In early January, the governor of Utah, the state Senate’s minority whip, the owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team, and many of the region’s prominent tech CEOs were all recipients of a mass email titled simply: “Genocide.”
“I write this email knowing that many of you will think I’m crazy after reading it,” the email began. “I believe there is a sadistic effort underway to euthanize the American people. It’s obvious now. It’s undeniable, yet no one is doing anything.”
It all comes back to vaccines, he explains. And what’s more: “I believe the Jews are behind this.”
The rest of the email is riddled with misinformation and antisemitic tropes: that “the Jews” secretly created the COVID-19 vaccines to weaken immune systems. That they hope to kill billions of people this way. That American Hasidic Jews “instituted a law for their people that they are not to be vaccinated for any reason.” The message, first reported by the local television station KSTU, stunned the Utah tech community. Equally stunning was who wrote it: Dave Bateman, cofounder of the Utah-based property management startup Entrata, which had just achieved a $1 billion valuation. The company’s board of directors asked Bateman to step down, which he did—less than 24 hours after pressing “send.”
From day one, COVID-19 vaccines have been a target of antisemitic conspiracy theories. But to understand them, it’s important to start with conspiracy theories about the virus itself. As soon as the pandemic began, conspiracists were blaming it on the Jews. These early theories were usually some variation of the idea that Jews created the virus, or that they were trying to control it. In May 2020, a University of Oxford study found that nearly 20 percent of adults in England agreed to some extent with the statement that “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain.”
While these conspiracy theories don’t tell us anything about the pandemic—they are all, to be clear, unequivocally false—they do tell us a lot about the groups of people who believe them. “A hallmark of antisemitic conspiracy theories is the willingness to claim that whatever it is that the antisemite is obsessed about, it is the Jew who is behind it,” says Aryeh Tuchman, associate director in the Anti-Defamanation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism.
In March 2020, for instance, Iran’s state-owned Press TV claimed that “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran,” per The Jerusalem Post. That same month, Michael Caputo, who would become Trump’s spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, asserted that liberal philanthropist George Soros was somehow benefiting from COVID-19: “Soros’s political agenda REQUIRES a pandemic,” he tweeted. Soon after, he retweeted a photo of Soros with the caption, “The real virus!☠️☠️☠️ behind everything…..”
When the vaccine rollout began, new conspiracy theories formed to keep up with new twists in the pandemic narrative. “When things are going wrong conspiracy theories pop up and they then change as circumstances change,” says Ira N. Forman, former Obama administration antisemitism envoy.
Most of these new theories, which are pulled from familiar antisemitic tropes, have been premised on the idea that vaccines are simply the latest tool in the Jewish quest for worldwide domination. “There’s usually something about control,” says Forman. These ideas—that secretly, the Jews control the media, or the banking system, or even the weather—appear everywhere; they are a classic antisemitic trope far older than the pandemic. In fact, essentially all of the vaccine conspiracy theories fall under a larger umbrella of preexisting antisemitic tropes. “Some of them rely on the belief that Jews are greedy, and that they are using the vaccines in order to profit,” says Tuchman. “Some of them rely on the antisemitic belief that Jews have an implacable hatred of non-Jews—which is another longtime antisemitic trope—and that’s why Jews are using the vaccines, in order to sterilize non-Jews or undermine their societies.”
In particular, these conspiracy theories thrive among white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, who circulate them on extremist websites such as Stormfront. (“The Jews vaccine changes DNA so that the DNA itself will produce any proteins that the Jews program it to produce via 5G,” one poster on Stormfront wrote, per the ADL. “This gives the Jews the ability to kill you by using 5G to tell the DNA to produce poisons.”)
These ludicrous ideas are not relegated to obscure online forums. Some of more visible examples in this vein are connected to an anti-Jewish hate group called the Goyim Defense League. Across the country, the group makes headlines for distributing antisemitic fliers, which often claim: “Every single aspect of the COVID agenda is Jewish.” This of course includes the vaccines, which the group believes are part of a villainous Jewish plot. In October 2021, the group hung a banner from an overpass that read: “VAX THE JEWS.” Sometimes, the group’s fliers simply list Jews in the federal government:
“CDC DIRECTOR — ROCHELLE WALENSKY — JEWISH”
“CDC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR — ANNE SCHUCHAT — JEWISH”
And so on. Tuchman says that targeting individual Jews in this way is a common strategy. “Antisemites look for Jewish people in positions of influence and positions of power and then claim that those Jewish people are the secret controllers of the world.”
This morning hundreds of homes in our community found plastic bags outside their homes filled with a hateful anti-Semitic flyer and small pebbles. @MiamiBeachPD is actively investigating to determine their origin. As a precaution we’ve increased patrols in our neighborhoods and… pic.twitter.com/5bx0RvnRoD
— Dan Gelber (@MayorDanGelber) January 23, 2022
In some cases, antisemitic anti-vaxxers have been seen protesting with swastika flags. These are blatantly antisemitic neo-Nazis or white supremacists, displaying Nazi symbols with pride. But to complicate matters, there is a second, separate group of anti-vax protesters using Nazi imagery to a different end: those who compare vaccine or mask mandates to the Holocaust, or who protest wearing yellow star armbands, arguing that vaccine and mask mandates are somehow akin to Nazi oppression.
But while their actions are offensive, they are “probably not antisemitic,” says Forman. For the most part, these two groups using Nazi imagery do not overlap, and most anti-vaxers don’t believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories. “My guess is most of the anti-vax people don’t do ‘Jews are responsible for this,’” Forman adds, “but they also attract far-right types who are trying to take advantage of this—and they do that stuff.”
Even among the most outlandish conspiracy theories, the minutiae varies depending on the conspiracy theorist. Dave Bateman, for instance, believed that Jews created the vaccines to weaken immune systems. Per the ADL other conspiracy theory variants include: The vaccine will “sterilize the white race.” Or it is a tool to restrict unvaccinated people’s ability to travel. Or it is a surveillance mechanism, secretly inserting microchips into people’s bodies. “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen the conspiracy theories become more radical,” Tuchman says, “and the depths and the nefariousness of the alleged Jewish plots have grown ever more extreme.”
Top image: A healthcare worker in Baltimore Country prepares a COVID-19 vaccine. (Credit: Baltimore County Government via Flickr)