On Antisemitism, Conspiracyism and Naturalization in times of the Corona Pandemic

Since the coronavirus has been spreading, numerous conspiracy myths have been poured into social media. Many of them have implicit or clearly antisemitic* connotations. Several antisemitism-critical and Jewish associations as well as Commissioners for Jewish Life in Germany urgently warned of an increase of antisemitic conspiracy fantasies and their effects on society. This aspect of the crisis, which does not appear as „nature“, is something that is strongly invisibilised in media coverage since the corona discourse is primarily concerned with a supposedly natural threat. Throughout this short text, I will argue that this is based on a problematic understanding of the relationship between nature and culture (I). Furthermore, I would like to point out that this relationship also relates deeply to the logic of antisemitic conspiracy fantasies (II). Finally, I would like to discuss the significance of these insights for a reflective practice in the social sciences.

On the Naturalization of the Corona Pandemic (I)

As Katharina Hoppe points out in her remarks on Critical Theories in the Pandemic, there is a certain tendency in modernity, which leads to a naturalisation of the ongoing pandemic. In reference to Bruno Latour, Hoppe argues that this tendency is associated with practices of purification that create a nature/culture dichotomy, which fails to grasp the constitutive interwovenness of both sides.[1] Furthermore, she notes that attempts to deal with the pandemic are primarily based on an idea of mastering nature, which has been widely problematized by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer.[2] However, especially in times of the corona pandemic, it becomes particularly clear that the idea of being capable of gaining (full) sovereignty over nature is a fiction. Nevertheless, our socio-political discourse is still shaped by this idea, as we can see in the declarations of war against the virus or hopes of a technical-medical liberation from the virus. First, what we can learn from Hoppe’s socio-philosophical reflections and her non-sovereign perspective is that we should be more sceptical about narratives of naturalization, which passivate socio-political aspects of the crisis and invisibilise social and structural inequalities by claiming that we are all in the same boat. Second, it seems to me that Hoppe’s problematization is also important for the analysis and understanding of the currently increasing antisemitic conspiracy fantasies.

On Antisemitism and Conspiracyism (II)

Since the threats of the coronavirus have been widely discussed, several institutions have recorded an increase of (antisemitic) conspiracy myths in social media. Very quickly the claim began to circulate that Jews or Israel created the coronavirus as a biological weapon to control the world. These conspiracy fantasies integrate even contradictory elements into a Manichaean world view. Consequently, even the production of a vaccine by Israeli scientists is interpreted as a part of a cruel conspiracy and an attempt to benefit from the pandemic. Names such as Rothschild or Soros are used as a code for antisemitic implications. Furthermore, especially on the messenger platform Telegram, posts can be found, in which the Shoah is denied referring to reports of crematoria struggling to cope with deaths in Northern Italy. Moreover, there are also calls to use coronavirus as a biological weapon against Jews and to cough on them.[3] Even big tech companies like Google and Facebook responded with restrictions to the spread of conspiracy myths after they have led to violent actions. Not all these conspiracy myths are antisemitic, like the absurd assertion that the wireless communications standard 5G is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. However, even here are remarkable structural analogues (form) and elements (content) that are very connectable to antisemitic narratives.[4] In the following, I offer some preliminary considerations regarding the attractiveness of those antisemitic conspiracy fantasies in times of pandemic.

The increase of antisemitism in times of a pandemic could be explained on the one hand by the historical continuities of negative conceptions in which Jews are imagined as carriers and source of diseases. For example, during the 14th century, Jews were blamed for outbreaks of the plague in Europe.[5] These and other imagined characteristics that were imputed to them were reintegrated from the context of pre-modern anti-Judaism into modern antisemitism and, hence, experienced a strong continuity.[6] On the other hand – and here I follow Hoppe’s socio-philosophical reflections – most conspiracy fantasies are based on an idea of sovereignty and domination. To those who believe in conspiracy fantasies, it seems much more likely that evil forces of an international conspiracy are responsible for the coronavirus pandemic than processes of randomly viral mutations and transmissions in a globalised world. This idea of complete controllability is a premise of conspiracist thinking and is diametrically opposed to a critical-reflective perspective that focuses on contingency, chance, randomness and thereby situates human agency within complex interrelatedness of human-nature constellations. In the conspiracy fantasy, on the other hand, the uncertainty of contingent processes is replaced by the idea of unlimited human agency and thus full sovereignty.[7] Research on conspiracy myths usually identifies three key elements: a Manichean world view, the belief that nothing happens by chance and that everything is connected.[8] This research also emphasises the social-psychological functions of antisemitic conspiracy fantasies: First, antisemitic conspiracy fantasies offer a meaningful explanation for everything bad in the world and the social upheavals in a contingent and ambivalent modernity. There is no ambivalence in conspiracist thinking at all, only identity. Second, in connection with the projective character of the antisemitic Manichaean world view, this has a relieving function to those who believe in conspiracy fantasies.[9] Exalting human action as the absolute and the origin of every historical event is reassuring in a certain sense: Although the coronavirus appears as an omnipresent, to some extent omnipotent, destructive and invisible power – like Jews in the antisemitic imagination – it may still be possible to stop it since, within conspiracist thinking, the suffering is caused by a certain group. These and other aspects make conspiracyism so attractive, but also dangerous.[10]

Following these preliminary considerations, I would suggest understanding the corona pandemic not only as a medical but also as a bio-social crisis. Consequently, not only virological perspectives but also sociological, historical and cultural-theoretical reflections are needed to adequately understand this crisis. Furthermore, I have tried to show that social-philosophical reflections on fundamental ambiguities of modern societies are a promising starting point for further research on antisemitism and conspiracyism.

* I use the spelling antisemitic instead of anti-Semitic, as the term does not refer to Semitic languages, but to a modern form of hatred against Jews. The term was among others popularized by Wilhelm Marr and was used by political movements (e.g. Antisemitenliga) as a self-designation; Cf. Reinhard Rürup/Thomas Nipperdey, Antisemitismus – Entstehung, Funktion und Geschichte eines Begriffs, in: Emanzipation und Antisemitismus. Studien zur Judenfrage der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Göttingen 1975, p. 95–114.

[1] Cf. Bruno Latour, We have never been modern, Cambridge, Mass. 1994, p. 10 ff.

[2] Cf. Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno (Hrsg.), Dialectic of enlightenment. Philosophical fragments, Stanford, Calif. 2009, p. 5 f.

[3] democ. Zentrum Demokratischer Widerspruch e. V., Corona und „Die Jüdische Weltverschwörung“. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV_CFkZK28w (6th April 2020); Anti-Defamation League, Coronavirus Crisis Elevates Antisemitic, Racist Tropes. https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-crisis-elevates-antisemitic-racist-tropes (14th April 2020).

[4] This can be traced, for example, in the attempts to integrate radical right-wing, antisemitic and esoteric ideologemes on various right-esoteric websites, at conferences and in books. Cf. Mio Liebentritt, Rechtsextreme Online-Angebote – Rechte Esoteriker im Krieg gegen 5G und das Impfen. https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/rechtsextreme-online-angebote-rechte-esoteriker-im-krieg.724.de.html?dram:article_id=461384 (9th April 2020); Cf. Michael Barkun, A culture of conspiracy. Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America, Berkeley, Calif 2003, p. 141-157.

[5] Cf. Alfred Haverkamp, Die Judenverfolgungen zur Zeit des Schwarzen Todes im Gesellschaftsgefüge deutscher Städte, in: Alfred Haverkamp (Hrsg.), Zur Geschichte der Juden im Deutschland des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, Stuttgart 1981, p. 27–93.

[6] These antisemitic conceptions could only experience such a strong continuity because they are not only individual prejudices. In terms of sociology of knowledge, they could rather be understood as a specific way of thinking and feeling that is linked to commonly shared knowledge, which has been manifested in symbolic orders, objectified in texts, transmitted and transformed for centuries. Cf. Jehuda Reinharz/Monika Schwarz-Friesel, Inside the Antisemitic Mind. The Language of Jew-Hatred in Contemporary Germany, 2017, p. 39-49.

[7] Cf. Michael Butter, “Nichts ist, wie es scheint“, Berlin 2018, p. 108.

[8] Cf. Michael Butter, “Nichts ist, wie es scheint“, Berlin 2018, p. 22 ff; Cf. Michael Barkun, A culture of conspiracy. Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America, Berkeley, Calif 2003, p. 3 f.

[9] Cf. Theodor W. Adorno/Else Frenkel-Brunswik/Daniel J. Levinson/R. Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality, New York 1950, p. 228, 236, 239 f; Cf. Otto Fenichel, Elements of a Psychoanalytic Theory of Anti-Semitism, in: Ernst Simmel (Hrsg.), Anti-Semitism. A social disease, New York, NY 1946, p. 11–32; Cf. Michael Butter, “Nichts ist, wie es scheint“, Berlin 2018, p. 105-114.

[10] Cf. Anti-Defamation League, White Supremacists Respond to Coronavirus With Violent Plots and Online Hate (2020). https://www.adl.org/blog/white-supremacists-respond-to-coronavirus-with-violent-plots-and-online-hate (11th April 2020).


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