Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the UK, and the hateful rhetoric is being intertwined with COVID-19 conspiracy theories

Summary List PlacementOver the past year as the United Kingdom has struggled to get the rate of  COVID-19 cases under control, there's been an alarming increase of anti-Semitic hate online tied to the virus.  Among the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric comes from a far-right Telegram channel called "Corona-waffen" — with waffen...

Demonstrators stage a protest against anti-Semitism in Britain's Labour Party in 2018 amidst ongoing criticism of the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for acting insufficiently to rid anti-Semitic attitudes from among Labour ranks.

Summary List Placement

Over the past year as the United Kingdom has struggled to get the rate of  COVID-19 cases under control, there’s been an alarming increase of anti-Semitic hate online tied to the virus. 

Among the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric comes from a far-right Telegram channel called “Corona-waffen” — with waffen referring to the uniform worn by the Nazis in Hitler-era Germany.

“If I get sick [with COVID-19] where should I go?” one user posted in the channel, which features discourse that encourages the targeting of Jews. In the comment’s responses, three-quarters of the more than 150 responses suggested “the synagogue.”  

But “Corona-waffen” isn’t the only anti-Semitic forum to arise. A plethora of anti-Semitic incidents have been recorded in the last year, and conspiracy theories online have intertwined the COVID-19 pandemic with hateful rhetoric about Jewish communities.

The Community Security Trust (CST), a UK organization launched to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitism, recorded 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents in 2020, including 634 online attacks — the second-highest level of online attacks ever recorded. 

Furthermore, in just the first four months of 2020 there were 150,000 public Facebook posts sent by 38 far-right pages or groups with over 80-million interactions, according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The latest data release from the UK Government (which covers January 2019 to July 2020), shows Jews were targeted in 19% of religious hate crimes, while they account for just 0.4% of the UK population. 

This kind of blaming, and the resort to conspiratorialism, emerges during times of great uncertainty, when we’re grappling for explanations for things that we can’t explain,” Geoffrey Dancy, an expert in conspiracy theories, told Insider. “The great power of conspiracy theories is that you can offer them quickly, and you can point to somebody to blame for problems.”

The UK is at a ‘crisis point’ with hate crime rates, one expert says

Jon Garland, a leading expert in Hate Crime studies at the University of Surrey, England, told Insider that the UK is now at a “crisis point” in terms of the rate of hate crimes, with preliminary figures showing that hate crime rates growing in tandem with the pandemic.

Conspiracy theories with their roots in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — an early 20th-century anti-Semitic text stating an elaborate fiction for Jews’ plans for world domination — are often used to falsely explain COVID-19. 

People stage a Together Against Antisemitism rally in London's Parliament Square in December 2019.

Some of these conspiracy theories state the COVID-19 itself is fake, but manufactured by Jews to mislead and control the public. Other theories recognize the legitimacy of the virus itself, but falsely state it is still crafted by Jews with the purpose of diminishing the population in order to fulfill the Zionist agenda.

Another conspiratorial anti-Semitic trope is that Jews control the world’s money, and this, too, has trickled into COVID-19 conspiracy  theories. 

Hate groups are high-jacking community Zoom calls

And as work and social functions have moved online, so has hate. Zoombombing, the act of hijacking an online gathering with offensive images or messages, has been reported at funerals, prayer sessions, memorials and community events since the pandemic began.

In November 2020, a Friday night service organized over Zoom by a synagogue in North London was hijacked by the far-right. The chat box was flooded with slurs and hateful comments about Jews while pornographic videos were broadcast over participants’ screens. 

“It surprised me how awful I felt afterwards,” one of the event attendees, who asked to remain anonymous out of privacy, told Insider. “I came off the call and my wife said I was ashen in the face, I wasn’t right. It’s just horrible to see it. This was very in your face, and makes you realize how horrible [anti-Semitism] is.” 

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018.

The participant said virtual events like the one that was hijacked had become a “lifeline” during the pandemic, especially for elderly people in the community.

“This was very malicious, and it was a concerted effort to cause offense, and to upset people,” the attendee added. “That’s something horrible. Would you like it done to your son or daughter?”

It’s unclear who’s legally responsible for stopping hate speech

But while the rapid, global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines represents a light at the end of the pandemic-tunnel, the end of the pandemic does not mean the cessation of related hate crimes. 

When it comes to stopping the spread of far-right rhetoric online, there’s great debate as to whether this responsibility lies with social media companies, service providers, policymakers, or law enforcement, Garland told Insider. 

The blurred lines between what’s illegal and legal continue to pose a challenge, and the “international” nature of posting online from virtually anywhere makes cases difficult to prosecute, Garland said.

Social media companies have taken some steps to stop the spread of conspiracies in recent months. 

YouTube has banned some content pertaining to COVID-19 conspiracy theories, while Facebook has started notifying users if they have engaged with recognized misinformation. However, these companies have claimed that further action has not been possible because the legal precedent had not been set offline.

Garland said that social media companies have “dodged the blame for too long” — and as a result of their global reach — should take primary responsibility to take this rise in far-right hate. 

“People are committing all sorts of hateful abuse — not just racist hate or faith-based hate, but other forms too,” he said. “People have found it easy to create a false account under a false name, and in doing so feeling completely immune from prosecution or the possibility of it. I think it is time that those companies that make the fast and handsome monies from these social media platforms actually take primary responsibility for it.”

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