By Ben Sales NEW YORK (JTA) — Two weeks after the recent flareup of violence in Israel and Gaza, as fights over Israel and Palestine raged on social media, Julia Jassey wondered aloud whether any of her effort was worth it.
Jassey, a student at the University of Chicago, has spent the better part of a year immersed in online skirmishes surrounding Israel and antisemitism. Last summer, as racial justice protests swept the country, she and a few other college students founded Jewish on Campus, an Instagram account chronicling antisemitism and anti-Zionism facing Jewish students. It was modeled after similar accounts documenting racism at universities and high schools.
In recent weeks, Jewish on Campus has collected anonymous anecdotes of antisemitism online and in person in the wake of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Jassey said the account has been inundated with submissions. At the same time, harsh critics of Israel have taken aim at her and her personal posts — including some people she knows from school.
“We can’t even have meaningful discussions, we just fight,” she tweeted on June 3. “It’s toxic, and it brings us nowhere productive. Where do we go from here? I don’t know about you, but I am tired of it.”
Jassey is part of a small group of young, assertively Zionist Jews with an active social media presence who have taken it upon themselves to call out and respond to anti-Zionism, antisemitism and the many instances in which they believe those two concepts overlap.
But after weeks of fighting over Israel and Judaism on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, those activists, and others who observe them, are asking whether the effort of combating antisemitism online, in real time, is winnable or worthwhile.
Does that fight create space for substantive dialogue or narrow it? Can a crusade to combat antisemitism distort our understanding of it? What does it do to the mental and emotional health of those involved? Is social media, with algorithms that incentivize division and anger, and policies that have long been criticized for tolerating hate speech, the right arena for this debate?
“Do I think that having full-out brawls on social media are effective? No,” said Susan Heller Pinto, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior director for international affairs. “If that’s how somebody seeks to engage, it’s really going to only appeal to the people who are already hardened in their opinions.
“There’s no secret meme, silver meme, that is being developed that someone is going to glance at and is going to say, ‘That explains the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation to me.’ Social media does not lend itself to complexity, to nuance and to deep research.”
That’s been Jassey’s experience as she has posted her feelings about Israel and seen vitriolic responses pour in. She said one acquaintance told her it was “tone deaf” to post that her relatives in Tel Aviv were being targeted with rocket fire. Another tweeted that if he had to read another one of her “brain dead takes on my [timeline], I’m gonna explode.”
“Anyone can have a Twitter account and post whatever they’d like,” Jassey told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “That doesn’t mean that their ideas are good or that they’re going to be productive.”
Jassey and the rest of the cohort of young Zionists on social media are in their 20s and 30s, some still in college. They say they’re on the front lines of confronting a problem — anti-Zionism and antisemitism in progressive spaces, especially online — that the rest of the Jewish community is just waking up to. They feel duty-bound to keep posting. The alternative, they say, is abandoning a public square to those who hate them.
The issues surrounding progressive antisemitism “seemed to have their moment in the spotlight this month,” said Blake Flayton, a student at George Washington University who will be graduating this summer. “What we’re seeing right now from the progressive left is a coalition organizing around hatred of Zionism, calling Zionism racism, and then excusing treating pro-Israel Jews as racist by extension.”
There is nothing new about fighting antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric online, an effort that has attracted funding in recent years from wealthy Jewish donors as well as the Israeli government. Israel and its military have a robust social media operation. Any number of groups dedicated to fighting antisemitism — from establishment organizations like the ADL to pro-Israel activist groups such as StandWithUs to an account called @StopAntisemites — call out what they view as hatred of Jews.
Now a few of the young Zionists, like Flayton, are trying to expand their work beyond skirmishes on Twitter and Instagram. Several are co-founders of two nascent groups — the New Zionist Congress and Jewish on Campus, both started in the past year and in the process of registering as nonprofits. Flayton, who is affiliated with the New Zionist Congress, and Jassey told JTA that the groups will rely on private donations, and both declined to say where those donations would be coming from.
For now, both groups are most visible on social media — Jewish on Campus primarily through its Instagram account and the New Zionist Congress through the audio app Clubhouse, where it hosts discussions and a book club. Jewish on Campus also offers to personally help students who are facing antisemitism.
Both are following in the footsteps of Bari Weiss, the pro-Israel writer who as a college student at Columbia University gained public notice for criticizing the anti-Zionist rhetoric of professors at the New York City school. Weiss later went on to work on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which she left last year after alleging that other staff members called her a “Nazi” or derided her for being Jewish.
The young people combating anti-Zionism on social media don’t have the huge platform and professional reputation that Weiss has established, but they may be on their way — with her help. Weiss has supported the groups and their young founders. While at The Times, she commissioned a piece by Flayton, who wrote that he was demonized in progressive spaces for being a Zionist. She is listed as a member of the New Zionist Congress and has promoted Jewish on Campus on Twitter. In March, she tweeted that founders of the New Zionist Congress and other pro-Israel college students were “the real leaders of the Jewish community.”
Those activists have also become targets of the rhetoric they are condemning, especially during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. Many of them respond to criticism they receive online with more posts of their own, often showing solidarity with each other, sparking a cycle that can alternately look like strength in numbers or a hostile conversation with no end in sight.
“I don’t want to put myself through abuse or harassment,” said Isaac de Castro, a Cornell student who is a co-founder of both Jewish on Campus and the New Zionist Congress. De Castro limits who can message him directly and comment on his posts.
But, he added, “We need people out front who are putting out our perspective, putting out our story as Jewish people. There need to be people out front. I don’t think logging off completely is the answer because antisemitism isn’t going to go away if we just close our eyes.”
Hen Mazzig, a prominent pro-Israel activist, said being pugnacious isn’t the right approach. Mazzig has gained attention on the left for his aggressiveness online in the past, but said he has tried to soften that tone recently, emphasizing coexistence and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. Now he sees other Zionists going down the same path he once did, and worries that punching back hard against anti-Zionism threatens to only make things worse.
“I think there’s a serious issue with antisemitism online and hate speech against Jews online, and we have to combat it,” said Mazzig, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute. “What I feel like many on the pro-Israel side are doing right now is to try and combat hate speech, I don’t want to say with more hate speech, but with rhetoric that is not helping defuse the situation.”
Data on recent online antisemitism is hard to come by, but a few numbers give some sense of its scope.
The phrase “Hitler was right” was tweeted 17,000 times from May 7 to 14, according to the Anti-Defamation League. According to the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks hate online, the hashtag #COVID1948, connecting the pandemic and the year of Israel’s founding, trended on Twitter in the United States. The institute also found that tweets containing both “Israel” and “genocide” were shared as often as 2,000 times per hour during the fighting.
Instagram accounts with enormous followings, such as the model Bella Hadid’s with 43 million followers, shared content that accused Israel of colonization and ethnic cleansing, and got millions of likes. There were explicitly antisemitic posts as well, such as a tweet quoting Hitler (now deleted) from a Pakistani movie star with more than 1 million followers. On TikTok, a Holocaust survivor wished users a “Shabbat Shalom” and got spammed with antisemitic messages.
The online hate came alongside a wave of antisemitic incidents on the ground that, according to the ADL and other groups, spiked during the fighting in Israel and Gaza. The ADL found that the number of antisemitic incidents in the nearly two weeks of fighting was more than double the figure in the previous two weeks. The incidents included a string of physical assaults, as well as antisemitic and some anti-Zionist harassment and vandalism.
“There’s the emotional impact of seeing these attacks in real time,” said Ben Freeman, a Scottish Jew and New Zionist Congress member who wrote the recently published book “Jewish Pride.” “There’s the impact of seeing my friends be attacked online. And then, my family live in Israel, and I love Israel, and I care about Israel, so it was kind of like a triple whammy: It was online, it was in Israel and it was happening in the Diaspora. And I really don’t see those three things as separate from one another.”
Since a cease-fire in the Gaza-Israel rocket exchange, one of the fiercest fights online has been not about Israel itself but how to talk about antisemitic and anti-Zionist posts. Eve Barlow, a Scottish-Jewish music journalist living in Los Angeles, wrote an essay in Tablet calling the negative posts directed at her and other Zionist activists a “social media pogrom.” She also wrote that they were “permission for an online lynching” and “digital waterboarding.”
More than 20,000 tweets contained the name “Eve Fartlow,” which she called her “hate name” in an interview with JTA.
Barlow’s piece generated backlash of its own, from those who found it inappropriate to compare harassment on social media, however rampant, to violent, often state-sponsored mob attacks on Eastern European Jewish villages. In a recent essay in The Nation, the progressive Jewish writer Talia Lavin (who once worked for JTA) called Barlow’s piece “misguided and narcissistic” in light of the loss of life in Gaza and Israel, and wrote that Barlow and her allies “turn the word ‘pogrom’ into a punchline.”
Even some other Zionist activists on social media balked at the term, such as Mazzig, who said that “unless it’s a situation where people were being killed, let’s not compare it to a pogrom.”
And while Flayton said he wouldn’t use “pogrom” to describe something happening on social media, he has used the hashtag “#BeinartPogroms” to implicate Peter Beinart, the left-wing Jewish opinion columnist, in the recent wave of antisemitic physical attacks in the U.S. Last year, Beinart came out in favor of a lone democratic state for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
To explain his accusation, Flayton pointed to a thread by an Israeli professor, Shany Mor, that accuses Beinart of aiming “to assign a collective guilt on American Jews for their complicity in some cosmic evil.” Beinart told JTA that he had no comment on the accusation.
Barlow said she stands by her word choice, as do some of her allies online, including Freeman, who called the essay a “must read.”
“I didn’t have reservations because I believe in the power of language,” she said. “If people would rather get personally offended by the use of a word than to take seriously how Jews are being attacked in the street and how Jews are being attacked on the internet, then that’s a problem.”
While Zionists may view social media as a medium where they are failing to win a public relations battle, pro-Palestinian activists see the same platforms bringing them unprecedented support and changing the way the media covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told JTA that the videos shared of violence against Palestinians prompted “a different conversation than maybe folks thought we could have a few years ago.”
“What we saw was legitimate supremacy of one human being over another, and that paints the picture,” he said in an interview with JTA during the fighting. “They’re making very clear to people what settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing look like without us having to attach all these academic definitions.”
Abuznaid is skeptical as well of pro-Israel activists who say they are victims of antisemitism amid the debate over Israel and Gaza. On May 26, he tweeted that Zionists refer to any pro-Palestinian advocacy as antisemitic, from accusations of “genocide” to calls for an Israel boycott to the idea that Palestinian lives matter.
Zionist: Critique Israel but don’t b antisemitic
Palestinian: Settler colonialism
Jewish ally:Pal lives matter
— Ahmad Abuznaid (@A7madAbuznaid) May 26, 2021
The debate over how to distinguish between criticism of Israel and antisemitism has consumed a subset of American Jews for years. Over the past few months, three competing definitions of antisemitism, all backed by various groups of scholars and organizations, have drawn the line in different places.
The most widely adopted definition, from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, says calling the existence of Israel a “racist endeavor” or holding it to an unfair double standard qualify as antisemitism. The two more recent definitions provide a wider berth for Israel criticism.
A few of the Zionist activists have taken a hard line on popular pro-Palestinian slogans that they say amount to calling for the end of Israel or the expulsion of its Jews. Freeman believes that the phrase “Free Palestine” is antisemitic if it’s tweeted in reply to a condemnation of Hamas because he says it seeks to divert attention from Hamas’ crimes. Barlow said the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is “a genocidal call for the end of Israel.”
(Barlow is not alone in objecting to that chant. In 2018, CNN fired Marc Lamont Hill, a progressive professor, for using it.)
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah, a liberal rabbinic human rights group, did not address any activists specifically but said that some pro-Israel advocates can be too quick to label criticism of Israel as antisemitism. She said that some anti-Zionist language on the left is “very harsh, and it’s very hard to hear for people who are committed to the safety of the State of Israel, but it doesn’t necessarily cross the line into antisemitism.”
(For example, Jacobs said, “Free Palestine” in and of itself is not antisemitic, but it would be antisemitic to post the term in response to a Jewish video that has nothing to do with Israel.)
Harry Reis, a former ADL employee who now works for the New Israel Fund, a charity that supports an array of progressive groups in Israel, said, “I don’t think hate online is overblown.” But he also said that some Jews may conflate anti-Israel rhetoric with antisemitism, which “doesn’t leave a lot of space for conversation about Palestinian rights.”
Reis also worries that some of the more aggressive social media fights against antisemitism may string together individual events to misconstrue the nature of anti-Jewish hate. Reis stressed that he did not want to call out individuals, but said that some online activism creates an alarmist picture of antisemitism — a problem that is all too real but, in his view, not structural.
“I do have a sense of a general feeling of grievance and of a kind of narrative of Jewish victimization that’s often, I feel, misplaced, [and] that doesn’t describe my experience as a Jewish person in American institutions and our access to power,” he said. “I think too often this places individual acts of antisemitic speech or violence as evidence of institutional or structural discrimination, which doesn’t, I think, describe the American Jewish experience and access to power.”
Zionist activists dispute the idea that they are making too much of Jew-hatred or conflating criticism of policy with antisemitism, and say they draw the line at opposing Israel’s right to exist.
“I don’t care how evil you think the settlement project is because I would happily lend my voice to those concerns, or how corrupt you think Benjamin Netanyahu is,” Flayton said, but added, “Denying the Jews a homeland, denying the Jews protection is hateful and bigoted in and of itself.”
Flayton and others do say they feel politically homeless as progressive Jews who are unapologetically Zionist. Flayton articulated those feelings in a 2019 New York Times op-ed .
“I am a young, gay, left-wing Jew. Yet I am called an ‘apartheid-enabler,’ a ‘baby killer’ and a ‘colonial apologist,’” he wrote.
Flayton told JTA that from his perspective, left-wing antisemitism is more of a problem than antisemitism on the right.
“What we’ve been seeing for the past month [is that] antisemitism on the left disguises itself as justice, it disguises itself as advocating for human rights, and it tries to convince the Jews that they brought this hatred upon themselves,” he said. “I’m still going to vote for things like a $15 minimum wage, universal health care and environmental reforms, etc., but there’s a lot of Jews who are being pushed out of these spaces rather aggressively.”
Freeman said he was convinced of the dangers of progressive antisemitism during the era when Jeremy Corbyn, whom most British Jews considered antisemitic, led the Labour Party and ran two competitive campaigns for prime minister. Freeman lives in Hong Kong, but watching from afar, he worries that the same trend is happening in the United States.
“What you’re experiencing now at universities, in Britain we’ve been experiencing for years,” he said. “I feel totally betrayed by the left, and as a gay man that was my political home.”
Mazzig feels that approach is misguided. He understands the impulse to leave a political space that feels hostile, but said it would be a mistake for Jews to abandon one half of the political map.
“I see young Jewish students turn to the right because this is the only place that will accept them, and they’re wrong,” he said. “If we’re just going to be aligned on one side, it will be a disaster in the Jewish community.”
Some did say that despite their efforts, fighting antisemitism or anti-Zionism online feels like a losing battle, if only because of numbers. Flayton pointed out that Bella Hadid has about three times as many followers on Instagram than the number of are Jews in the world.
“We’re being pummeled,” Freeman said.
“We’re fighting a losing battle here because we’re just so outnumbered,” Flayton said. “But the way to even the odds a little bit is to gain as much traction as we can within the town square, within the public forum … to wage the war of words and learn how to win the war of words so that more people understand your argument.”
Jassey also thinks the social media battle is important — but it’s begun to feel less appealing. She said she wants to keep working in the Jewish world and pursue a career in politics or international relations. She still believes in having the conversations and debates that have occupied the past several months of her life. Jassey hopes, however, that more will happen face to face.
“I do think that the internet has become a forum of discussion and a public sphere of sorts, and so I think that it is important to combat antisemitism online and spread ideas on the internet,” she said. “It’s an important space, but it’s not the most important space.
“We have to take that work also offline, and I think that’s when things start to seem a lot more possible.”