WASHINGTON — Federal agencies are concerned that domestic extremists could use the coronavirus pandemic to attack Asians and Jews, according to a joint intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News. That bulletin mirrors what organizations that monitor online hate content are also finding.
The bulletin, a joint effort of the Department of Justice, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security, is dated April 7.
The document says that domestic violent extremists — known as DVEs — “have sought to conduct, or conducted attacks citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the timing or motivation of their attacks.”
It additionally says that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” or RMVEs, “who advocate for the superiority of the white race seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to bolster their narratives and encourage attacks and hate crimes against minorities, including Jewish and Asian Americans. Some RMVEs claim government responses to the pandemic could crash the global economy, hasten societal collapse, and lead to a race war.”
Some members of Congress want such extremists to be treated like foreign terrorists, but a coherent domestic statute does not yet exist.
The internal document shows that extremists have been emboldened by the pandemic. “Conspiratorial narratives assigning blame for the pandemic to a Jewish conspiracy or China heightens the risk of retaliatory violence against Jewish Americans and Asian Americans,” it says. “Other DVEs have shared statements that law enforcement will be unable to prevent DVE attacks on minorities or quell riots.”
Anti-Semitism has been rising around the world throughout the course of the pandemic, which began in December. That rise has been apparent both domestically and internationally.
Iran was in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that was killing its citizens by the hundreds, and the nation’s leaders in Tehran knew exactly whom to blame. “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran,” declared a propaganda outlet there.
David Clarke, the former Milwaukee County sheriff who has become a far-right media darling, also had ideas about where the epidemic has come from. “Not ONE media outlet has asked about George Soros’s involvement in this FLU panic,” Clarke wrote in a Twitter message about the prominent Jewish billionaire who has long been a target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“He is SOMEWHERE involved in this,” Clarke told his 914,00 Twitter followers. The message was widely condemned but also widely shared, with about 1,200 retweets and 3,700 likes.
Global crisis tends to bring out anti-Semitism, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. According to a report on the coronavirus outbreak by SITE Intelligence, a private firm that monitors extremism, Jews are, along with people of Chinese origin, the top targets of extremist content relating to the pandemic. Some of these extremists believe that Israel created the virus, while others believe they can use the virus to hurt Jews.
“While anti-Semitism is a constant on the far-right,” wrote the report’s author, Rita Katz, “this tendency is no doubt exacerbated by the global status of the pandemic.”
Anti-Semitism is “a grand theory of everything,” says Bari Weiss, author of the book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” and a New York Times columnist. “It is a conspiracy capable of explaining the whole world. So no one should be surprised that everything from bad weather to financial crises to this pandemic is blamed on us.” (And, yes, people really have blamed bad weather, in the form of climate change, on Jews.)
Weiss cites the 19th century anti-Semite Edouard Drumont: “All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew.” That includes a pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China, a city without a single synagogue. The city does, however, have a testing facility run by WuXi AppTec, a pharmaceutical company based in Shanghai. Conspiracy theorists have decided that WuXi created the virus — though scientists have long said that the virus bears none of the markers of something engineered in a lab — and they are convinced that Soros owns the pharmacy company, which is also not true.
But for those disposed to hateful ideation, the viral outbreak that has swept across the world, confusing and frightening billions, has been a perfect gift.
On the social media site Telegram, which has become popular with extremists, a group called CoronaWaffen (“Waffen” is a term for a Nazi military outfit) asked users where they would go if they knew they were infected with the coronavirus. The top answer, by far, was “synagogue,” preferred by 76 percent of respondents. The No. 2 answer, at 5 percent, was “Muslim temple.”
On another right-wing social media site called Gab, a user wrote, “Unless we deport these filthy jews, this pandemic is never gonna stop!” The user’s screen name was “diejewdie.”
Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company in San Francisco, found that there had been 104,400 “pieces of strongly validated antisemitic content within the COVID-19 conversation” between Feb. 1 and March 30 (COVID-19 is the potentially fatal disease caused by the coronavirus). A Zignal analyst who conducted the review said there was a “clear increase” of online anti-Semitic content coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic. It was impossible to determine, however, just how much the pandemic itself directly contributed to that rise.
Soros has been the focus of anti-Semitic coronavirus conspiracy theories because of his wealth and politics. Searches for his name spiked between March 15 and 21, according to Google Trends, a tool that looks at Internet searches. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.
The Zignal Labs analysis similarly found that there were 180,586 mentions of Soros across all platforms in relation to the coronavirus throughout February and March.
Soros is hardly the only prominent Jewish person to face anti-Semitic insinuation regarding the pandemic. In what appears to be a harkening back to older anti-Semitic tropes, Zignal Labs found that there have been 18,689 mentions of the storied Rothschild family, which was the target of finance-related conspiracy theories in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
A pro-Trump pastor in Florida went even further back in time, seeming to reference ancient (and discounted) suggestions that Jews spurned Jesus Christ. “It’s spreading in Israel through the synagogues,” the pastor said. “God is spreading it in your synagogues! You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues. Repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and the plague will stop.”
Because the coronavirus is believed to have originated in southeastern China, people of Asian descent have faced the brunt of coronavirus-related hatred, including a spate of verbal and physical assaults in the United States.
President Trump was accused of fostering an atmosphere of anti-Asian bias by insisting on calling the pathogen “the Chinese virus,” underscoring its foreign origins. He has since stopped using the term.
Despite that, bias against Asian-Americans persists. So does an attendant anti-Semitism, which according to experts has increased as the coronavirus spread from East Asia to the Middle East and then to Europe and the United States. Both types of hate have blossomed in the hothouse that is social media, where conspiracy theories flourish unchecked.
That this has become a concern to federal enforcement officials is clear from the internal bulletin obtained by Yahoo News. It says that “hate crimes towards Asian Americans and those of Asian descent will likely increase over the next two or three months.” In addition also warning of potential danger to Jews, the report says that “individuals espousing abortion-related violent extremism have also made threats of violence against reproductive health care providers who are still working during the pandemic.”
Nor has anti-Semitism come solely from fringe figures. A member of the Indian parliament falsely asserted on Twitter that “there have been no deaths due to COVID-19 in Israel.”
A columnist in Pakistan said that the coronavirus was “a new weapon in Biological warfare and a #Zionist conspiracy.”
Some people “always use Jews to explain bad things in a simple way,” says Ira Forman, a former State Department official who tracks anti-Semitism.
During the bubonic plague outbreak in the 14th century, Jews were thought in many parts of Europe to have caused the so-called black death by poisoning wells. Many centuries later, some blamed Jews for HIV/AIDS.
Forman notes that anti-Semitism was boosted by the fact that an early hot spot was New Rochelle, a suburb of New York that has a large Jewish population, with a synagogue there called Young Israel serving as a point of transmission. Several people who attended the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington were also diagnosed with COVID-19. AIPAC’s connection to the Zionist movement was another point for anti-Semites to exploit.
“We were not surprised,” says extremism researcher Aryeh Tuchman of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism and other forms of bias. “Anti-Semites will blame Jews for everything,” he notes, even for a virus that cannot discriminate between different ethnicities and religions.
At a recent briefing of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Tuchman displayed some of the examples of anti-Semitism available online. These included a social media image purporting to be coronavirus particles magnified by microscope. The image caricatured Jews in the traditional anti-Semitic style, with hooked noses and thick lips. The figures wear Star of David hats.
Many anti-Semites believe that Jews are attempting to “infiltrate” parts of society and “implement a globalist agenda,” Tuchman explained. He showed an image of the Trojan horse, which in Homeric legend Greek armies used as a ruse in order to gain access to the walled city of Troy. In the coronavirus version, however, the horse’s head was a coronavirus particle, while inside the belly of the horse sat a smiling caricature of a Jew.
Yet another image shared by Tuchman showed a coronavirus particle. “Zionism,” the image declared, is “the deadliest virus on Earth.”
Jana Winter contributed reporting to this article.
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