Object of the Semester

Winter Semester 2020/21

From medieval well-poisoning myths to COVID-19: Antisemitic conspiracy fantasies during epidemics

A representative survey by University of Oxford clinical psychologists, conducted in May 2020 during an early peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, found that almost 20 percent of British citizens agreed in part or in full with the statement that “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain.”[1]

The survey revealed how versatile and adaptable antisemitic stereotypes have been over the centuries. The topos of Jews as alleged causes of and at the same time as profiteers from illness has been a recurring element of anti-Jewish attributions since the 14th century. Outbreaks of diseases like leprosy, plague, cholera, typhus, swine flu, Ebola, avian flu, SARS, and COVID-19 continue to provide fertile ground for antisemitic conspiracy fantasies that depict Jews as troublemakers, triggering and profiting from crises, and perpetrating all sorts of evil.

A central motif which has been handed down over the centuries since the Middle Ages, and reactivated time and again particularly during periods of crisis, is the accusation against Jews as alleged poisoners of wells. Our “Object of the Semester” is a visual representation of this motif as depicted in the late 19th century illustrated edition of the nearly 1,000-page La France juive, the major work by Édouard Drumont, the most influential French antisemite of his day (Figure 1).[2]

Figure 1: Lithograph depicting an alleged well poisoning
From: Édouard Drumont, La France juive, see note 2

It depicts a village scene in which three figures are standing around a well. The left male figure is recognizable – through his bandaged limbs – as having leprosy. The middle figure, who has rags around his feet and is thus apparently also characterized as having leprosy, is pouring a liquid from a jug resembling an aquamanile – a vessel used for ritual Jewish ablutions – into the well. Standing a good distance from the leprous figures is a man in dark clothing who seems to be watching over the secretive action as a puppet master of sorts. This figure displays some key elements of traditional antisemitic representations. The typical construct of a “Jewish physiognomy” is manifested through his long, slightly hooked nose, visually emphasized by the corners of his mouth and full beard, and a facial expression that can be perceived as devious. Unlike the other two figures, who are wearing typical medieval belt pouches, “the Jew” is depicted as carrying a moneybag, in reference to the classic anti-Jewish stereotype of alleged Jewish wealth and avarice.

The origin, provenance and production of the lithograph are largely unclear.[3] But there is no doubt about Drumont’s interpretation, which he stated unequivocally in the caption: “Les Juifs avaient organisé une conspiration de lépreux pour empoisonner les fontaines.” (“The Jews had organized a conspiracy of lepers to poison the wells.”). Drumont was thus referring to an anti-Jewish myth that began in 1321 in southern France, according to which Jews had secretly instrumentalized lepers, paying them to poison springs and wells in order to take revenge on Christians, infecting them with the disease and decimating their numbers.[4] This idea proved to be extremely tenacious and adaptable[5] over the following decades and centuries; it was reactivated during various epidemics and served – as in 1348/49 during the bubonic plague epidemic in Europe – as a pretext for massive violent attacks on the Jewish population.[6]

To this day, antisemitic conspiracy thinking is widespread throughout the world and has been breaking fresh ground in countless blogs, image boards and social media – often in the form of memes, cartoons and photomontages – since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.[7] A particularly common antisemitic meme in this genre is that of the “Happy Merchant,” which originated in the US-American right-wing extremist “White Supremacist” movement of the 2000s. It appears on the Internet in countless variations, particularly on the platforms 4chan, 8kun, Gab, Telegram and Reddit, and serves conspiracy fantasies ranging from Christian anti-Judaism to racist forms to Holocaust denial and Israel-related antisemitism.

The Stürmer-like caricature sports a grotesque face with an exaggerated nose and an unkempt full beard; the figure is wearing a kippah, laughing conspiratorially and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of financial gain (see here). Equipped with a syringe and an ambiguous warning sign, it represents – as did the alleged “well poisoning Jew” of medieval days – an easy means to scapegoat “the Jews” for the global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide a supposedly simple explanation for what are actually complex facts that are hard to understand: “The Jews” would spread the virus in order to profit from the crisis as well as from the vaccine being developed to combat the disease.

Here again it becomes clear how antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy fantasies involving Jews can adapt over time, emerging in ever-new variations. The fact that the old myth of well poisoning can be reactivated – not only in terms of structure but also almost literally – can be seen in a statement by cookbook author Attila Hildmann in May 2020. This self-appointed activist in the COVID-19 conspiracy fantasy scene, who claims to be one of the figureheads of the “hygiene demos” against the protective measures meant to contain the pandemic, claimed in a post on his Telegram social media account that sedatives had been mixed into the drinking water and that he had been “EXTREMELY tired for two days.”[8] The close connection of such crude fantasies with anti-Jewish stereotypes was revealed a few weeks later, when Hildmann drew attention through inflammatory antisemitic statements on the Internet.[9]

[1] Daniel Freeman et al., “Coronavirus Conspiracy Beliefs, Mistrust, and Compliance with Government Guidelines in England,” in: Psychological Medicine, published online on 21 May 2020, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291720001890 [accessed on 16 June 2020], p. 6.

[2] Édouard Drumont, La France juive. Essai d’histoire contemporaine. Édition illustrée de scènes, vues, portraits, cartes et plans d’après les dessins de nos meilleurs artistes, Paris, undated, p. 145. ALAVA – TU Berlin, inventory number 7800. The non-illustrated first edition of La France juive was published in 1886. See Bjoern Weigel, “La France Juive (Édouard Drumont, 1886),” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 6: Publikationen, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2013, pp. 215-217.

[3] The lithograph bears the signature “NAVELLIER-MARIE. S.,” which stands for the French xylographers and engravers Narcisse Navellier and Alexandre Léon Marie. In the second half of the 19th century, the duo produced countless engravings for publications of all kinds. It is not yet known whether Navellier and Marie were working on commission for Drumont when completing the illustration for La France juive, or whether it was created earlier, in another context. It is also likely that the engraving was based on a drawing by another, hitherto unknown artist.

[4] See Drumont, La France juive, pp. 147-152. See also: Stefan Rohrbacher/Michael Schmidt, Judenbilder. Kulturgeschichte antijüdischer Mythen und antisemitischer Vorurteile, Reinbek 1991, p. 196.

[5] Medievalist Johannes Heil writes that this myth was “of eminent importance for the formation of the conspiracy narrative.” Johannes Heil, “Gottesfeinde” – “Menschenfeinde”. Die Vorstellung von jüdischer Weltverschwörung (13. bis 16. Jahrhundert), Essen 2006, p. 283.

[6] See František Graus, Pest – Geißler – Judenmorde. Das 14. Jahrhundert als Krisenzeit, Göttingen 1987.

[7] For an overview, see: Anti-Defamation League, “Coronavirus Crisis Elevates Antisemitic, Racist Tropes,” published online on 17 March 2020, https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-crisis-elevates-antisemitic-racist-tropes, and Community Security Trust, “Coronavirus and the Plague of Antisemitism. Research Briefing,” published online on 8 April 2020, https://cst.org.uk/data/file/d/9/Coronavirus%20and%20the%20plague%20of%20antisemitism.1586276450.pdf [both accessed on 16 June 2020].

[8] Telegram account of Attila Hildmann, post of 9 May 2020 [accessed on 4 June 2020]

[9] See Sebastian Leber, “Attila Hildmann gibt Juden die Schuld – und verteidigt Hitler,” in: Der Tagesspiegel, published online on 19 June 2020, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/antisemitismus-im-netz-attila-hildmann-gibt-juden-die-schuld-und-verteidigt-hitler/25930880.html [accessed on 19 June 2020].

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