Anti-Semitism is rising, from college campuses to social media to emails sent to Jewish journalists. But its most significant impact is on Jewish organizations’ ability to help millennials preserve their identity, according to panelists at a Jewish Funders Network session March 20 on “Understanding Contemporary Anti-Semitism.”
The session featured Natan Fund Executive Director Felicia Herman, Anti-Defamation League Director of Technology and Society Brittan Heller, Tablet Magazine senior writer Yair Rosenberg, and University of Michigan Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames.
Herman laid out the increase in anti-Semitism on campus and its interaction with the Natan Fund’s efforts to promote Jewish identity.
To raise awareness of cyber hate, Heller presented data analytics gathered by the ADL regarding online anti-Semitism.
She said 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets were sent from August 2015 to July 2016. In response, the ADL decided to compile data on anti-Semitic posts.
“Instead of giving a report of all the terrible things said to people, we conducted a data report,” she said. “We didn’t just want to say what was being said to people but wanted to report who was doing it, how it was being manifested, where it was coming from, why it was happening and understand what we could do about it.”
ADL found that those anti-Semitic tweets had a reach of 10 billion impressions. Ten journalists were targeted by 83 percent of the tweets; Rosenberg ranked No. 2. Harassing and anti-Semitic tweets aimed at journalists during the 2016 presidential campaign were traced back to 6,131 accounts.
Heller offered three steps organizations should take against anti-Semitism: action, data and learning.
“If you see anti-Semitism, you should take action. … Those 10 billion impressions are equivalent to a $20 million Super Bowl ad,” Heller said. “Second, use data if available; Twitter has since modified its terms of service and expanded its definition of online harassment. The third involves learning … specifically, if there is an overlap or interrelationship between types of targeting. Take the work you’re doing and push it to the next level.”
As a Jewish journalist, Rosenberg talked about his experiences with online anti-Semitism. “The least useful question to ask is who is at fault. … What this really is, is a diversion tactic for people to not have to deal with anti-Semitism within communities because it’s always the perpetual prejudice of other people,” he said. “It’s a useless question because even if we could prove which side of the political spectrum it’s coming from, left, right, funders will not be able to solve any problems with that kind of information.”
Rosenberg urged people instead to tackle anti-Semitism where they can have the most impact and to identify anti-Semitism within their communities.
Rosenberg is all too familiar with anti-Semitic email because of his last name. He ignored the hate mail as he grappled with whether to share it. Because people do not wish to see negative content in their social feeds, Rosenberg had to figure out how to make anti-Semitism fun to share.
He reflected the questions and harassment back at the people sending it his way. If, for example, someone said Jews owned 95 percent of the media, Rosenberg declared that claim preposterous and said it was actually 95.6 percent.
“People don’t know what to do with that. … But if you make it into a joke, it works,” he said.
An ongoing issue are Twitter trolls who pretend to be Jews. After the election, Rosenberg pushed back against anti-Semitic material by creating an impostor buster robot, resulting in many accounts being shut down.
Rosenberg advised trying to solve specific problems instead of the whole issue of anti-Semitism. “That can sometimes be very powerful and inspire others to fight against bad deeds. It’s something we can do. It’s measurable and can spur more and more efforts.”
StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein, who attended the session, said: “Anti-Semitic bullying has certainly been attempted on the StandWithUs social media forums, including on our Facebook and Twitter. This is handled through a team of social media ambassadors targeting the various negative campaigns from different angles, as well as mass reporting of the abuse of the forum.”
Anti-Semitism is an ongoing challenge at colleges, including the University of Michigan, where Shams remains optimistic about her ability to support Jewish students. “This is the best time to be Jewish on college campuses in American history. We really do have tremendous vibrancy of Jewish life,” she said. “It’s important to keep that in mind in the context of negative situations that do play out on our campus.”
Shames expressed qualms about the squeezing of the Jewish community by the left and right, creating a gray area in discussions of anti-Semitism and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Jewish students who lack knowledge of Israeli narratives feel their identities under attack as they struggle with the notion of being “the other” on campus.
“It is our job to help students find their voice, as it is ultimately up to them to help others understand what it feels like for them to be on campus,” Shames said. “The students are holding a lot at one time and weighing on their own social justice values. … They are looking to us for guidance, for comfort, for support, for the security and familiarity the Jewish community provides, and I believe we need to give them that warm hug, a little bit of Torah, and push them back out the door, help them face the world and hold their whole identities.”
Students at Michigan and other universities live with the fear of being labeled racist or accused of promoting apartheid if they support Israel, Shams said, but Jewish funders can help.
“We need our students to come to campus with a better understanding of Israeli industry and geopolitics as well as the Palestinian narrative so they are not shocked when they see that first apartheid wall,” Shames said. “Train them to know Israel and to love Israel. We need the support of our lay leaders, our donor community and leadership of our partner organizations, such as StandWithUS, Hillel International and the David Project, to work together in the interest of students … to address their constituents and critics on the right and left and feel bold as leaders.”
Rothstein said it was important that JFN made the topic of anti-Semitism a priority. “The session was excellent because in addition to giving examples of anti-Semitic campaigns, ideas were offered about ways to challenge the newest form of the oldest hatred, from online harassment to swastika flyers on campus.”