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The return of populist anti-Semitism

Corona has exacerbated a new virus online, touching on the regulation of the Internet, global restrictions on hate speech, national security measures and the prospect of tougher legal sanctions against both individual extremists and the platforms that host them.

Image of an anti-Semitic Twitter user advocating for the heavily Jewish town of Lakewood, N.J., to be “nuked.” Source: Screenshot.
Image of an anti-Semitic Twitter user advocating for the heavily Jewish town of Lakewood, N.J., to be “nuked.” Source: Screenshot.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

To the lexicon of new terminology introduced by the coronavirus pandemic, we can add the latest entry: “Zoombombing,” or the practice of hijacking private videoconferencing calls on the Internet by unwanted intruders.

In these long weeks of quarantining, self-isolation and social distancing, several Jewish organizational events held online have been Zoombombed by anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activists. On March 24, for example, an online session of the National Council of Synagogue Youth in Boston was interrupted by a disheveled-looking white supremacist, Andrew Alan Escher Auernheime, who pulled off his shirt to reveal a swastika tattoo. When the Israeli embassy in Berlin held an online commemoration event to mark Yom Hashoah on April 21, neo-Nazi activists broke in during a talk by Zvi Herschel, a Holocaust survivor, bombarding participants with images of Adolf Hitler alongside anti-Semitic slogans.

The Federal Association for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) in Germany has recorded six instances of Zoombombing by anti-Semitic agitators since the pandemic broke out. “People who disrupted offline commemorative events before the coronavirus crisis are now doing it online,” said Pia Lamberty, the education officer of RIAS, in an interview with a German Jewish newspaper. Lamberty also noted that there was a striking “overlap” of imagery that glorified the Nazis and messages that vilified the State of Israel. In one videoconference, she said, a Nazi swastika was displayed alongside a flag that declared, “Free Palestine.”

The frequency with which these disruptions occur in the future will be entirely determined by the quality of security around online events since there is clearly no shortage of disruptors out there willing to deliver the message that anti-Semites can attack on the Internet as well as off of it. Technology, then, will probably put these people out of sight sooner or later. But it manifestly won’t put them out of mind.

This brings me to one of the key observations contained in the annual report on global anti-Semitism published last week by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center. With the onset of coronavirus, pre-modern beliefs about Jews as carriers of disease and as poisoners of the general welfare have returned with a vengeance, and sit comfortably alongside more recent fixations with Zionism and Israel. According to the report, so far “these accusations appear to be promoted mainly by extreme rightists, ultra conservative Christian circles, Islamists, and to a minor extent by the far left, each group according to its narrative and beliefs.”

In Turkey, long considered a critical meeting point of eastern and Western cultures and beliefs, a website named Avlaremo—Judeo-Spanish for “Let’s talk”—has compiled a list of anti-Semitic incidents connected to the pandemic that synthesize anti-Semitic tropes from down the ages. In one example that was uploaded to Twitter, a video showed passengers on a bus in Turkey conversing with the driver about the coronavirus. Claiming that COVID-19 had been deliberately created by international pharmaceutical companies, the driver then asked, “And who do they belong to?” “The rich,” responded one passenger. “No,” said the driver. “The Jews.”

The conversation continued in much the same vein. “The Jews are doing everything to exterminate the Turks,” another passenger chimed in. “The Turks? No, the whole world!” exclaimed another.

The Internet has also provided an unprecedented opportunity to spread similarly base anti-Semitic beliefs among children and teenagers. TikTok, a video-sharing platform owned by a Chinese Internet company with the full approval of the ruling Communist Party, has become a swamp of anti-Semitic content. Much of the hatred takes the form of humor—jokes about the Holocaust, cartoons featuring Jews with crudely lengthened noses, memes like “Sneaky Jew” and “Mega Jew.” All of this is available not on the dark net, but on a platform described by Vox magazine as the “defining social media app of Generation Z, not only in the U.S. but around the world in places like India and Europe.” And unlike Zoom, which is an American concern, TikTok—whose ties to China’s national security establishment are currently being investigated by the U.S. Congress—has far less of an incentive to prevent racists, anti-Semites and sundry other bigots from using its platform to promote hatred not in totalitarian China, but in democratic societies.

The challenge going forward is daunting. Countering populist anti-Semitism is a matter of education, but not only that. It also touches on the regulation of the Internet, global restrictions on hate speech, national security measures and the prospect of tougher legal sanctions against both individual extremists and the platforms that host them. While those issues are debated in all their complexity, the stream of propaganda will continue, finding new arteries when old ones are suddenly cut off.

In that regard, the Tel Aviv University report on anti-Semitism in 2019 made the important observation that there is a “growing discrepancy between on-the-ground reality and governmental efforts.” As anti-Semitism has escalated during the last 20 years, a correspondingly modest governmental infrastructure has evolved in tandem. For example, both the U.S. State Department and the European Union have appointed senior officials to deal with anti-Semitism, while the German government has appointed a commissioner at the federal level, as well as local commissioners in nearly all of the German states. All these appointments are welcome and have made a real difference when it comes to the more accurate reporting of anti-Semitic incidents, in addition to the provision of anti-Semitism awareness-training.

But even then, as the Tel Aviv University report remarks, anti-Semitic incidents are still underreported, while their perpetrators go unidentified in many, if not most, cases. On the Internet and off, we have a new, arguably more formidable, mountain to climb.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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