronavirus is a Zionist bioweapon; the vaccine is part of a Jewish plot to sterilize the white race. 

At the heart of anti-vaccine, coronavirus-skeptic and antisemitic ideologies is an entrenched belief that the world is controlled by nefarious elites, manipulating ordinary people to their own ends. Now, hate groups appear to be exploiting that common ground to amplify the world’s oldest conspiracy theory — “The Jews are behind it all” — within online communities that may not have previously held ethno-religious prejudice as an organizing principle. 

Aryeh Tuchman, senior associate director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, likened the vaccine conspiracy network to a “highway that allows the connections of these disparate ideas.” 

According to the ADL, references to the “Jew vaccine” have proliferated across Covid-19-skeptic conspiracy channels and neo-Nazi websites in recent months. For instance, a post on the extremist messageboard Stormfront floated the theory that “The Jews (sic) vaccine changes DNA so that the DNA itself will produce any proteins that the Jews program it to produce via 5G. This gives the Jews the ability to kill you by using 5G to tell the DNA to produce poisons.” 

On Telegram, one prominent anti-vaxxer recently shared a post with a link to an article about “the globalist agenda,” along with the caption “Covid is the gateway to a new world order.” On another channel, a member shared a link to an article stating that the vaccine will not eradicate the coronavirus and commented that “Jews think they will run this scam forever.” Elsewhere on the platform, a user posted a photograph of men affiliated with global pharmaceutical companies wearing superimposed yellow stars  reading “Jude.”

None of this is new. It’s just the latest iteration of a long tradition of blaming Jews for all the problems plaguing society. During the Black Death, Jews in medieval Europe were accused of spreading the disease by intentionally poisoning wells, while Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as vectors of typhus. 

As Tuchman puts it: “Every global conspiracy theory can incorporate antisemitism, and often does in some way.”

Such ideas know no borders. In Switzerland, antisemitic vaccine conspiracies are flourishing online and have been linked to a rise in attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues. In Argentina, they have made their way to anti-vaccine Telegram channels. One, with more than 25,000 subscribers, recently hosted a cartoon of a caricatured Jewish man — hunched over, with a bulbous nose — milking the udders of a coronavirus into a bucket with a money sign.

In Portugal, a well-known former military general posted on Twitter about Israel’s vaccine rollout and how rich Jews are using hoarded money to oppress gentiles. “The Jews, as they dominate the fiscal world, bought and have the vaccines they wanted,” he wrote. “It’s historical revenge of sorts. I won’t say anything else before the Zionist ‘bulldogs’ jump.” He later deleted the post, but railed against “the legion of supporters of Nazi-Zionists” for criticizing it. 

Meanwhile, in perhaps the most remarkable example of historical distortion, anti-vaxxers in Germany and the Czech Republic have appropriated the yellow Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, donning them at protests as a symbol of their alleged persecution by government vaccine mandates.

Because research into the intersection of anti-vaccine and antisemitic ideologies is virtually nonexistent, it’s difficult to know just how widespread the phenomenon is — beyond anecdotal conversations with extremism experts and my own masochistic social media snooping. One study, however, provides some clarity. 

An October report from the U.K. government’s independent advisor on antisemitism analyzed the activity of over two-dozen anti-vaccine networks on Facebook and Twitter. It found that 79% of them contained antisemitic content. Posts about the vaccine often featured Bill Gates, who conspiracists believe is a “crypto-Jew.” Others said George Soros owns the “Wuhan lab,” where conspiracists claim Covid-19 was created and unleashed upon the world. 

“Whilst the majority of anti-vaxxers do not express antisemitic beliefs, these claims have become more prevalent since the start of restrictions enforced by governments to limit the spread of Covid-19,” the report concluded.

Some of the tropes that have recently flourished are artfully coded and may not be immediately recognizable as antisemitic — think vague references to “globalists,” rather than outright finger-pointing at Jews. That’s precisely what makes them so dangerous. Once these ideas are internalized, individuals are likely to be far more receptive to straightforward anti-Jewish prejudice.

“Very often far-right groups use these more mainstream causes and then infiltrate those to turn them into much more hateful, much more extremist communities,” says Milo Comerford of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who has been monitoring antisemitism during the pandemic. “You’ve seen that a bunch of times, where these seemingly quiet, neutral anti-lockdown Facebook groups are set up, and then start spewing antisemitic bile.”

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Erica Hellerstein

Erica Hellerstein is an award-winning journalist and a senior reporter with Coda Story. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Elle, Marie Claire, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, and more. She has reported on human rights issues across the U.S. and in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. Follow her on Twitter @E_Hellerstein.

@E_Hellerstein