A conspiracy-filled rant by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that the Covid-19 virus was engineered to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people has stirred accusations of antisemitism and racism in the Democratic candidate’s long-shot run for president.
“Covid-19. There is an argument that it is ethnically targeted. Covid-19 attacks certain races disproportionately,” Mr. Kennedy said at a private gathering in New York that was captured on videotape by The New York Post. “Covid-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
Mr. Kennedy has made his political career on false conspiracy theories about not just Covid-19 and Covid vaccines but disproved links between common childhood vaccines and autism, mass surveillance and 5G cellular phone technology, ill health effects from Wi-Fi and a “stolen” election in 2004 that gave the presidency back to George W. Bush.
But his suggestion that the coronavirus pandemic spared Chinese people and Jews of European descent strayed into new and bigoted territory.
Asian Americans suffered through a brutal spate of assaults at the beginning of the Covid pandemic by people who blamed the Chinese for intentionally releasing the virus on the world. And Mr. Kennedy’s remarks about Ashkenazi Jews hit antisemitic tropes on multiple levels.
Ashkenazi Jews generally descend from those who settled in Eastern Europe after the Roman Empire destroyed the Jewish state around 70 A.D. Sephardic Jews went to the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.
The idea that Ashkenazi Jews are somehow separate from Caucasians has fueled deadly bigotry for centuries, and the conspiracy of Jewish immunity from tragedy has been part of antisemitic attacks as far back as the Black Plague and as recently as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Abraham Foxman, who worked for decades as the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, condemned “antisemitic stereotypes going back to the Middle Ages that claimed Jews protected themselves from diseases.”
“It cannot be ignorance because he is not ignorant, so he must believe it,” Mr. Foxman said Saturday night.
Mr. Kennedy responded to The New York Post story with a defense that only deepened his conspiratorial theories. He wrote on Twitter that he “accurately pointed out” that the United States is “developing ethnically targeted bioweapons” — a point he made in his remarks captured on video, when he repeated Russian propaganda that the United States is collecting D.N.A. in Ukraine to target Russians with tailored bioweapons.
Mr. Kennedy also linked to a scientific paper that he said showed the structure of the Covid-19 virus made Black and Caucasian people more susceptible, and “ethnic Chinese, Finns and Ashkenazi Jews” were less receptive.
But the study he linked to, published in July 2020, early in the pandemic and before effective treatments had emerged, made no reference to Chinese people as more receptive to the virus, nor did it speak of targeting the virus. It said one particular receptor for the virus appeared not to be present in Amish and Ashkenazi Jews.
His conclusions were roundly dismissed by scientists.
“Jewish or Chinese protease consensus sequences are not a thing in biochemistry, but they are in racism and antisemitism,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
Mr. Kennedy returned to Twitter just after midnight on Sunday to call charges of antisemitism against him “a disgusting fabrication.”
“I understand the emotional pain that these inaccurate distortions and fabrications have caused to many Jews who recall the blood libels of poison wells and the deliberate spread of disease as the pretext for genocidal programs against their ancestors,” he wrote in a lengthy post. “My father and my uncles, John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy, devoted enormous political energies during their careers to supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism. I intend to spend my political career making those family causes my priority.”
Mr. Kennedy’s comments are not the first time he has strayed into the intersection of Judaism and Covid. In his zeal for condemning steps to stem the spread of the virus, he spoke last year at an anti-vaccination mandate rally in Washington, saying, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” suggesting Covid restrictions were worse.
Even his wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, condemned the comment about Anne Frank.
“My husband’s reference to Anne Frank at a mandate rally in D.C. was reprehensible and insensitive,” she wrote on Twitter.
The anger from Jewish leaders over his Covid remarks was immediate.
The Anti-Defamation League wrote, “The claim that Covid-19 was a bioweapon created by the Chinese or Jews to attack Caucasians and Black people is deeply offensive and feeds into sinophobic and antisemitic conspiracy theories about Covid-19 that we have seen evolve over the last three years.”
Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, wrote on Twitter, “RFK Jr. is a disgrace to the Kennedy name and the Democratic Party. For the record, my whole family, who is Jewish, got Covid.”
An earlier version of this article said a scientific journal article linked to by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made no reference to Ashkenazi Jews. The abstract in Mr. Kennedy’s link did not, but the full text of the journal article did.
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Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. More about Jonathan Weisman
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