Blood Libels, Conspiracy Theories, and Coronaviruses

For centuries, blood libels and conspiracy theories have played a tragic role in Jewish history, inciting pogroms, and responsible for the torture and murders of countless Jews. These libels have taken on multiple forms, variations on the same theme: Jews as a collective – or, in modern times, the Jewish state as a collective – conspire to kill, destroy or otherwise harm non-Jews for ritual purposes or for monetary gain and power.

Both the medieval blood libels accusing Jews of murdering Christian youth as part of Passover rituals and the similar anti-Jewish conspiracy libels accusing Jews of benefiting from harming non-Jews stem from the primitive superstition that Jews are agents of the devil. Anti-Jewish libels continue to be perpetrated by anti-Semites of all stripes. As Passover approaches and the world is engulfed in a coronavirus pandemic, we can expect more of the same.

The Blood Libel

Medieval blood libels began in 1144 CE when the apparent murder of a young tanner apprentice, William of Norwich, was attributed to the town’s Jews. The tale that developed regarding William, declared a saint, was that he was murdered by Jews during the Passover/Easter period, that Norwich’s Jewish community was chosen by lot to ritually sacrifice a Christian youth in a Jewish Passover ritual, and that the Jewish community managed to bribe local official to look the other way.

Over the ensuing years, similar libels were leveled against Jews in England. When a youth went missing or was found dead, the family and local community blamed the town’s Jews, accusing them of victimizing the youth as part of a Jewish ritual. Their accusations were based on a false, defamatory myth that Jews required the blood of a Christian youth for their Passover observance. These blood libels, fueled by medieval superstition and loathing of Jews as the “other”, quickly spread through the rest of Europe.

In 1171, the entire Jewish community of Blois, France was sentenced to death and burnt alive, on the basis of a blood libel. In England, the blood libel was soon sanctioned by the highest authorities. When, in 1255, the body of a young boy was discovered in a well owned by a Jew  in Lincoln, his death was blamed on the entire community of Jews who were said to have tortured and murdered the boy to mock the crucifixion of Christ. The blood libel made a saint of the drowned victim, who became known as Little St. Hugh, and resulted in the arrest of dozens of Jews who had come to Lincoln to celebrate a wedding. Many of them received death sentences, endorsed by the King of England who confiscated their property.

The blood libel was used as a vehicle by anti-Semites with which to ravage the Jewish communities in their midst and to appropriate the belongings of executed Jews. It always followed the same pattern.

* (Updated, April 27, 2020): In 1475, Jew-haters incited by the Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes Hinderbach physically tortured the Jews living in that Italian city for several weeks until they extracted the confessions they wanted to hear about murderous Jewish Passover rituals that resulted in the murder of a young boy, Simon. Although the Jews were later found to be innocent, and the death of Simon attributed to Christians who wanted to appropriate the town Jews’ belongings, the anti-Semitic bishop tried to have Simon canonized and urged writers and intellectuals to honor Simon and condemn the Jews.  For over 200 years,  until the Second Vatican Council suppressed it, Simon was venerated as a saint, thus perpetuating the libel. 

In 1840, the medieval blood libel reached the Middle East when a Capuchin monk, Father Thomas, and his Muslim servant, Ibrahim Amara, disappeared in Ottoman-ruled Damascus. Although the facts pointed elsewhere, the primitive blood libel was again raised, this time against Damascus Jews accused of murdering the monk and his servant in order to use their blood for Passover rituals. Nine Jews were arrested and tortured to extract confessions. The bogus trial was orchestrated by the French consul, a corrupt and notorious anti-Semite. Despite protests by Western Jewry and appeals by prominent Jews, an acquiescent press accepted the blood libel against Judaism as an established fact.

In 1911, the blood libel reared its ugly head in Kiev, Ukraine with accusations against a local Jew by the name of Menachem Mendel Beilis, who was falsely accused of murdering 12-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky for Jewish ritual purposes. At the funeral, anti-Semitic groups called for pogroms in Jewish communities to avenge Andrei’s death and Judaism’s alleged barbarism. And while a police investigation implicated a non-Jewish criminal gang for the murder, an anti-Semitic prosecutor and his allies in government nonetheless tried Beilis on trumped up charges of Jewish ritual murder. There were those who defended Beilis and he was eventually acquitted, but the trial exposed the large number of supposedly enlightened Jew haters who so readily and willingly seized upon a ludicrous and benighted indictment of Jews and Judaism.

In 2003, Hizballah TV broadcast a multi-part series titled Al-Shatat (“Diaspora”) which purported to expose the “criminal history of Zionism” and depicted the ritual murder of a Christian child by Jews who use his blood to bake matzos for Passover.

A pseudo-documentary on YouTube entitled “Jewish Kabbalistic Occult Ritual Child Murder Throughout History” was posted to the “Boycott Israel…Support BDS” Facebook group and can still be found on the internet, uploaded by neo-Nazis, anti-Zionists and other Jew haters.

Miftah, a Palestinian group led by Hanan Ashrawi, posted on its website an article by Palestinian journalist Nawwaf Al Zaru criticizing President Obama’s Passover Seder at the White House. The article presents the anti-Jewish blood libel as fact:

“Does President Obama know the truth about the connection between ‘Passover’ and ‘Christian blood,’ for example?! Or between ‘Passover’ and the ‘Jewish blood dances’?! Or is this a matter of pandering to the Jewish Council in order to please it or to make up for the declarations about a ‘two-state solution’…?!”

After initially responding by denouncing what it called the “smear campaign” against it — and attacking the Jewish blogger who had exposed the libel — Ashrawi’s group eventually took down the article.

The blood libel sometimes shifts to target Zionists and the Jewish state as representing Jews and the Jewish religion. Just last Passover, Baroness Jenny Tonge, a British politician notorious for her anti-Semitic rhetoric, evoked the blood libel in a Facebook posting headlined, “Army Injures 27 Palestinians, Including a New Born Baby, In Nablus” which she captioned, “All to celebrate the Passover?”

In a slightly altered form, the blood libel also lives on in the sham charges accusing Jews/Zionists of harvesting the organs of their hapless Palestinian victims: It has become a staple of the anti-Jewish propaganda of the Arab world and in anti-Zionist circles.

Conspiracy Theories

Another form of blood libel is the blaming of Jews for either unleashing plagues and economic depressions or profiting from them. During the devastating Bubonic Plague —“The Black Death” — that killed more than a third of Europe’s population in the mid 14th century, Jews were seen as Satan’s agents working to destroy the Christian world. They were blamed for causing the disease by poisoning wells – and tortured until they confessed to the crimes insisted upon by their tormenters.

Many of the Jews who survived the Black Death were slaughtered in the massacres and pogroms that ensued as a result of the libel. Over 200 Jewish communities across Switzerland and Germany were destroyed, the families burnt and slaughtered, their belongings looted.

This libel, like other blood libels, was the propaganda tool that allowed Jew haters to justify their hatred and actions.

Coronavirus Libels

The Covid-19 pandemic currently engulfing the world, too, has been turned into a source for new anti-Jewish libels, coming primarily, but not exclusively, from the usual circles of anti-Semites.

Last month, an Iraqi political analyst, Muhammad Sadeq Al-Hashemi, appeared on Iraq’s Al Ayam TV to proclaim the coronavirus an “American and Jewish plot to reduce the world’s population.” Al-Hashemi bases this on a debunked internet meme that claims a 1981 fictional thriller by American author Dean Koontz correctly predicted the outbreak of Covid-19. The Iraqi analyst twists this into a full blown libel about a Jewish-dominated America that developed the coronavirus in order to kill off the world’s population. He claims Jews control America, after having killed off the vast majority of its original population before 1948, and that they have “a monopoly on laboratories that develop biological and nuclear weapons”. (Read more about the libel here).

In Iran, similar claims are being publicized by so-called “experts.” MEMRI documents a discussion on Iranian TV suggesting that Covid-19 was actually produced in one of America’s bioterrorism labs to target specific ethnic groups. Dr. Ali Karami, introduced as a “lecturer in medicine,” declares that “In the Zionist regime, they work on bioterrorism agents that only infect a certain ethnic group – the Palestinians” and insists that Americans and Israelis have sequenced the genome of Iranians, violating international conventions, in order to create “ethnic weapons” that cause higher mortality rates “among certain races.”

One might laugh at the absurdity of these claims, but the extent of absurdity is directly correlated with the extent of hatred the libelers harbor against the Jews.

A Turkish politician, Fatih Erbakan proclaimed in a speech that Zionism may be behind the Coronavirus, that the virus “serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people” and that “Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria that has caused the suffering of people.”

And Turkish President Erdogan’s TV station in Turkey featured Coşkun Başbuğ, who bills himself as a security and terrorism specialist, to comment on the Covid-19 pandemic and present a similar anti-Semitic libel. He said:

“Jews, Zionists have organized & 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.”

A message posted on a Pakistani media Facebook page falsely claimed that Israel has been spared from the coronavirus to suggest that Israel engineered the virus, has the cure but is withholding it from the rest of the world:

TRANSLATION: “The presence of the coronavirus and safeguards to prevent it are seen in countries around the world. Only in Israel are there no patients with the virus or any efforts to prevent it. So it would not be wrong to say that this virus was created by Israel and that its cure is also available in Israel. What is your opinion?”

Although some of the commenters on the post asserted that the underlying information is false, others seized on it to blame Israel for spreading the virus. An AFP article documented and debunked this and other similar posts on Facebook and Twitter.

The cast of coronavirus libelers includes neo-Nazis as well as anti-Zionists from the Muslim world. Take, for example, the white supremacist, neo-Nazi David Duke. Speculating that President Donald Trump might have contracted Covid-19 from the Brazilian president’s Jewish aide, he tweeted,  “Are Israel and the Global Zionist elite up to their old tricks?”

The tweet links to Duke’s podcast where he expands on the libel, suggesting the “possibility” that “Jewish Zionists, radical Zionists, radical Jewish elites” or “the Israeli government” have “consciously tried to off Trump.” Duke provides all the imagined details of how the nefarious Jews might have conspired:

“We know the Mossad…I don’t think there is any horrific act that they or the Israeli government wouldn’t do if they thought it was going to advance their interest and they thought they could get away with it. And controlling the government, they think they can get away with about anything…

…I’m sure the Israeli government and the Mossad has all sorts of ability to get control and get their hands on this virus and breed the virus and spread it around very safely, in fact. They can have somebody given the virus, somebody young enough that they wouldn’t die, so they have immunity to it. They could spread it all over their hands…he can look like he’s using a bottle of hand sanitizer and it could be full of virus, for that matter.

And the same thing could be done by Jewish agents in Iran, because very suspiciously, the Iranian government is having a huge expidemic and in their ruling party, in their parliament….If they wanted to hurt Iran, it would be child’s play for a number of agents of the Mossad to spread this around in Iran. They also have a problem with this in parts of Lebanon where they have the biggest enemy in Hezbollah…So think about it, folks. I mean, they have been known to do this. ..”

Other iterations of the libel include the bogus claim that Israel treats Jews and non-Jews differently with regard to the coronavirus. For example, Cal State University political science professor/BDS proponent Asad Abu Khalil tweeted his speculation that there would be “different medical procedures” for those with Covid-19, depending on whether one was Jewish or not, with non-Jews being thrown into “mass prisons.”

And South African BDS activist Ronnie Kasril falsely asserted that:

“Israel …only delivers its coronavirus advice in Hebrew, ignoring the Arab mother tongue of 20% of Palestinians living within the Zionist state. The consequences of its siege of Gaza and military occupation of the West Bank where medical supplies are deliberately kept in short supply are frightening.

Many of the current libels are found in the cesspools of the internet – on the personal sites or social media pages of known Jew haters. The ADL has documented some of the antisemitic tropes and memes found there. (See here.)

But not all come the from familiar anti-Semitic circles. For example, this tweet of Jews scheming to make money from the suffering caused by the coronavirus, came from an unexpected source, actress Rosanna Arquette.

The tweet implies that Israel knew about Covid-19 and was working on a vaccine for it long before the outbreak, that the Jewish state conspired with a prominent Jewish investor to keep it secret until they could achieve maximum profit, no matter the suffering of others. It is the “greedy Jew” trope with the familiar anti-Semitic message that Jewish interest in money and profit supersedes any concern for lives, especially those of non-Jews. It was the tweet of a foolish and uninformed person easily influenced by other anti-Semitic blood libels – one who is ignorant of the fact that the disease now afflicting the world is one of many coronaviruses, that Israel had been researching another coronavirus vaccine and was now working on adapting it to combat the current strain of the virus. Nonetheless, it was imperative that this ignorant post, as well, be exposed as a blood libel.

When it was, Arquette deleted the tweet and apologized, protesting that her mother is Jewish, her husband was honored by the Holocaust museum and that she is not really an anti-Semite.

Current events show us that blood libels continue to proliferate in times of affliction and, however absurd and whatever the source, they must be confronted and countered because they still have the power to influence.

* This paragraph was updated to add more details and corrected regarding Simon’s veneration as a saint. The original paragraph mistakenly stated that “both Simon and the anti-Semitic bishop were later canonized.” (April 27, 2020)

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