Unmissable, in bright red letters, a swastika – an anti-Semitic graffiti symbol – and the word “Nazi”, spray-painted onto the wall inside Charles Morris Hall building. At the beginning of November, the graffiti was found among other scribbles. A spokesperson for the University of Leeds suspects this incident to be a “one-off indiscriminate act of vandalism”. However, the West Yorkshire Police opened an investigation into the accident.
In a global sense, this is far from an individual incident. On the first night of Hanukkah, a traditional eight-day Jewish celebration, the only US Anne Frank Memorial was vandalized. On the fifth night of Hannukah, a Jewish High School website was hacked, to show Holocaust imagery. Moreover, four men took over a PA system on the train threatening to blow it up in Belgium unless all Jewish passengers got off.
According to Researchers from the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, there has been an 18% rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 compared to the previous year. As conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus itself, the researchers are concerned that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its economic hardships catalyze hatred against Jews. Moshe Kantor, the President of the European Jewish Congress, stated that “since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the virus or directly profiting from it”.
His thesis is supported by the incidents happening to the Hungarian-based Financer and Holocaust survivor, George Soros. He has been blamed for starting the pandemic to gain power. For Kantor, the language and imagery that is currently used to scapegoat Jews is evidence of a resurgence in the medieval rhetoric of “blood libels” where Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells and controlling the economy. This is especially dangerous when antisemitism is used as an excuse for economic hardships and made socially acceptable by those bearing political responsibility. In November, Szilard Demeter, Hungarian’s official Cultural Commissioner, shocked people by commenting that “Europe is George Soros’s gas chamber”, referring to the death method used by the Nazis. As the limits of what can be said are shifting to the right, it may not come as a surprise that the severe and violent incidents against Jews worldwide rose from 387 cases in 2018 to 456 cases in 2019, as stated by the Jewish congress in Tel Aviv.
According to Kantor, the consistent rise in anti-Semitism has been especially facilitated by the increased use of social media over the past few years. Spreading conspiracy theories provide “simplistic answers for the growing anxiety among the general public”. Psychologically, conspiracy theories are more attractive to people, the more a feeling of uncertainty, anxiety and powerlessness prevails. According to the Washington Post, people have always turned to alternative facts in order to impose structure on an unpredictable situation.
As the Covid-19 pandemic resembles the perfect storm in terms of uncertainty, this growing anti-Semitic development in society can be well observed. Especially in Germany, concerns are rising regarding the leading anti-corona protest group “Querdenken” (Outside-the-box-thinkers). In contrast to protests in the past, the organization is represented by right-wing groups and a mix of anti-vaxxers, old-school hippies and skin-headed Nazis.
According to Felix Klein, Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner, the anti-Semitic narrative acts as a binder uniting groups that would typically have nothing to do with each other. He states that in times of a crisis, “it is often the case that culprits are sought and often these are minority groups such as Jews”. Protestors commonly believe that they are living in an unjust state that arbitrarily violates their fundamental rights. Under German constitutional law, restrictions of fundamental rights are justified as long as the measures taken are proportionate. German courts have justified the current restriction.
As conspiracy theories are by definition illogical, anti-vaxxers were reported wearing yellow stars during “Querdenken” protests similar to those Jews were forced to wear during the Third Reich. Instead of bearing the word “Jude” (Jew), they had the word “ungeimpft” (unvaccinated) written on them. Others have worn striped clothing mimicking the uniform of concentration camp inmates. Whilst seeing themselves as victims of a dictatorship, prominent “Querdenken” participants, like celebrity TV chef Attila Hildmann, are praising Hitler and describing chancellor Angela Merkel as a communist dictator. Attila Hildmann alone has more than 100,000 followers on the messenger app Telegram and posts daily to keep his community updated. According to the German state prosecutor it is been investigated whether charges can be pressed against him.
The German Government has previously stated that they believe that the conspiracy theories in Germany are being spread by the “Reichsbürger” movement, consisting of far-right anti-Semitic groups and individuals such as Attila Hildmann. They are seizing the opportunity to deny the German state’s legitimacy, instrumentalizing the anxiety Covid-19 creates for their purpose.
As conspiracy theories are mainly sustained by anxiety, Klein suggests that they can only be combated by the Government taking peoples threats seriously and reducing negative economic impacts. By offering encouraging forecasts that can reduce the feeling of uncertainty, they can prevent people from turning to figures like Attila Hildmann in order to ease their psychological burden. Similarly, the European Jewish Congress addressed the world leaders and called for immediate action: this growing extremism is “already at our door”.