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We need to talk about RFK Jr.’s antisemitic conspiracy mongering

The presidential candidate’s remarks on COVID-19 offered a blend of old-world and new-school prejudice

Politicians and advocacy groups scrambled to condemn Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s comments on the coronavirus, which were shocking even in an era of rampant conspiracy theory mongering, breathless antisemitism, and rising anti-Asian hate.

RFK Jr.’s comments were a toxic mix of centuries-old antisemitism with a contemporary twist. And that’s worth parsing carefully, instead of just dismissing in disgust, because it’s a snapshot of what is happening right now on the technicolor stage of hate.

“COVID-19 attacks certain races disproportionately,” RFK Jr. said at a gathering at an Upper East Side restaurant that was caught on video by the New York Post. “COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”

“We don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not but there are papers out there that show the racial or ethnic differential and impact,” he added.

While different ethnic groups have contracted COVID-19 at different rates, scientists attribute this to social factors, not to any intrinsic immunity. “Jewish or Chinese protease consensus sequences are not a thing in biochemistry, but they are in racism and antisemitism,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, told The New York Times.

RFK Jr., currently a Democratic candidate for President, is also the son of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. So hearing him go on and on is especially painful. And for some, it offered a reminder of Joseph Kennedy.  Captured German documents revealed that Joseph, father of JFK, held anti-Jewish views and told the Nazi ambassador he “understood our Jewish policy completely.”


Hobnobbing with antisemites

It’s important to remember that RFK Jr. has also met with Louis Farrakhan, who has (ahistorically) blamed Jews for the slave trade and has claimed that Jews conspire to control the government, Hollywood, and the news media.

Not surprisingly, Farrakhan has also made unhinged vaccine comments.

In 2015, Farrakhan tweeted that “Robert Kennedy Jr. met with me about a vaccine that is designed to affect Black males.”

And last week, RFK Jr. met with the rapper Ice Cube, who has promoted conspiracy theories and previously posted “images that appeared to amplify antisemitic tropes tying Jews to the oppression of black people,” as Billboard put it.

RFK Jr. took to Twitter with a photo of himself with Ice Cube — and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich — in yet another example of the rising acceptability of antisemitism to American current and former presidential hopefuls.

Swift condemnation — yet conspiracy theories keep spreading

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, condemned RFK Jr. COVID-19 comments as “the disgusting use of a vile antisemitic trope and unhinged conspiracy theory by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is unacceptable and unconscionable.”

And the Anti-Defamation League said that RFK Jr.’s statement “feeds into sinophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that we have seen evolve over the last three years.”

In The Atlantic, Yair Rosenberg once again explained the link between believing in conspiracy theories and antisemitism.

“Because antisemitism has produced centuries of material pinning humanity’s problems on its Jews, a person convinced that an invisible hand is conducting world affairs will eventually discover that it belongs to an invisible Jew,” he wrote. “For this reason, it is impossible to circulate on the conspiratorial fringe and not encounter antisemitism.”

But how fringe is fringe, these days?

An Oxford University study conducted earlier this year found that “nearly 20 percent of adults in England believe that Jews created the coronavirus for financial gain.”

New and old antisemitism

Beyond the obvious ick factor, RFK Jr.’s comments are fascinating because they combine old-time antisemitism with some more modern strains.

The idea that Jews are either responsible for disease or not dying quickly enough from disease is a throwback to the medieval era.

In “The Black Death and the Burning of the Jews,” Samuel K. Cohn Jr. writes that “these persecutions were the burning of Jews between 1348 and 1351, when in anticipation of, or shortly after, outbreaks of plague Jews were accused of poisoning food, wells and streams, tortured into confessions, rounded up in city squares or their synagogues, and exterminated en masse.”

Academics are now estimating that half of Jewish communities were wiped off the earth during the Black Death — from violence, not disease.

“On the eve of the Black Death, we estimate that there were 363 cities with Jewish communities across Europe. During the plague pandemic, half of these communities were either killed or expelled from their homes,” Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University and Remi Jedwab of George Washington University wrote in a piece for the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

More recently, Chinese Americans — and the broader Asian community — have been attacked in connection with the coronavirus. The Anti-Asian Hate Crime Tracker has recorded 114 attacks against Asians in the U.S. over the past year.

But RFK Jr. also distinguishes between “Caucasians” and “Ashkenazi Jews.” And let’s not miss that “Ashkenazi Jews” are framed as a race, Hitler-style.

In the current climate in America, Jews are often lumped in with whites — and blamed for the sins of white supremacy and the oppression of people of color. But at the same time, American Jews are also facing record antisemitism, including rising violence — in a way that non-Jewish whites are not.

“U.S. incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault toward Jews increased by a third last year,” Marie Brenner noted in Vanity Fair in an outstanding article on a New York unit fighting threats of antisemitic violence. “In New York state alone, there was a 39 percent rise. Of those incidents, there were 72 assaults reported to the police, the highest number in the state’s history.”

What the media doesn’t emphasize

It’s kind of amazing how little press many of these incidents are getting. Brenner details a spate of BB gun attacks I haven’t heard of, including one in the town in which I grew up. Violent attacks on visible Jews — the ultra-Orthodox — in New York have been one of the great under-covered stories of recent years, even though New York City is the media capital of America.

I have been disturbed that many leading journalists do not mention the antisemitism at the root of The Great White Replacement Theory, often referred to simply as “the great replacement theory.”

It’s essential to understand that adherents of this theory, which was behind the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s rage and was often amplified by Tucker Carlson, believe that Jews are masterminding a great replacement of white people with people of color — immigrants from around the world.

To leave the Jewish aspect out of this is frankly journalistic malpractice.

In today’s racial reckoning, it can be easier and simpler to make the “replacement theory” all about whites and their fear of people of color gaining advantage.

But RFK Jr. let it all hang out. He had no editor and no filter. He made it clear that he sees “Ashkenazi Jews” as separate from “Caucasians.”

Boozy comments

Something else struck me in RFK Jr.’s remarks at what the New York Post memorably called the “question-and-answer portion of [the] raucous booze and fart-filled dinner.” It was the ease of it all — and the fact that Jewish tradition teaches that a person is known by koso, kiso, v’kaaso — his cup, his pocket, and his anger, meaning his behavior after he drinks, his attitude toward money, and how he handles anger.

I thought back to the early days of the Trump campaign, when I overheard a bunch of guys in a diner talking as all the TVs in the place turned to Trump coverage.

One said, “he says what I think out loud,” and then another guy said something like, “he says what we’re all thinking out loud. I just love the guy.”

Then laughter.

RFK Jr. showed us that it just takes a bit of booze to get that unattractive honesty out of the bottle. Good thing the New York Post got it all on video.

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