Technische Universität Berlin

Vaccine Criticism and Antisemitism

Dr. Mathias Berek discusses antisemitic resentments during the coronavirus pandemic as well as parallels with the past

Mathias Berek, was it just a matter of time for you before the issue of vaccination became linked to antisemitism, or did it still come as a surprise to you?

It didn’t surprise me. I would also in no way claim that this is the first time we have witnessed antisemitism resurfacing. The vaccine criticism movement has become much more visible as a result of the protests held by COVID deniers and those critical of the measures taken to combat it. And it has certainly also succeeded in finding new supporters. But it is the same as with antisemitic attitudes in all areas of society: They have been present the whole time. And just as in other scenes, it seems that anti-vaxxers have also recently become much less reticent about making antisemitic comments. At the same time, nothing has altered regarding the overlapping of those themes which create such fertile ground for antisemitism among anti-vaxxers: mainly conspiracy fantasies and a mystical belief in nature, where only the strong have the right to survive.

Did antisemitism also form a part of the, at times, fiercely contested debates regarding compulsory vaccination for measles, or has the combination of vaccine opposition and antisemitism re-emerged in the context of the COVID vaccine? Or to put the question another way: Were antisemitic resentments always latent in the opposition to vaccination post- 1945?

Most of my work has been in the area of contemporary and pre-1945 vaccine criticism. One thing, however, can be stated: If we look at the anti-vaccination movement in the 19th century and the situation today, we can see that the arguments put forward by vaccine criticism have changed little since 1874 and that antisemitism remains a constant.

In your recent article entitled “Verunreinigtes Blut” (Contaminated Blood), published in “Die Zeit”, you wrote that vaccine opposition and antisemitism in Germany have been intertwined from the outset, in other words since the 19th century. How aware of this are anti-vaxxers who hold antisemitic beliefs today? Or are historical links rather outside their considerations?

Anyone making antisemitic comments within the context of vaccine criticism is aware of the historical facts. Some will speak approvingly of the mass murder of Jews in private chats, while others deny the Shoah. Mostly, however, they use the memory of the Shoah for their own purposes. Unlike earlier, they no longer claim that Jews are to blame for vaccine injury. Instead, they say that they are themselves Jews in order to usurp the ultimate victim status. We have seen this at demonstrations: People wearing yellow Stars of David with “ungeimpft” (unvaccinated) written on them or comparing themselves with Anne Frank. This constitutes secondary antisemitism as it represents an obscene trivialization of the suffering of Jewish people. It insinuates that the Nazis only obliged the Jewish population to wear masks and imposed some contact restrictions on them. Another not uncommon phenomenon is the reversal of victim and perpetrator, whereby persons wearing the yellow “unvaccinated” Star of David believe themselves to be persecuted by Jewish organizations or persons - or at least those they consider to be so.

Is the rhetoric used by antisemitic opponents of vaccination in the past similar to that of antisemitic anti-vaxxers today? Or does it take a completely different form?

Of course, language has changed. True, there are still more people than you would have imagined who are prepared to make hard-core antisemitic comments, despite the risk of prosecution, losing their reputation in society or perhaps even their jobs. But we need to remember: We are not living in the same society as in the 1930s. Most people with antisemitic beliefs are aware of what can be said and what not. But this is not to say that they and others will not try to constantly push back the boundaries. And one should not set too much store by verbal restraint either. It isn’t necessary in antisemitic circles to explicitly state your hatred of Jews. You can insinuate what you mean.

What parallels do you see between the anti-vaccination movements of the past and that of today?

There is a structural similarity between the anti-vaccination movements of the past and the groups taking to the streets to protest about the pandemic today: An ideologically rooted minority characterized by a single-minded antisemitism flooding an ideologically less rooted and diffuse movement with antisemitic stereotypes, arguments and images. Back then, this proved effective. Today, it is possible that many people subscribe to these views as a result of the lockdown and a need for simple solutions. However, this situation makes it twice as easy for those looking to incite antisemitism: On the one hand, unthinking, antisemitic clichés are still too widespread in society, even more so among the alternative medicine, anthroposophical scene. And on the other, there is too little criticism within this scene regarding incitement to antisemitism. And this despite the fact that the Anthroposophical Society distanced itself last year from racism and antisemitism.

In your article for “Die Zeit” you mention an antisemitic prejudice that was already doing the rounds at the end of the 19th century: namely that Jewish journalists and politicians were responsible for compulsory vaccination. Which antisemitic claims can we see today in connection with COVID vaccinations?

Most of what we are hearing centers around the notion of victimhood by drawing comparisons with the Shoah. Particularly well-known in this regard is the AfD party district chapter in Salzgitter, which distributed a photomontage showing the entrance to a concentration camp and the words “Impfen macht frei” (“Vaccination makes free”). However, there are also many incidents of traditional antisemitism. The Bavarian branch of the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) reports a coronavirus demonstration in Nuremberg where one of the speakers maintained that Zionists and satanists were conspiring to murder part of the population by means of a lethal injection, while bringing the rest under absolute control within a communist global dominance. The “andrenochrome” lie spread by QAnon has now found many believers. This myth asserts that an elite group is torturing and murdering children to create a fountain-of-youth drug: an updated version of the centuries-old anti-Jewish ritual murder legend.

You also write that antisemitism among opponents of vaccination in the years around 1900 and thereafter was not uncommon. Are you able to judge how widespread or manifest antisemitism is among anti-vaxxers today?

So far, we only have isolated and smaller quantitative studies on this subject. As such, it is not possible to provide any meaningful numbers. The anti-vaxxer scene is also, as said, very heterogeneous. We are probably – still – only talking about a minority. But there are sufficient grounds for concern. Some elements of the anti-vaxxer movement are becoming radicalized within the context of COVID protests. This is made clear by the number of cases of antisemitic incitement and violence documented by monitoring centers like RIAS. The same applies to today’s anti-vaxxers as their historical counterparts: As long as the members of this movement do not consistently distance themselves from anti-Semites and their beliefs, they are also responsible for antisemitism.

Interviewer: Sybille Nitsche

Further Information:

Article by Mathias Berek entitled “Verunreinigtes Blut” published in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”