WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. It has devastated the global economy, resulting in millions of job losses. And now, American Jewish leaders fear, it is being used as an instrument to spread another virus: anti-Semitism.
Rebelling against shelter-in-place directives to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s infection rate, far-right extremists have increasingly compared the governors issuing the orders to Adolf Hitler, in a bid to spark chaos and use the crisis to amplify their ideology, according to experts.
On Wednesday, hundreds of demonstrators descended on Lansing, Michigan, to stand outside the state capitol and protest the governor’s stay-at-home order. The virus has already killed nearly 2,000 Michigan residents and overwhelmed Detroit-area hospitals.
Yet the move has elicited strong opposition, including from right-wing activists who made the bizarre and ahistorical claim that the orders were comparable to policies carried out by Nazis. One woman held a sign that said, “Heil Whitmer,” referring to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. Others were waving confederate flags and donning pro-Trump MAGA hats.
Similar rallies to end social distancing were held around the nation, including Ohio, as part of a coordinated campaign dubbed “Operation Gridlock.”
Worse yet, on the same day, authorities arrested and charged a man who allegedly attempted an arson attack at a Jewish nursing home, near three Jewish temples, a Jewish day school and a Jewish community center.
“This case highlights the very real threat posed by racially motivated violent extremists,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston Division.
The arrest came after the Anti-Defamation League found that extremists have been promulgating a conspiracy theory online that the coronavirus was created by a cabal of Jews.
“Anti-Semitism is this enduring scourge that shows up over and over again in history, where the Jews are to blame for everything,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who heads the Religious Action Center, the political arm of the Reform movement. “Here we go again.”
New research from the Western States Center, an Oregon-based non-profit that studies and tracks extremism, has found that comparing anti-COVID policies to Nazi policies is an emerging trend.
On Telegram, a secure messaging platform that is also used by white supremacists, users have linked Washington governor Jay Inslee, Oregon governor Kate Brown, Idaho governor Brad Little and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Nazi leader.
On one Telegram channel, for instance, a photograph was circulating of a man at the Lansing rally, holding a mannequin said to be Whitmer with a Hitler mustache and garbed in Nazi apparel.
“One of the strategies is to try to spread the idea that the US is somehow instituting a form of martial law or authoritarian regime by responding to a pandemic,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center.
“It is similar rhetoric that some gun-rights activists use to oppose regulation of weapons in the United States,” Ward added. “We have also seen that type of rhetoric with seat belt laws. There’s a strain within the authoritarian right to respond to government intervention, ironically, through the idea that the federal government is engaging in authoritarian action.”
Many of these individuals, the non-profit has found, are supporters of US President Donald Trump and are embracing his push to have the economy reopen by May 1, which public health officials, including those in his own administration, have warned against as premature.
The pandemic comes amid the 2020 presidential race, and some pundits have speculated that Trump’s rush to reopen the economy is fueled by his desire to improve his reelection chances.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, the hate-violence expert Ward said there wasn’t enough evidence yet to determine whether right-wing ideologues have successfully used the coronavirus crisis to attract more people to their cause, but that there were other reasons for concern.
“I think there’s a bigger danger than them being able to expand their base,” Ward said. “They are sowing more fear and tension into the American public. They’ve been able to find lots of oxygen to try to deflect responsibility away from the Trump administration.”
Jewish leaders who have lived through an increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the last several years, including the deadly attacks at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, fear the possibility of extremist rhetoric escalating even further.
“It incites violence and genocidal tendencies targeting the Jews and others who are scapegoats when there is suffering,” Pesner told The Times of Israel. “We’ve seen this before.”
Indeed, the Jews were blamed for the Black Plague, leading to scores of persecutions and massacres of Jewish communities from 1348 to 1351.
“Having spent the days after the Tree of Life massacre with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I’m always worried,” Pesner added. “Blaming Jews leads to murdering Jews and other minorities.”
For Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the Michigan rally was personal.
She was on her computer Wednesday, working from home, when she came across a picture on social media of the woman holding the “Heil Whitmer” sign.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that must just be some crazy right-wing outlier,'” she said. “But then I looked closer and realized that this was an organized protest, that there were many people there, and that it was in my hometown.”
Soifer grew up 10 minutes from the capitol building in Lansing where the protest was held. She was born in Sparrow Hospital, less than a mile down the road. Demonstrators caused a massive traffic jam Wednesday, and the long line of cars blocked off the hospital’s front entrance.
The images of the rally, she said, haunted her. The men and women holding machine guns and waving confederate flags, wearing MAGA hats and Nazi insignia. They were not wearing masks or gloves. “Clearly a demonstration against social distancing,” Soifer told The Times of Israel. “The confluence of so much danger, all coming together like a storm.”
“It was just shocking to see that those with such a hateful agenda and ideology would actually be located in one’s hometown.”