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Young Zionist Jews say they’re fighting antisemitism on social media. What are they accomplishing?

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.

“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.”

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. 

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.

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.”

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.”

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. 

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.”

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.”

Main Photo: A cohort of young Jews is trying to combat antisemitism and anti-Zionism on social media. Clockwise from top left: Julia Jassey, Blake Flayton, Isaac de Castro, Eve Barlow and Ben Freeman. (Photo illustration by Grace Yagel)

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