In recent weeks, there has been an alarming number of violent attacks on visibly religious Israelis. While not original, these seemingly random incidents are turning their perpetrators into social-media stars, as they appear to be in response to the latest demented TikTok challenge asking Palestinian youth to violently beat up an Orthodox Jew and post a video of the assault on the platform.
Sound painfully familiar? Maybe that’s because we have literally seen this film before. In 2015, it was “the knockout game,” yet another harmful social-media trend encouraging teens to film sneak attacks on Jews in New York City. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were approximately 19 such “random” attacks on religious Jews throughout the city’s neighborhoods with the highest concentration of Orthodox Jews: Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg, all in Brooklyn.
On Dec. 23, 2015, Rabbi Reuven Biermacher was stabbed multiple times by Palestinian assailants while on his way home from teaching his students at the Aish HaTorah yeshivah in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. He died of his wounds after being evacuated to the Hadassah Medical Center.
This was not a political act, not a protest, not a demonstration. It was a hideous and cruel hate crime, carried out because Rabbi Biermacher was a Jew.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, head of Shirat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva in Jaffa, was attacked by Arabs while he was inquiring about purchasing an apartment. Photos of the beating were shared unabashedly on social media.
Just two days later, two Palestinian teens were arrested for beating an Orthodox man on Jerusalem’s light rail—a very public place—and sharing the video footage on TikTok. This most definitely was not an isolated event. Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now posted a public call to Palestinian leaders to condemn the “TikTok challenge among Palestinians” in Israel to “violently attack and provoke Orthodox Jews, and uploading the footage to TikTok.”
The irony is that over the past few months, I have been talking about the tremendous potential that social media has to help spread Jewish wisdom. But like any man-made innovation, its awesome power can be used to change the world in miraculous ways or to spread hate in limitless others. While the danger is always present, the answer does not lie in shutting down TikTok, or in imposing regulations to discourage such content from being allowed to see the light of day.
We must recognize the phenomenon for what it is—not an evil born of social media or other platforms or a political protest of any kind, but anti-Semitism, plain and simple, being shared and enjoyed around the world. There have been numerous reports, particularly in the last six months, regarding the disturbing and unchecked prevalence of anti-Semitism on TikTok, ranging from hate speech to outright intimidation.
In a September 2020 report on NBC News, at least half a dozen Jewish teens spoke about how they are “bombarded” by anti-Semitism nearly every time they post on TikTok, “regardless of whether or not the content is about their Judaism.”
More recently, there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of posts expressing concern and outright fear over conversations—and the silencing of those supporting Jews—in certain Clubhouse rooms, the latest social-media platform to become infected with anti-Semitism.
How do we fight such evil? With the power of knowledge. We have to educate ourselves on all the new outlets where anti-Semitism has become culturally acceptable, particularly on social-media platforms. We know that the solution won’t come from the social-media giants, regardless of regulations or a misplaced sense of what does or does not violate their community standards. None of that will erase hate. There will always be another, easier outlet or platform on which to broadcast anti-Semitism.
We must understand and realize that these violent attacks against Jews—whether in Brooklyn, Jaffa or Jerusalem—are not protests against Israeli governmental policies. This is not an old news story, but a continuing one. These are acts of anti-Semitism, born out of sheer hatred and a lack of respect for the other.
Just as most of the media largely ignored the ongoing attacks against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, the attacks in Israel hardly registered a blip in the U.S. press—sadly, not even in American-Jewish news outlets, let alone in any mainstream ones.
What we need is outrage; we need a louder collective voice and a greater outcry. But before anything, we need knowledge.
I was recently reminded of a speech by Steven Spielberg at an Aish event in 2014. He said, “Ignorance is no longer an excuse.” He was referring to the digital (which he then referred to as “satellite”) technology revolution, and that with so much information available, we no longer had an excuse to let anything get past us without absorbing it and learning enough to rid the world of this kind of hate.
We need to know without a doubt that this is not—and never is—about “other Jews.” It affects and can harm every single one of us. Sadly, Jews have a history of learning the hard way just what happens when we don’t unite as a people against anti-Semitism. In these recent “TikTok attacks,” the victims were identifiably Orthodox, but now, as always, Jews of every stripe, nationality and background have to stand up and band together against hate and violence. We simply must put aside our differences and come together.
To echo Spielberg’s observation: Ignorance is no longer an excuse. As Jews, we need to bolster—rapidly and intensely—our knowledge of incidents that happen every day on social media; fervently express moral outrage to the right people when it happens; and glean enough understanding of what it means to be Jewish to know what we are standing up against and why.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the CEO of Aish.
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