Incidents of Anti-Semitic persecution have occurred throughout history, time after time. Over the years, accusations blaming the Jews for all the predicaments or problems have been made repeatedly, particularly in Europe. In recent years, Anti-Semitism has been on the rise all over the world, as can be seen in the written media, in articles, in demonstrations and in terror attacks targeted against Jews in France, Belgium, the USA and others.
We would like to make particular mention of 3 health related events in which the Jews have been accused of causing a plague or epidemic. The most troubling fact is that although over 700 years have passed since such allegations were made during the Black Plague – the essence of the accusations remains the same.
The Well Poisoning Plot (12th Century) and the Black Plague (14th Century):
The well poisoning plot emerged in the 12th century in Germany, and surfaced every so often. After the outbreak of the plague, and particularly once the vast scope of the plague became known – the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells (source of water), thereby causing an epidemic. This accusation was strengthened by testimonies given by Jews who, under severe torture, “admitted” to having poisoned the wells due to their hatred of Christians. Some of these Jews went on to say that the poisoning of wells was part of a broader plot that was initiated by a Jewish organization in Toledo to impose Jewish rule all over the world. Some claimed that they were being punished by God for harboring Jews hated by God.
According to myth, less Jews died (compared to Christians), which was attributed to the fact that they had better hygiene habits (washing hands, bathing for purification), making them the immediate suspect. During the pogroms/massacres that were carried out in response to the accusations, one of the claims made by the Jews in their attempt to defend themselves was that the mortality rate among Jews was also high.
As for the “Black Plague” – many view the Anti-Semitism that prevailed during the outbreak of the “Black Plague” as an early version of the new, more racist form of Anti-Semitism, since it did not emphasize the element of converting Jews to Christianity, and in many cases (though not all of them) – baptizing did not help the Jews. The Jews’ wealth and the fact that their occupation was related to interest-bearing loans evoked hatred against them.
Jews were persecuted primarily in France, Switzerland and Germany. After Jews were forced (under torture) to admit to poisoning the wells – the masses believed these accusations to be the truth. The entire Jewish community of Basel, which numbered a few hundred Jews, was burned to death inside a building constructed of wood that was built especially for this purpose. In Strasbourg, many Jews were burned in their cemetery, and it was decided to expel them for one hundred years. In all cities along the Rhein River – Jews were burned to death, and at times – as in the case of the Jewish community of Frankfurt – the Jews pre-empted the massacre by setting themselves on fire so as not to fall to the hands of the Christians. In Mainz, the Jews organized to defend themselves, gathered weapons and succeeded in killing 200 members of the ignited crowd that had set out to kill them. However at the end of the day, the Christian residents of Mainz succeeded in defeating the Jews, and killed them in the masses. Those who survived set themselves on fire in their homes. It is estimated that on the 24th of August, 1349, approximately 6,000 Jews died in Mainz. The entire Jewish community of Erfurt, numbering approximately 3,000 Jews, was exterminated.
As with many other massacres that took place in the Middle Ages – the plot regarding the “Black Plague” was ignited and spread by the masses. In areas that were under the influence of the Pope, such as Italy, the lives of the Jews were saved/ spared. In an epistle issued by the Pope, he emphasized that the “Black Death” was nothing other than a pre-destination, and that murdering Jews stemmed mainly from the desire of people with debt to wipe out their debt.
“Jews must continue to live since according to the Prophet Isaiah – they must remain alive.”
At the same time, King Karl the Fourth of Germany spared the lives of Jews, most probably due to the fact that is served his economic interests since they paid him tremendous amounts of money to be spared.
City Councils in Germany made significant efforts to save the lives of Jews, however at times, when Jewish neighborhoods were locked down – the purpose was not only to protect the inhabitants but also to prevent them from fleeing, since their assets posed as a significant commercial negotiating factor.
As a result of the persecutions and expulsions of Jews – by the end of the 14th century many Jewish communities had been totally destroyed, and Western Europe had almost no Jews left in its midst.
The Expression of Anti-Semitism in the USA (21st century):
In a conference that was held recently, Jonathan Sarna (a Professor of Jewish-American history at Brandeis University) said that the most recent conspiracy theories regarding public health reflect a broader historical trend.
“It must be obvious to you that the Jews are to blame. You are of Jewish origin, so you are responsible for spreading the virus to many other people…”. This quote was made regarding the lawyer that probably exposed hundreds of worshipers to the Corona virus while they were at the synagogue.
When early reports were published on the Corona virus, certain individuals/groups in the USA who went on social media, claiming that the virus was a Jewish plot. They posted posters in which the Jews were said to have spread the virus in order to manipulate the stock market to their benefit, and that the Corona virus was in fact a “collaboration between the Zionists and the Deep-State” in order to hurt President Trump during his re-election campaign. It was also posted that a few years ago – Jewish companies registered a patent on a vaccination against the virus in order to generate future gain. In recent weeks, the phenomenon of Anti-Semitic posts and memes, termed “The Happy Merchant”, have emerged, depicting a drawing of a Jewish man with heavily stereotyped facial features who is greedily rubbing his hands together, demonstrating his intent to profit from the Corona crisis.
Extremists expressed their hope that the Jews would fall as victims of the virus. Posters hailed the outbreak of the virus in Israel, and someone on social media suggested that people who had become infected with the virus go to supermarkets in order to “cough on kosher products”.
Professor Friedfeld has expressed his deep concern at seeing the Anti-Semitic sentiment that has surfaced on mainstream platforms such as twitter and Instagram.
It would appear that in light of the number of people in the USA who are ill with the virus or who have died from the virus – the Anti-Semitic wave in the USA will intensify. It is enough for even a small group of American citizens to believe that the false accusations described above are true for someone to take the initiative and harm Jews, Jewish communities and synagogues.
Recommendations for dealing with Anti-Semitic phenomena:
- Do not get drawn into Anti-Semitic debates or confrontations.
- Regular meetings should be set with law-enforcement officials/organizations in residential areas/neighborhoods in order to create a reliable, ongoing relationship with them. This will enable to recruit them to carry out effective police activity that will act as a deterrent in Jewish areas and neighborhoods.
- To have members of the Jewish community go around carrying guns is not effective. Lack of operational experience of people carrying weapons can lead to situations in which someone could get hurt as the result of intentional or unintentional fire, which will only lead to further escalation.
- It is recommended to train people from the community to deal with irregular occurrences in the communities in general, and at Jewish sites in particular.
- At the request of education officials in Colorado with regards to security at schools, professionals in the area of security were hired in order to reduce the number of shooting incidents at schools. The resulting change in concept was well-received by school management, parents and students.
- It is recommended to conduct periodic meetings between senior representatives of the Jewish communities, school management and synagogue gabbais/officials in order to provide them with updates on the situation as well as required activities.
- Anti-Semitic activity is not a pre-destination. Proper preparation along with adopting preventive measures and creating community awareness can potentially thwart Anti-Semitic events in the public space.