Harold Abraham Weill, the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, France, said the majority of the Jewish population in the city was infected with COVID-19.
“How many people [in the Jewish community] have been infected? I believe maybe 50%, maybe 60% or 70%,” Weill estimated, according to a March 28 report in The Times of Israel.
Among them are 20 seriously ill patients on ventilators, along with 13 of the city’s rabbis who have contracted COVID-19 – including Weill, who has now recovered.
“Weill added that the prevalence of the disease in the community had led to some expressions of anti-Semitism, with Jews being accused of spreading the illness,” The Times said.
This is not the first time such claims were made in the city of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace, a historical region in northeast France that borders Germany.
While Europe has seen a long history of Jewish persecution, one of the most infamous episodes occurred on Saturday, Feb. 14, 1349, when 2,000 of the city’s Jewish residents were massacred.
As to be expected, tensions had begun much earlier with the rise of the bubonic plague and economic depression among the lower trade crafts.
As the Black Death raged through Europe and the Middle East, fear and tension grew out of control.
Just like today, people demanded an explanation for the tragedy. The only explanation that the 14th century clergy and physicians could come up with was that the epidemic was God’s judgment upon the world for sin.
From earthquakes to shootings, from pandemics to economic downturns, people start to look for individuals to blame, seeking a scapegoat on which to lay blame for the situation.
For example, Pat Robertson has a long history of issuing proclamations, as CBS News documented in 2010.
In 14th century Strasbourg, leaders among the lower trade crafts used distrust and fear of the Jews to begin a mob rebellion against the city’s leaders.
They accused the Jews of bringing the plague to Europe and even poisoning public wells.
But leaders and master craftsmen refused to expel the Jews because the city had a long-standing contract of protection with the Jewish community.
For years, Jews in Strasbourg paid service fees in order to enjoy the protection of the city and economic freedom that was not seen in other Rhineland towns.
This arrangement enabled the Jews to prosper as bankers, tailors and traders, which bred contempt from the lower classes and business owners that owed significant amounts.
Eventually, the lower trade crafts were able to initiate a coup with the threat of mob violence.
On Friday 13, 1349, when the Jews should have been getting ready for the Sabbath meal, they were rounded up by the mob.
The next morning, they were marched through town to the old Jewish cemetery. Those who were willing to convert and be baptized were spared the horror. The rest were loaded onto a wooden platform and burned alive.
The next day, while the ashes were still smoldering, citizens of Strasbourg searched the ashes for valuables. It was announced that all debts to the Jewish bankers were canceled and items taken in pledge or collateral were returned.
Strasbourg was not alone; modern historians estimate that over 510 Jewish communities were destroyed in the region during the 14th century plague.
The church was not silent as these atrocities went on.
Pope Clement VI sent out edicts and papal bulls declaring the church had an obligation to protect the Jews.
He commanded his bishops and priests to stand with Jewish communities and to continue to protect them.
Clement went as far as proclaiming that those who threaten or blame the Jews were “seduced by the liar, the Devil.”
Unfortunately, the church had lost a lot of its power and influence during the plague years and was unable to stop most of the persecution and murder.
While being careful in comparing the Black Death with the COVID-19 virus, we can still learn a lot from the persecution and murder of the Jewish population in 14th century Strasbourg.
We still witness community leaders, politicians and even clergy who are willing to use pandemics like COVID-19 to incite fear and prejudice in order to enact political and economic goals.
We have seen political leaders blaming China, as well as a conservative preacher in Tennessee proclaiming that the novel coronavirus is God’s judgment upon America for the acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Setting aside the long history of theological reflection about the character of God and the divine’s role in such matters, it is arrogant to assume that mortal humans understand the mind of God.
Those who do so are continuing a long practice of scapegoating that has had not only psychological and emotional impacts, but also has historically led to physical harm and even death.
Therefore, like some church leaders of the 14th century, we need to stay vigilant in calling out and rejecting this approach to natural disasters, pandemics and other events.
We are not just battling a new virus. We are battling the fear of the unknown, which brings out old prejudices that if left unchecked leads to tragedy and continues to divide us as a society.
We need to speak truth, care for and protect vulnerable populations and continue to provide pastoral care for those who are hurting.
Though our churches are closed temporarily, and our communities are gripped with fear, we are able to still be a voice of wisdom, truth and comfort.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.