Antisemitism and the anti-vaccine movement: the influence of the far right is growing

With the rise of the far right over the past decade, antisemitism is growing. While a hallmark of Nazism, antisemitism is showing itself in other right-wing movements, notably the anti-vaccine movement.

It doesn’t just feel like antisemitism has been on a rise in this country, multiple sources report that it, in fact, has. Dissent Magazine, for instance, reports that a combination of white-supremacist organizing via social media and the Trump presidency have empowered and emboldened antisemites “to come out of the shadows.”

The racist graffiti, including swastikas we see in Tacoma, and the growing presence of fascists with neo-nazis groups like the Three Percenters and Patriot Front in our community is testament to this dynamic.

Recently, I came across a recording of a school board meeting in Colorado where an anti-mask, anti-vaccine mandate father and school-aged daughter duo quoted Hitler, knowingly and favorably, multiple times as they threatened the school board. I saw another such school board recording of a person blaming “the Jews” for the “fake” pandemic.

While antisemitism is a hallmark of Nazism, the racist scapegoating informs the right-wing evangelicals and right-wing conspiracy theory believers, like QAnon followers. It should not be surprising, therefore, that antisemitism is prominent among the anti-vaccine mandate and anti-mask movements. These people are popularly called anti-vax or anti-vaxxers.

The anti-vaxxers recently organized their “defeat the mandates” protest in Washington D.C. Not only did the protest gain the support of known neo-Nazis but anti-vaxxer big-wig Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been backtracking his comments from the rally where he described vaccine mandates as worse than the Holocaust per NBC News.

I think there are at least two distinct but connected racist trends among the anti-vaccine folks. There are those who revise and diminish the history of the Holocaust by equating its horrors with vaccine mandates, and there are those arguing that COVID-19 and vaccine mandates are part of a Jewish-led conspiracy to destroy the American way of life, whatever that means. 

I don’t think these two kinds of racism are mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, the antisemites are successfully taking legitimate grievances about the world, like the unaccountable and undemocratic pharmaceutical industry having undue influence over significant aspects of our lives and blaming Jews for them.

Take for instance the anti-vaxxers’ opposition to big pharma. For example, we should absolutely be wary of companies like Johnson & Johnson who have been in the news for knowingly selling asbestos-laced baby powder from the 1970s to the early 2000s, per a Reuters investigation. What’s more, they were targeting Black consumers for this product. But the blame here lies on the company, capitalism and the centrality of the profit motive in the healthcare and its pharmaceutical section, not Jewish people, as the antisemites would have it.

It is also clear that the vaccines, in general, are safe enough and can be effective at reducing the harm caused by COVID-19. Getting vaccinated is about solidarity with our peers, coworkers and fellow human beings. Antisemitism, arguably a form of racism, is ultimately an example of anti-solidarity; it is a divide-and-rule attempt to keep us from supporting one another.

The left must point to the actual criminals behind the COVID-19 crisis: the government that failed to restock the national stockpile of personal protective equipment following a flu epidemic in 2009. A health system designed to run at near capacity at all times instead of being equipped to handle surges from disease or mass casualty events, and the capitalists who pursue profits over our safety.

Furthermore, we must offer real alternatives like public control over our health system including the pharmaceutical industry, funding for things like N-95 masks, and overall, a prioritization of people over profits.

In this way, we can make the antisemites and their racist non-answers to the crisis irrelevant. Furthermore, we should challenge the racists every time they speak out, rally or march for the racism they represent.

The normalization of antisemitism makes it easier for racist ideas to flourish in our society while its flourishing reinforces its presence. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. saying vaccine mandates are worse than the Holocaust contributes to the racism that led a gunman to take hostages in a Texas synagogue this past January.

By confronting the far-right in the streets or in the school board meetings while simultaneously pointing to capitalism as the crisis, we can undermine the far-right’s growth while building a left that can actually change the world for the better.