Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Everyone – and with good reason – is preoccupied with the Wuhan virus, aka coronavirus, aka the “Kung Flu,” perhaps the most serious pandemic in the lives of most contemporary Americans.

However, another significant international infectious pandemic – one for which, sadly, no effective vaccine has ever been developed – has received little attention: anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, anti-Semites have begun to crawl out of their mudholes spreading their latest conspiracy theory: that “the Jews” spread the Wuhan virus for personal financial gain. And, shades of The Elders of the Protocols of Zion, “the Jews” – often joined by “the Zionists” – are also apparently using the current pandemic to kill their enemies and restructure the world in their image.

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The plot, apparently, involves the Jewish exploitation of the collapse of worldwide markets to profit from the sale of the Wuhan vaccine, which Jews have apparently already perfected. This conspiracy claim is being actively disseminated by the usual Islamic radicals, Arab state-sponsored media networks, and white nationalists here at home, and, with the preeminence of social media, the hate is spreading faster than at any time in history; one anti-Semitic cartoon I have seen displays the Israeli flag with a coronavirus in place of the Magen David. President Trump and his “Jew-daughter” and son-in-law are, at the very least, allegedly in on the Jewish conspiracy.

The 10 worst pandemics in history, listed here, include cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, and influenza:

  1. “The Black Death” (1346-1353): Beginning in Asia, and with a death toll estimated between 75-200 million, the plague is believed to have spread from fleas living on rats that frequently lived aboard merchant ships that traveled to the ports of the world’s major urban centers. As discussed more fully below, the Jews were blamed for the plague and entire Jewish communities were exterminated.
  2. “Plague of Justinian” (541-542): Generally considered to be the first recorded incident of the Bubonic plague, it claimed some 25 million deaths – half the population of Europe!
  3. Flu Pandemic (1918): Of the half a billion people infected worldwide in the 1918 pandemic, 10-20 percent died in the first half-year alone, for a total of 25 million deaths and about 700,000 American fatalities. Interestingly, Jews were generally not blamed for the contagion and, in fact, many played prominent roles in combating it.
  4. HIV/AIDS Pandemic (peak: 2005-2012): HIV/AIDS, which was first identified in the Republic of the Congo in 1976, has killed more than 36 million people to date. Although the death rate has significantly declined in most places in the world due to increased awareness of its causes and the availability of treatments, there are currently some 35 million people with HIV, with about 60 percent of them living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  5. Antonine Plague, aka “The Plague of Galen” (165 CE): This pandemic, with unknown origins (though various theories include measles or smallpox), affected populations mostly in Egypt, Italy, and Greece and claimed some five million lives. The disease, which devastated the Roman army, was brought back to Italy by soldiers returning from Mesopotamia.
  6. Asian Flu (1956-1958): According to the World Health organization, the Asian Flu, which originated in China and spread to Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States, killed two million people, including some 70,000 Americans.
  7. Third Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860): The third cholera pandemic, which will be discussed in greater detail below, spread through four continents and killed some 1.5 million people.
  8. “The Hong Kong Flu” Pandemic (1968): Originating in Hong Kong and spreading quickly to Singapore and Vietnam and then to India, Australia, Europe, and the United States, this pandemic had a mortality rate of only about half a percent, but it still killed a million people, including half a million residents of Hong Kong.
  9. “The Asiatic Flu” Pandemic (1889-1890): The first epidemic in the era of modern bacteriology, this pandemic inexplicably began in three distant locations – Turkestan (central Asia), Athabasca (northwestern Canada), and Greenland – and killed a million people.
  10. Sixth Cholera Pandemic (1910-1911): This pandemic killed 800,000 people in India before spreading to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Russia. There were only 11 American deaths in the United States because American health authorities, having learned from previous cholera epidemics, acted expeditiously to isolate infected Americans. Cholera all but ended in America, though it continues to be a regular problem in India.

Studies have repeatedly shown that, during most epidemics, Jews have been disproportionately affected to a lesser degree than non-Jews and, in some instances, they have even exhibited perfect immunity. In other cases, however, Jews have had higher incidence of disease as, for example, during the 1831 cholera epidemic.

Blaming Jews for pandemics began at least as early as the 14th century, when they were held responsible for the Black Death, which caused between 75 and 200 million deaths, making it by far the largest pandemic in history. As the plague swept across Europe, the people sought a scapegoat for the devastation, and it did not take long for the populace, incited by church leaders, to blame the most convenient scapegoat of all: the Jews. The allegation spread that Jews caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells, a theory that gained support because Jews were disproportionately unaffected by the disease.

The credit for their lower incidence of infection is attributable, in no small part, to Jewish law, pursuant to which Jews wash their hands before eating and after using the bathroom; bathe weekly in honor of Shabbat; and ritually wash corpses before burial. (During these days of Passover, it is also worth mentioning that Jews annually cleaned out their grain supply for Passover, lowering their exposure to rats carrying the plague.)

Moreover, Jews, who were regularly sequestered in ghettos, often opted not to use the common wells of towns and cities. The Jewish conspiracy theory gained additional credence when many Jews – while being tortured – confessed to poisoning wells.

The massacre of Jews spread swiftly through Europe, as over a thousand communities through the Rhineland and in Spain, France, and eastward across Europe were exterminated, including major Jewish centers in Barcelona; Strasbourg, where 2,000 Jews were burnt alive in the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” on February 14, 1349; and Frankfurt am Main, Cologne, and Mainz. In Speyer, Jewish cadavers were shoved into wine casks and floated down the Rhine River and, in other communities, Jews were locked in synagogues and burnt to death.

One of the few rays of light during the Black Death massacres was Pope Clement VI, who took noteworthy action to try to protect the Jews, including issuing two papal bulls in 1348 in which he stated that those blaming the Jews had been seduced by the Devil; urged clergy to protect Jews; and personally offered papal protection to Jews in Avignon.

His efforts, however, were largely quashed by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who extinguished all property rights of heirs to the estates of murdered Jews, thereby creating a strong financial incentive for local authorities to condone further Jewish murders.

One of the historically important and lasting results of the Black Plague persecutions was the migration of Jews eastward to Poland and Lithuania, where they remained for some six centuries until most of their progeny were wiped out in the Holocaust.

* * * * *

There have been seven cholera pandemics during the past two centuries, the first originating in India in 1817. The deadliest was the Third Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860), which originated in India and spread to Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa, killing about 1.5 million people.

The pandemic deeply affected Russia, which suffered almost a million deaths, and it is believed to have arrived in the United States from Irish immigrant ships from England, spreading throughout the Mississippi river system and killing 4,500 in St. Louis, 3,000 in New Orleans, 3,500 in Chicago, and many more thousands in New York. The outbreak famously claimed the life of former President James Knox Polk a few months after he left office.

During the cholera contagion in Budapest (1851), the Christian mortality rate of 1.855 percent was seven times larger than the Jewish rate of 0.257 percent. Similarly, an 1855 study based on 2,033 cases showed that the Jewish community in the ghetto near Ferrara, Italy, although living in conditions considerably worse than the Christian citizens of Ferrara, had far fewer incidences of cholera infection.

The study, which also showed a causal relationship between a lack of hygiene and infection, concluded that Jewish health practices, as dictated by Jewish law, protected them from cholera.

The year 1855 was apparently a particularly bad one for Jewish cholera victims in Italy, which included important Jewish leaders in Trieste, as evidenced by this very rare prayer pamphlet for an end to the cholera pandemic:

Prayer for the Halt to the Epidemic
PRAYERS
To Be Recited
By the Jews of Trieste
During the invasion of
THE ASIAN CHOLERA
Recite in Italian
for care of
A.V. Morpurgo and A. Luzzatto
in July 1855

The service begins with a note that “after the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei and the recitation of Tachanun in accordance with tradition, the ark should be opened, and all should recite:

  1. Psalm 91
  2. A prayer written by Shabtai Elchanan Treves for the halt of the epidemic of 1836.
  3. Psalm 20.
  4. Avinu Malkeinu.

Abraham Vita Chai Morpurgo (1813-1867), whose name appears on the above pamphlet, wrote the famous L’Haggada Illustrata (“the Illustrated Haggadah”), also known as the Trieste Haggadah of 1864, which is an Italian translation of the traditional Haggadah text. His Haggadah, with a unique format and design and featuring large engravings above the text, was the only Haggadah produced by lithography and is widely considered the most distinguished illustrated edition produced in Europe during the 19th century.

Some of the drawings (by the 16-year-old artist C. Kirchmeyer) constituted a radical departure from traditional Jewish art, including a physical depiction of G-d and Moshe kneeling before the burning bush in the manner of Christian worship.

Morpurgo also published a collection of prayers in Italian for the Jews of Trieste (1855) and founded the Corriere Israelitico (1862), an Italian magazine devoted to Jewish history and literature; in 1896, it became the first Zionist publication in Italian and it was published in Trieste until 1915. A popular lecturer, he apparently recovered from the cholera.

R. Aharon Luzzatto, whose name also appears on the pamphlet above, was a Hebraist and a member of a well-known Italian rabbinical dynasty. He published Gal Avanim (1851), a compilation of 88 epitaphs from various European countries from 1083-1553 and Italian-Hebrew Vocabulary for Use by Children (1856) and was known for his bitter polemic attack against R. Isaac Gueta, author of Sadeh Yitzchak.

Rav Shabtai Elchanan Treves, the rabbi of Trieste, was known for composing various prayers for special occasions, including the cholera prayer exhibited here and prayers for Moses Montefiore and Ferdinand I (the emperor of Austria).

One of the central Jewish personalities during the Third Cholera Pandemic was Rav Israel Salanter, a revered Talmudic scholar and the renowned founder of the Mussar (Jewish ethics) movement. When the plague struck Vilna in 1848, he directed all his energies toward relief efforts and sent his students out to care for the victims of the disease.

Emphasizing the primacy that Jewish law assigns to preserving life and health, he actively encouraged people to violate Shabbat and other laws when necessary to help cholera victims, and he ordered Jews to follow the medical instructions of their doctors, even where doing so involved transgressing halacha.

But perhaps his most radical and historically memorable action took place on Yom Kipper 1848 when he ordered Jews not to fast because doing so would endanger lives. To drive the point home, he entered the synagogue with wine and cake, publicly recited kiddush, proceeded to eat, and refused to permit services to commence until the entire congregation had eaten.

According to some historical accounts, his radical actions were not well received, and he soon left Vilna; nonetheless, he maintained that he had saved countless Jewish lives and, for the rest of his life, he remained proud of his actions.

In a letter written during the Third Cholera Pandemic, the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe) urged the Jewish people to exercise extra care while reciting blessings, including renewed focus upon the meaning of the words. Rav Akiva Eiger ruled that shortened prayer services be held at staggered times to prevent contagion; that each minyan be limited to 15 people; and that the community could even turn to the local police to enforce the 15-man rule. (He later received a commendation from the government for helping stem the spread of the pandemic).

The lessons for us today are stark, obvious, and critical. First, we have a duty, both as members of society and as Jews, to follow the instructions of our health authorities regarding the Wuhan virus, even when doing so interferes with our usual ritual practices. The prime Torah obligation remains to protect life and health, both our own and those of our neighbors and fellow citizens. Second, our prayers – even if not recited with a minyan – will play an important role in bringing an end to the coronavirus epidemic.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.