During this catastrophic coronavirus epidemic, ADL reports a rise in racial hatred of Chinese-Americans and their businesses, presumably because the outbreak began in China. Such base reactions feed on generations of racism in the United States against the Chinese, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, decades before the virtual exclusion of Eastern Europeans in 1924.
But another factor is the irrational fear of the unknown and the impulse to find scapegoats.
That impulse is starting to hit home with our extended community now that white supremacist websites and radical Muslim clerics are pointing the finger at Jews for causing and spreading Covid-19. Yet even as this is preposterous and hate-mongering, there are valid concerns that too many of our people are refusing to self-isolate or practice social distancing. Despite the exhortations of leading rabbis for people to stay home, images of large-scale weddings are flooding the internet and stories of crowded shiva houses have made the rounds. That clusters of the epidemic have emerged in chasidic neighborhoods only reinforce this concern.
As recent sociological studies have shown, the strength of our community via our social web of contacts can be a source of vulnerability during this plague. Based on data gleaned from two studies — one by the General Social Survey, the other by Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, as originally reported in The Forward — the average American has 2.1 “intimates” with whom he or she can discuss personal matters, compared to 3.9 intimates for Jews, an 86 percent difference. In other words, by virtue of our large circle of close friends, we risk exposing more people than most other groups. And the disproportionate spread among Jews in our metropolitan areas has fueled more hatred among those who perceive “Hymietown” as ground zero for the virus.
Interestingly, it’s an obverse reaction to the persecution that Jews faced in the 14th century at the height of the Black Plague. Already conditioned to hate the Jewish people as a result of their being falsely accused as poisoners of wells in the previous century, Jews were victimized because, unlike today, too few died from the plague. While Europe was decimated with 40-50 percent fatalities, Jews suffered far fewer casualties. As recounted by Barbara Tuchman’s authoritative “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1987), a larger proportion of Jews may have survived because their religious practices included attention to matters of sanitation through ritual washing of hands, regular visits to the mikvah, and prompt burial of the dead, and because of their superimposed segregation in restricted quarters.
Pope Clement VI attempted to control the massacres of Jews in a papal bull, alleging that Christians who imputed the Jews for the plague were “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” noting that the plague had spread to areas where no Jews lived. But to no avail. With the rationale that Jews had confessed of well-poisoning — false confessions extracted by torture — and lured by the prospect of seizing the Jews’ assets, more than 200 Jewish communities were decimated. Seeing an opening to modernize his economy through banking and commerce, Casimir the Third invited the persecuted Jews from the West to migrate eastward to Poland, opening up another epoch of Jewish history.
“History never repeats itself,” Voltaire reminds us, but “man always does.” Even all these years after 9/11, many anti-Semites still believe that Jews or the Israeli government were responsible for the catastrophic attacks on our country that day. Residents of the Garden State have personal experience with this outlandish myth, as a New Jersey poet laureate was removed from his post for writing a poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” that accused Israel of having prior knowledge of the destruction of the Twin Towers. This despite the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of Jews were killed in the attack.
Fear of the unknown can promote the unity necessary to face a crisis down, or it can feed the paranoia that leads to the search for scapegoats. And Jews have long been one of the most convenient targets for such baseless accusations.
As we approach Passover and prepare to recite the 10 plagues during the seder, let’s offer a special prayer for those suffering from the effects of Covid-19, their families, health professionals, first responders, and all humankind.
Let not let the fear of the unknown rend our social fabric. Rather, let this modern-day plague, which knows no geographic boundaries, race, religion, or gender, serve to unify us as we seek to defeat the virus and rebuild our communities
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.