Dina Wyler, the managing director of the Zurich-based Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism (GRA), explained in an interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) on Monday why Jews are often made the scapegoats in times of crisis («Leute, die sich gegen die Maskenpflicht wehren, vergleichen sich mit Sophie Scholl. Das ist absurd!»).
Wyler pointed out that people who had both swastikas and Jewish stars printed on their clothing took part in an anti-corona demo in Zurich in the fall. The picture was similar in Lachen in the canton of Schwyz at a demonstration a few weeks ago: individuals wore yellow Jewish stars on their masks or T-shirts. And in November, people demonstrated in Basel with signs comparing anti-corona measures with National Socialism.
Using the Holocaust as a metaphor for “oppression” against Covid-19 regulations has received a boost in the past few months in Switzerland, and in some cases, this developed into open anti-Semitism. At an anti-corona demonstration in Zurich, a man said to a journalist: “The Rothschilds are behind the corona measures.”
The Central Council of Jews in Germany has also expressed concerns, as has the US Anti-Defamation League. GRA has now launched the Internet portal “Stop anti-Semitism,” and Dina Wyler was asked to further describe how the Corona crisis has increased incidents of anti-Semitism.
“In times of crisis, anti-Semitism is booming,” Wyler said. “When people are insecure, age-old conspiracy theories come up again. They simplify reality, they divide people into friend and foe. A scapegoat helps deal with the feeling of powerlessness. Unfortunately, this scapegoat is often Jewish.”
“During the Black Plague it was said that the Jews poisoned the wells, Jews were murdered, in Switzerland, too,” she said. Asked why are the Jews so often the scapegoats, she explained: “It has to do with old stereotypes that are on people’s minds. The Jews were always described as not belonging. It was said that they secretly infiltrated society. These ideas are deeply anchored and then emerge in a crisis. Anti-Semitism has never gone away, but it was less socially acceptable. Now, the limit on what can be said has shifted.”
Wyler continued: “People who oppose the mask requirement compare themselves to Sophie Scholl (the anti-Nazi political activist of the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany). And they do that while they are demonstrating, that is, exercising their right of expression. That is absurd! Sophie Scholl had to secretly protest because she was afraid of being murdered by the state – which eventually happened. Such comparisons do not work. I expect an outcry in society in response to this.”
NZZ asked: There have been anti-Semitic attacks abroad in recent months, for example in the German city of Halle. Should Jewish people in Zurich be afraid as well?
“Jewish people perceive anti-Semitism as a major problem in Switzerland – this is shown by a new study by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences,” Wyler answered. “There are places they avoid out of concern for their own safety. But we also have to say: Switzerland is not Germany. There is very rarely physical violence against Jewish people. Mostly property damages and insulting statements are being reported to us.”
What does the GRA association expect from its new “Stop anti-Semitism” website?
“Enlightenment. People repeat things they have heard somewhere without questioning them. Not everyone who expresses anti-Semitism is necessarily an anti-Semite. But they repeat anti-Semitic ideas. And it starts with the language. Nobody will commit murder unless previously radicalized through language,” she said.
When asked to give an example, Wyler related: “I recently spoke to a young woman. She said that in the hip-hop scene of which she was part, the Rothschild family was often addressed in texts. She didn’t even notice that these passages were often problematic. Anti-Semitic ideas are spread in the mainstream without people realizing it.”
Is it dangerous?
“It has been proven that people who believe in such conspiracy theories legitimize violence faster. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have become more popular during the Corona crisis – the situation can quickly worsen in the future. We are currently working on an educational project in which we pick high school students and train them for several days on the topics of racism and anti-Semitism. These students can then do some of the awareness-raising work in their schools,” Wyler said.
How would she like society to respond?
“When people with a yellow Star of David appeared at anti-Corona rallies in Zurich, Basel, and Lachen in recent weeks, the other demonstrators should have responded. And they should have made it clear to them that it is going too far if you compare state-orchestrated genocide with restaurant closings and wearing masks. I would also have liked a reaction from the politicians who took part in the demonstrations. The politicians are role models. And I also see an obligation on the part of social networks. They should define clear standards. Just like Facebook has now done. A month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Holocaust denial would no longer be accepted. That is a big step forward,” she said.