(JTA) — Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the vaccine conspiracy theorist and Democratic presidential candidate, is drawing criticism after arguing that COVID-19 had been “ethnically targeted” to have less of an effect on Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.
“COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people,” Kennedy said at an appearance last week at Tony’s Di Napoli, a restaurant on Manhattan’s East Side. “The people who are most immune are Ashkenazic Jews and Chinese. We don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not, but there are papers out there that show the racial and ethnic differential of impact.”
“There’s an argument that it is ethnically targeted,” he said immediately beforehand, according to the New York Post, which published video of the remarks.
Kennedy, who is running a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination against President Joe Biden, is a flag-bearer for an anti-vaccination movement that has frequently invoked antisemitic rhetoric in arguing, against evidence, that vaccines are dangerous. He has questioned the established link between HIV and AIDS and also has been a leading proponent of the debunked claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism.
Since at least medieval times, conspiracy theories have falsely claimed that Jews have shielded themselves from plagues or been the cause of them. Similar antisemitic conspiracy theories flared during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as vaccines became available and their critics began comparing their use, and mandates requiring vaccination, to the Holocaust.
Last year, Kennedy apologized after invoking Anne Frank at an anti-vaccination rally in Washington, D.C., in a move that his wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, publicly denounced. But his anti-vaccination comparisons have drawn criticism for years. In 2015, he used the word “holocaust” to describe proposed legislation mandating vaccines for children and apologized after facing criticism from the Anti-Defamation League.
His latest comments, too, have drawn widespread criticism, including from Jewish leaders. American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch said in a statement that Kennedy’s remarks were “deeply offensive and incredibly dangerous.”
“Every aspect of his comments reflects some of the most abhorrent antisemitic conspiracy theories throughout history and contributes to today’s dangerous rise of antisemitism,” Deutch said.
There is no evidence that any ethnic groups are less susceptible to COVID-19, which has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide. Public health experts say disparities in death rates in the United States reflect unequal access to health care and uptake of vaccines; meanwhile, Jews in the United States were hard-hit, particularly early in the pandemic, and some estimates suggest that 1 million Chinese people died of the disease in recent months. (China’s official data is not considered reliable.)
Kennedy did not detail which papers he was citing during his comments at the dinner, according to the New York Post report.
On Saturday, Kennedy wrote on Twitter that the Post story was “mistaken” and claimed that he “never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews.”
But later in the same post, he wrote that “COVID-19 appears to disproportionately affect certain races” and that it “serves as a kind of proof of concept for ethnically targeted bioweapons. I do not believe and never implied that the ethnic effect was deliberately engineered.” He provided a link to a study that he said backed up his claims.
In a subsequent post, Kennedy said the New York Post’s reporting, which he called a “disgusting fabrication,” reflected antisemitism — something he said he is dedicated to combating.
“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. “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.”
Kennedy has Jewish defenders — including Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author and Republican political activist, as well as sports reporter and pro-Israel advocate Emily Austin. But his comments drew criticism from across the political spectrum. The New York Post reported that Morton Klein, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America who is advising Kennedy on Israel policy and calls him a “good friend,” said the candidate’s claims were “crazy.”
“This is crazy,” Klein told the newspaper. “It makes no sense that they would do that. I read everything. I was totally against the vaccine. . . I wanted to convince myself it was correct not to take it. I have never seen anything like this.”
Meanwhile, Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the left-leaning Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said in a statement that Kennedy was “using support for Israel to deflect criticism” and said that she was unsurprised but distressed by Kennedy’s rhetoric.
“Antisemitism is at the core of countless conspiracy theories – including COVID and vaccine-related conspiracy theories – so it’s no surprise that RFK Jr.’s presidential campaign has quickly descended into overt antisemitism,” Spitalnick said. “His comments also illustrate the deep interconnection of antisemitism and anti-Asian hate at this moment. … At a moment of increasingly normalized antisemitism, hate, and extremism, it’s crucial that we call out these conspiracy theories and bigotry for what they are.”