By Hen Mazzig
The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of 100 million to 200 million people in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of the plague. Originating from Asia, where it traveled along the Silk Road, the Black Death reached Crimea by 1343. From there, it was spread by fleas living on the rats, reaching the rest of Europe via the Italian peninsula.
The Black Death swept across Europe, annihilating nearly half the population. The Europeans, who had little scientific understanding of the disease, were desperate for an explanation. Their world had collapsed. They were angry, but even more so, they were terrified.
Finding a community that had a precedent of being the scapegoat for every misfortune in the world to blame for the newest and most gutting reality, was the obvious outlet. So they blamed Jews.
Only a small number of Jews in Europe were affected by the Black Death because they were isolated in the ghettos. They also followed Jewish laws that promote cleanliness: washing hands before eating and after eliminating bodily waste, bathe at least once a week before Shabbat, washing a corpse before burial.
As accusations spread that Jews had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells, the first massacres directly related to the plague took place. In April 1348 in Toulon Provence in France, Christians murdered 40 Jews in their homes. The next massacre occurred in Barcelona, then in Erfurt, Germany; Basel, Switzerland; Aragon, Spain; and Flanders, Belgium. Two thousand Jews were burned alive on Feb. 14, 1349, in the “Valentine’s Day” Strasbourg massacre, where the plague did not even affect the city.
In 1349, the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main was annihilated. Afterward, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne were obliterated. By the close of 1349, the killings of Jews near the Hansa townships of the Baltic Coast and in Eastern Europe began. Civil authorities did little to protect Jews and, in some instances, encouraged the rioters.
Killing and maiming Jews had become the universal outlet for grief-stricken Europe, a pastime that would continue for centuries.
When new misfortunes like extreme poverty in Germany appeared, the Jews believed the same horrors wouldn’t happen to them again. “But we are living in different times,” the Jews of Europe said to themselves in 1920, in a world of science, media, democracy. For the years to come, we chant, “Never again,” unsure if it is a promise or a prophecy.
WE MUST NOT FOOL OURSELVES. THE WORLD IS SAFE FOR JEWS UNTIL IT ISN’T.
“But we are living in different times,” the Jews of the West tell themselves in 2020. The spread of the coronavirus would never incite violence against us.
We must not fool ourselves. The world is safe for Jews until it isn’t.
Indeed, science, media and democracy prevail throughout Western countries but minorities still aren’t safe. We already are witnessing hate crimes against Asians in their respective countries as bigots scapegoat them for the coronavirus.
As recently as last year, Jews have been killed and brutalized across this country by white supremacists, anti-Zionists and deranged individuals. The KKK’s former Grand Wizard David Duke blames “Zionists” (his dog-whistle for Jews) for causing the coronavirus. Public figures such as actress Rosanna Arquette have made rash claims that Israel knew about the virus and kept it from the world so it could develop a vaccine first: put “lives at risk for profit” as she wrote in a now apologized-for tweet.
We must be on guard for anti-Semitism now, more than ever. Societies are vulnerable and tormented at this time of crisis, just as they were during the Black Death. We have to monitor any shift in public discourse that connects Jews and Israel in this pandemic. We have to remember the countless lessons of history: No matter how wonderful your community may be for Jews, we are safe until we are not.
However, for the first time in history, there is a state that will always be safe for Jews: our own.