Some anti-Semites around the world are already blaming the Jews for the coronavirus.
No one who has seen the classic film Casablanca can forget the scene. Humphrey Bogart shoots a Nazi officer and the only witness is his new friend, the Nazi Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains. When soldiers arrive just moments after the shooting, Captain Renault looks at Bogie, and then instructs the soldiers, “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
The “usual suspects” are, presumably, the unfortunate lot of innocent scapegoats who always get targeted for crimes they didn’t commit.
In case you hadn’t noticed, some anti-Semites around the world are already blaming the Jews for the coronavirus. To them, Jews are always the “usual suspects,” this time accused of a truly epic crime: creating a global pandemic. It’s actually not the first time this has happened. In the 14th century, in the midst of the Black Plague in Europe that killed an estimated 50 million people, many people blamed the Jews, which led to the slaughter of numerous Jewish communities throughout the continent, particularly in Germany.
A variation of that sad theme has played out many times throughout history, including the Holocaust. There’s a crisis of some sort and the Jews — history’s “usual suspects” — will invariably get blamed. So it should come as no surprise that this is happening during this horrific coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks:
• A member of Iran’s parliament recently tweeted that this pandemic “is a kind of biological attack by the U.S. and the Zionist regime.”
• At a recent Ohio rally, people were seen carrying signs of a rat wearing a yarmulke and a Star of David, with the words “the real plague.”
• In Germany, anti-Semites distributed yellow stickers shaped like Stars of David with anti-Semitic slurs linking Jews to the virus.
• In New York, there are people calling for virus-carrying Jews to wear a patch with the letter “C” for coronavirus.
This modern-day version of Jewish scapegoating comes at an extraordinarily volatile time. We have economic calamity, a killer virus, profound political divisions and the technology for anti-Semites to easily spread their hateful message. The anger and rhetoric of far-right hate groups is exploding, and they clearly feel increasingly emboldened to come out from the shadows.
Needless to say, this is all a recipe for a powder keg of trouble for Jews and other minority groups, and one would have to be oblivious to history to not recognize it.
But good people who wish to do something about it are not powerless, even while we are mostly staying home during this pandemic. There are still a remarkable amount of things that people are doing to fight hate.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has created an initiative named #FightingHateFromHome, which is a series of webinars that educate and provide practical ways for people to be activists during the pandemic crisis (see adl.org).
The ADL’s Michigan Regional Director, Carolyn Normandin, says that far-right hate groups are seeing the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to spread their message: “Hateful opportunists are using the fear and uncertainty of the current crisis to promote anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. If you hear anyone promoting violence or hate, report the incident.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has been monitoring hate groups in America for the last 50 years. Lately, during this crisis, the group has been using its “Hate Watch Blog” to expose the activities of right-wing activists who use social media to protest “Stay At Home” orders in various states (see splcenter.org). At the protest in Lansing in April, we will recall, many of the signage was openly anti-Semitic and racist, and included Nazi swastikas and Confederate flags.
The SPLC has published a practical resource manual, “10 Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide.” Many of the tips can be done from home, including making phone calls, sending emails, educating oneself, pressuring leaders, supporting victims and joining forces with others. As the Resource Guide states: “Do something. In the face of hatred, apathy will be interpreted as acceptance by the perpetrators, the public and — worse — the victims. If we don’t, hate persists.”
Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC offers a variety of opportunities for volunteers to engage in fighting anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, even during the coronavirus crisis. (See jcrcajc.org.)
“In order to fight anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry,” says Executive Director Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “we have to both advocate for stronger No Hate laws and model respect and civility amongst our diverse communities. So we bring together many different communities — Jewish, Muslim, African American, Hindu, Catholic and others — to be a strong voice against hatred.”
For the past three years, the JCRC/AJC has partnered with the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity in operating the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity. During the time of this pandemic, both the JCRC/AJC and the Coalition have been particularly active in programming and events on Facebook and Zoom webinars that promote solidarity and speak out against anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry (full disclosure — I’m on the board of the JCRC/AJC and a co-director of the Coalition).
At the 1963 March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing beside him, told the massive crowd that when he was a rabbi in Berlin under Hitler, he “learned many things. The most important … was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
During the time of this pandemic, even though we’re avoiding public gatherings, we don’t need to be silent in the struggle against hate. We don’t need to sit back and powerlessly watch the haters spread their garbage. We can shine a spotlight on who they are, what they say and where they’re going. We can combat their hate with truth. We can mobilize others to join the effort. We can support victims. We can pressure do-nothing politicians. We can and must be a loud, steady and strong voice for good in this world.
And we can easily do it all in our sweatpants and slippers from the comfort of our couches.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.