As far back as I can remember, my mother would always make us aware of anti-Semitism. Not necessarily from a historic perspective; her admonitions were about what she had seen and experienced in her life. One of the first stories I recall her telling was about a group of boys in her Maine neighborhood, after church let out on Sunday, who would throw snowballs at the Jewish kids, including her brothers, who lived nearby.
Or, she might talk about the German-American Bund, the pro-Nazi organization whose paramilitary-dressed thugs would hold rallies in New York in the 1930s, spouting the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Occasionally, she would tell us about Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin, an early manipulator of the radio airwaves, who held millions in thrall with his raw brand of classic anti-Semitism, including charges of Jewish control of the banks and for bringing about the Bolshevik Revolution.
And then, there were real-time accounts of a customer who might come into our clothing store who complained about another shop owner who had just “Jewed” her on the price of some purchase. This didn’t happen often, but I heard it enough to be aware that these kinds of tropes were still on the lips of many in the 1950s and 1960s.
I knew, too, when my older sisters were applying to college, that certain schools imposed quotas on Jewish enrollment. Many hotels and resorts made no bones about the fact that they were unwelcoming to Jewish guests. We heard that banks, big insurance companies and other sectors of the economy were largely off-limits when it came to hiring Jews. There were neighborhoods and clubs where it was known Jews were not welcome. Jewish actors and entertainers chose to Anglicize their names so as to make their career paths less obstructed.
I think of all this when I try to comprehend and analyze the explosion of anti-Semitism we have experienced in the United States over the past few weeks. Our focus has been so much on European and Islamic anti-Semitism, that we may have become inured to it as hiring and other forms of day-to-day discrimination nearly disappeared, and over the past two generations life became immeasurably better for Jews. We concluded that we had entered a circle of acceptance we had never before reached.
When it comes to the rise in European anti-Semitism we’ve witnessed over the same period, I have often thought that it stems from two sources. One, is that there is a deep-seated resentment of Jews for reminding Europeans that they stood by, or actively participated in, the persecution of its Jewish community. Holocaust remembrance is not only for us, it is for everyone to know exactly how Jews became victims, with few hands to hold and to help during the attempts to exterminate us as a people. I’m not a psychoanalyst, but my sense is that many otherwise reasonable Europeans see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an opportunity to simply level the playing field. Yes, you were victims, but now you are the victimizer. End of argument.
Connected to this is the other source for so much of the anti-Semitism we’ve seen in Europe and now in the United States. It is the cover that “legitimate criticism of Israel” gives for those who think the creation of Israel was a grave mistake, or which for some reason it shouldn’t be allowed to be stronger than those who wish to destroy it. There is a perniciousness in this patronizing view of the Jewish state and of all the reasons why it came into existence in the first place.
But now, we are way beyond that.
The Jewish connection to Israel (it is, after all the Jewish state) has opened the floodgates of what appears to be bottled up hatred by a dizzying array of accusers that each day brings us new verbal and physical attacks we never thought possible in the United States. Beatings in New York City, the largest Jewish community in the world. Jewish diners being terrorized in laid back Los Angeles, a mob demanding to know which of them were Jewish. Members of Congress, filled with hubris from their-elected positions, lecturing us on dual-loyalty and Israel of being an “apartheid state” and engaging in “state terror.” University chancellors and mayoral candidates who first try to condemn anti-Semitism, but are later cowed into retracting, clarifying or apologizing for their remarks. So-called “influencers,” many of whom I am certain would have trouble finding Israel on a map of the world, shaping millennial and Generation Z public opinion into a chorus of rabid denigration of Israel and those who support it.
There is a piling on aspect to all this that cannot simply be laid at the feet of the proliferation of social media. I don’t know if it is resentment of what a small, historically persecuted people have been able to do with their lives to make the world a better place. Or, as many have said, it is the product of a progressive worldview on steroids, including intersectionality, which mindlessly, and in an ideologically hollow formula, places Israel in the role of “colonial oppressor.”
I do know this, for sure: we will not emerge from this well, unless respected voices and figures from outside our community, who see what is happening to us and know it is unacceptable, join the fight. What seems to be missing over the past few weeks are more of these folks, whether public officials, faith leaders, top CEOs, heads of leading non-profits and others. We have friends out there, but my sense is there is a strong measure of trepidation when it comes to incurring the wrath of progressives and the woke crowd or, that Jews can take care of this themselves, and don’t need assistance to win the day.
In our own community, we need to reassemble the kind of solidarity American Jewry has demonstrated in the past, but surprisingly seems to be out-of-date or anachronistic to some. Let’s be clear: the attacks on Jews in America’s cities, the demands by roving mobs to tell them if we are Jewish, and the swastika and graffiti daubers, are not making distinctions about our ideological proclivities, the level of our Zionist inclinations, or our party affiliation. This is everyone’s battle, and those who think they are immune from it, should immediately Google “recent acts of anti-Semitism.”
My mother would be tremendously disappointed by the anti-Semitism we are seeing today, but not completely surprised by it. She was brought to America as a child by parents seeking a better life, from a place that was sodden for centuries by anti-Semitism. They found it here, too, but the promise of a better day — for Jews and everyone else—was just around the corner. She lived to see tremendous advances over the decades, but realized that anti-Semitism is a virus that takes little to bring to the surface, to burn again, another day.
This is one of those times. Stunned as many are by it, this latest incarnation of the world’s oldest hatred mustn’t be allowed to fester and grow in a cloud of debating points over whether this is “anti-Semitism or is it just anti-Zionism.” Just ask the folks who were dining out when the passing mob demanded to know if they were Jewish or not.
It is not a cliche to say we need all hands on deck to fight this. We’re not living in 19th century or mid-1930s Europe. But this is a time for friends and allies to join us in calling out and acting against those who are engaging in these daily acts of intimidation and violence. We ourselves are capable of standing up to it, but to really send a message, it is vital that others be roused from complacency, and he heard.
As a community, we have given much to the building of American democracy and civilization. We took the promise of America at its word and have done everything imaginable to have it apply not only to us, but to all who live here. The strength of the Republic has been its diversity, and unlike the world of our forefathers in Europe, being Jewish means not living in fear of who we are and, in the case of the State of Israel, whom we choose to support.
In this hour of challenge, it is not too much to ask friends, neighbors, colleagues and so many others to join us in extinguishing the hatred that has manifested itself so blatantly, and in so many places and so many ways, in our very own country.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
Dir. of Legislative Affairs Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Cultural Trends and Jewish Academics Give New Lifeline to Antisemitism
The recent struggle to remove antisemitic and anti-Israel content from a California ethnic studies curriculum demonstrated the formidable challenge posed by the academic doctrines of Critical Race Theory and “intersectionality.”
To the extent that Israel is depicted as a white colonial occupation project and the pro-Palestinian cause as a proxy for racial equity in the United States, the Jewish state will be stigmatized and Jewish individuals and institutions will suffer.
The fight to overhaul earlier drafts of the California curriculum opened a window into the difficulty of the Jewish predicament.
Jews are frequently portrayed as part of the privileged dominant class, while their status as targeted victims is often ignored Israel is seen as a European, colonial outpost, while the fact that most of its Jewish population is descended from communities that lived for centuries in the Arab and Muslim world before their expulsion from those countries, is hopelessly obscured.
In other words, Jews are losing further control of the public narrative about them. This point is underscored by the incursion of antisemitic violence into racial justice protests in the US and Europe. The death of George Floyd was followed by attacks on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in a number of cities, most recently three Israeli restaurants in Portland, Oregon, in January. The frequent appearance of the slogan “Free Palestine” in graffiti on Jewish targets showed the popular tendency to register discontent with the Jewish state by harming Jews in the Diaspora. An anti-racism rally in Place de la Republique, in Paris, featured signs with directives such as “Stop collaboration with Israeli State terrorism” as the crowd chanted “dirty Jews.”
Enter into this demoralizing picture two new proposed definitions of antisemitism, one offered by Jewish academics on behalf of the Nexus Task Force; the second, titled the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, presented by a group of progressive Jews under the aegis of the Van Leer Institute. Both documents profess to serve the cause of confronting antisemitism by identifying its contemporary manifestations — unless, of course, those manifestations take the form of anti-Israel demagoguery.
Why would Jewish critics of Israel feel the need to offer these re-imagined definitions of antisemitism?
B’nai B’rith has long advocated for broad usage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which is steadily gaining acceptance around the globe. The IHRA definition illustrates how criticism of Israel can (and all too frequently does) cross the line from legitimate policy debate into antisemitic hatred.
Demonizing Israel by calling it a racist or Nazi-like state, or simply denying Israel’s right to exist, would be examples of antisemitism under the IHRA definition, because such language is intended to undermine Jewish self-determination and relegate the Jewish state to pariah status, thereby gravely threatening its national security.
Such limitations, however, cause Israel’s most vociferous critics to bristle.
Those who see a basis for comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa no longer wish to feel inhibited about drawing those analogies by a definition originally adopted in 2016 by the IHRA — an international organization comprised of 34 member countries — and since then, by many individual governments around the world. Instead, they would prefer to say, as the Jerusalem Declaration does, that nearly any criticism of Israel is fair game, and is not per se a form of antisemitism.
Both the Nexus Task Force definition and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) open the door for abuse toward Israel, but the latter does this with a disturbing level of specificity.
What’s acceptable under the expansive JDA definition? “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism.” In other words, Jews are the only people, one could argue without being accused of antisemitism, who are not entitled to a homeland or national movement of their own.
The JDA further tells us that “it is not anti-Semitic, in and of itself, to compare Israel with other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid.” Meaning, hurling the most insidious possible allegations against Israel, as its critics frequently do in an attempt to challenge the Jewish state’s basis for existing, is not antisemitic. And so on.
According to the JDA, anti-Israel boycotts “are not, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic,” even though the stated intention of the BDS movement’s founders is to eliminate the Jewish state. Nor is imposing a double standard on Israel an act of antisemitism: “In general, the line between anti-Semitic and non-anti-Semitic speech is different from the line between unreasonable and reasonable speech.” Thus, Israel’s critics need not be “reasonable” to wave their free pass when charges of antisemitism surface.
The timing of these two alternative definitions of antisemitism is highly lamentable. With Jews already losing the rhetorical war around social hatreds, the authors are handing out newly minted permission slips to Israel’s harshest critics, as though anyone whose goal is the demonization or outright elimination of the Jewish state would ever strive to be reasonable.
Grotesque distortion of Israel in school curricula is, by the new logic, not antisemitic. Nor is BDS, or incendiary anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and other international fora.
Anti-Israel hatred that finds expression in the public square or on university campuses, whether such venom explicitly holds Jews accountable for Israel’s actions or not, too often is simply hatred of Jews in another guise. This sinister strategy of using Israel or Zionism as a proxy for Jews has just been infused with new vitality by two new antisemitism definitions that may purport to identify and combat antisemitism, but in truth help facilitate it.
Read Fusfield's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
Hardly a day passes without reading of someone, somewhere uttering an antisemitic trope. That part is not new; for millennia, this has been the norm. In the pre-Internet era, one could read, primarily in the Jewish media, about an antisemitic public official, a neo-Nazi, or a desk clerk at a restricted hotel uttering hateful comments or spinning conspiracies about Jews.
What is new, or relatively so, is that today we’re learning of Jew-hatred in real time, within hours of it being spouted. It comes from expected, and from unexpected, quarters. And sometimes it’s simply the portrayal of Jews that sends an antisemitic message.
Take the recent Canadian-produced NBC series “Nurses,” whose premise centers around five nurses and the lives and people they interact with. The most recent episode involved a young Hasidic accident victim named Israel and his father, whom we meet in a hospital room, where they’re engaged in conversation with one of the nurses.
The young Hasid needs a bone graft, he is told, and that will require using the bone of a cadaver. Israel expresses shock at the idea of having a “dead leg” inserted into his body, to which his father — dressed in a Hasidic black hat and coat, and wearing payot — says disgustedly: “A dead goyim leg — from anyone. An Arab, a woman.” The nurse, belittling both the father and son, responds: “Or, God forbid, an Arab woman.”
Never mind that Orthodox practice would allow for this graft, much more important, is that the picture presented to the viewer is classic antisemitism. Dressed in black and closed-minded (with one of them literally named Israel), the message is that these Jews are both peculiar and bigoted.
Any stereotyping is dangerous. But the Orthodox community often gets the brunt of this kind of instant presumptuousness. They are portrayed as an oddity or as an easy foil. The show made no attempt to give any kind of context to Orthodox Jewry or its medical worldview. The writers of this episode needed highly identifiable Jews to make the story work — and who cares about who might be hurt as long as it fits neatly into the one-hour timeframe.
But murderous attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Poway, California, or Monsey, New York, are just a few examples of how antisemitic rhetoric can turn violent.
My guess is that most viewers of this program are not Jewish. Those who know us only at a distance would understandably not know about how diverse we are. We have a communal spectrum that runs from left to right, and everything in between, and includes the religious and the secular. Is the viewer’s education about the Jewish people to be gleaned from the likes of “Nurses” and other highly watched programs that traffic in biased presentations about sectors of our community?
I’m old enough to remember episodes of “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” and other TV dramas, that treated Jewish subjects with compassion and a seriousness of intent. That those programs aired at a time when Jews were subjected to admissions quotas, restricted neighborhoods, corporate glass ceilings, and other forms of discrimination made this treatment of Jews all-the-more important in fostering mutual respect.
Today though, in the broader world around us, there seems to be a growing tolerance toward anyone saying anything about whomever they wish, without any filter or fear of opprobrium. And increasingly, Jews have become the target.
“Saturday Night Live’s” Michael Che delivering a blood libel about Israel and the COVID vaccine masked as a “joke”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)’s assertion that a Jewish space laser and the Rothschild family were responsible for California’s wildfires; and Lowell, Massachusetts, School Committee board member Robert Hoey’s referring to a former city employee as a “kike” on live public access TV are just a few very recent examples of what is becoming a frightening trend.
The Canadian producer of “Nurses” has apologized for the offensive episode, and NBC has pulled this episode and others from the air.
“Contrition tours,” where networks, politicians, comedians, and others offer a quick, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry,” or give apology interviews with friendly journalists, is one way of getting these kinds of controversies quickly out of the way. But that is not enough.
The media can play a large role in sensitivity training for the public at large, but first it needs to take a course or two itself. Playing off Jewish stereotypes for shock value, or for a few laughs, is both irresponsible and reckless.
We need to see more positive programming about the Jewish community and its many contributions — in so many fields — to this country. School systems need to utilize textbooks that teach about our story as an immigrant people who came to America from dozens of countries to find a land of opportunity denied to them in the darker corners of Europe and elsewhere. And while people may know a bit about the Jewish religion, more attention needs to be paid to its history, customs, and traditions. Doing that might prevent a repeat of the “Nurses” debacle.
In May, we will observe the 15th anniversary of Jewish American Heritage Month. While positive programming about our community should be a 12-month-a-year endeavor, this special designation on the national calendar offers many opportunities for educators, government officials, media operatives, and others to spotlight our community in a positive way.
The danger we face is the mainstreaming of antisemitism. Where once these expressions of hatred were confined to the margins or were never discovered because there simply was no Internet megaphone, today they are seemingly everywhere, including network television.
As is often said, it may start with the Jews, but it never ends there. It’s not just about us: just follow what is written or said on social media, TV and talk radio, statements from political figures, and off-handed comments by celebrities; they are everywhere. It is one long parade of insults, put-downs, threats, loose talk, and worse.
Is the “Nurses” episode a wake-up call, or just another statistic in a week or month of egregious incidents? Our task is to speak up each time this happens, and as important, to ensure that our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others beyond our community do not become inured to the threats before us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
CEO Op-ed in the Algemeiner: Why the IHRA Handbook on Anti-Semitism — Not Just Its Definition — Is Needed
The year 2020 will be marked as, among other distinctions, a time of unbridled global antisemitism. The phenomenon is growing from three sources — the radical Left, the extreme Right, and Islamists — but while that doesn’t tell the full story, it does provide a spectrum that indicates how widely this particular virus has spread.
This unbridled antisemitism demonstrates why a new handbook of definitions is so important. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in conjunction with the European Commission and with the support of the recent German presidency of the EU, has published this new guide.
Based on extensive research conducted by RIAS, the German Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on antisemitism, the handbook is a first-of-its-kind best-practices guide for use in such fields as law enforcement, the judiciary, education, international bodies, funding institutions, and civil society.
The handbook connects the IHRA document to real life examples — which helps to make it a real “working” definition.
Making the battle against antisemitism relevant to individual branches of government, or to educators, will help to monitor, identify, respond to, and counteract antisemitism in the open or in dark corners of society across the European continent and beyond.
In 2016, the IHRA, a consortium of countries committed to Holocaust education and remembrance, adopted a working definition of antisemitism. It was not intended to be a detailed, deep dive into the causes and manifestations of this millennia-old hatred. It was meant, rather, to speak to categories of Jew-hatred, both classic and contemporary.
Its recognition of how the existence of Israel has worked its way into the repertoire of antisemites has been vitally important in helping those fighting antisemitism to pull the veil off “legitimate criticism of Israel” from those who advocate the elimination of the Jewish state.
In this regard, the working definition states, for example, that antisemitism includes “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” Antisemitism is also “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.” Or, as we see almost every day somewhere in the world, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
To date, 28 countries have adopted the IHRA working definition, and the number continues to grow. Provincial, state, and local governments are doing the same, as are organizations as diverse as the Argentine Football Federation and the Global Imams Council.
More countries, state and local governments, agencies, and non-governmental organizations need to add their support and buy in.
But equally important is how the definition will be applied, and by whom. That is where the handbook comes in.
Expressions of antisemitism know no borders. The hierarchy of leadership in Iran regularly spews antisemitism, often using Nazi imagery; Israel is frequently referred to as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction are daily features in Iranian media. And Tehran is known for its “leadership” in the Holocaust denial arena.
Over the past 12 months in Europe, we witnessed a concerted campaign by the neo-Fascist Nordic Resistance Movement to intimidate Jews in their places of worship and in communal spaces. A kosher restaurant in France, the scene of countless acts of antisemitism, was vandalized with tags of “Hitler was right,” “Jews get out,” and “Free Palestine.”
In Greece, multiple cemeteries were vandalized; rabbis were attacked on the street in Berlin and Vienna; and in Germany, on the holiday of Sukkot, a synagogue was attacked in Hamburg, just days before the one-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle.
And already this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that individual European Union member states can legislate against kosher ritual slaughter, or shechita. Already some countries place restrictions tantamount to a ban on the practice, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, regions of Belgium, and non-EU member Switzerland. Efforts to ban circumcision, or brit milah, have been similarly underway in Europe for some time — though without much success at this point.
Denying Jews the right to these essential acts of religious freedom, especially on European soil, where the greatest crimes against the Jewish people were perpetrated, is not just “discriminatory.” All of this places Jews in an “other” or outcast category, which is unacceptable, and can only be read as antisemitic.
And, lest some think antisemites cannot bring back classic blood libel charges against Jews from the Middle Ages, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reported last summer that there were widespread assertions that Israel or Jews as a whole were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, websites charged Israel with creating the virus in order to manufacture vaccines for it, from which it would profit.
With reports indicating a continuing rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, an arsonist set fire to the University of Delaware’s Chabad Center just as the school year opened in the fall. Earlier this month, among those demonstrators storming the US Capitol were those wearing clothing adorned with Nazi imagery, including a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie.
Much antisemitism from the far-left focuses on Israel and Zionism, with comparisons to apartheid South Africa and condemnations of “the occupation.” From the extreme right, classic charges of control of the media and banks are rolled out in new 21st century wrappers, but their message of hate remains the same. And notwithstanding the much-welcomed rapprochement between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, many in the Arab and Islamist media — particularly, but not limited to, the Palestinian media — spin webs of antisemitic rhetoric on a daily basis. The common denominator to all of this is hatred of Jews.
In our community, there are many whose innate antennae can identify antisemitism from the proverbial 36,000 feet. But others are less likely to recognize the nuances of it when it appears. The IHRA handbook will be a vital resource for them.
The working definition and the new IHRA handbook are not a cure for history’s oldest social virus. Much more needs to be done. Holocaust denial continues to grow, as the dwindling number of survivors reach the end of their lives. Recent studies reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z’ers, which obligates us to grow Holocaust education programs in our schools and universities.
And then there is the Internet, which has had a multiplier effect, as antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright rants run rampant on our laptops and tablets. The major social media platforms must confront the role they are playing as enablers of such combustible language.
In the 21st century, combating antisemitism requires new tools and means to join the battle. The IHRA handbook is a welcome addition to the resources we need to get the job done. If it sits on the shelf, it will have been a noble, but wasted effort. We need to encourage its wide distribution, and especially advocate for its recommendations and practices to be put to good use.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
As we all power through the pandemic and adapt to new ways of living and working, one thing has become clear: the digital space is indispensable – much more so than we had previously understood. Coupled with this, the pervasiveness of hate and anti-Semitism online has become increasingly hard to ignore. Indeed, COVID-19 has both accelerated anti-Semitic conspiracy ideologies and put a spotlight on already existing issues affecting the sense of security and dignity of Jewish citizens across the world.
If we are to find a silver lining, it’s that the urgency of the matter has finally elevated online hate to policy-makers' desks in a serious manner and has forced platforms to take some modest steps to address the issue – see for instance Facebook’s new policy around removing Holocaust denial content. It’s not the first time the digital space has received scrutiny - legislative and otherwise - but the current tone of the debate presents a clear shift:
Transatlantic Trends in Digital Governance
When, in 2000, the E-Commerce Directive was born to govern and harmonize the EU’s digital space, a great deal of attention was given to accommodating major online platforms and creating a liability shield for them as intermediaries. 20 years later, when confronted with the growing challenges of disinformation, conspiracy ideologies and hate speech, the EU’s discourse has rightly changed. In its recently concluded consultation for the upcoming Digital Services Act – legislation that will likely constitute the EU’s digital legal framework for at least the next decade – the focus has finally turned towards platform responsibility and user safety.
This mirrors the approach in the United States. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 essentially provided immunity from liability for intermediary platforms and users. It is what allowed major platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to grow in the first place and capture the public space to the extent that they have. Yet currently, there is bipartisan agreement over the need to reform legislation to meet new challenges. What’s more, the platforms themselves seem to welcome official guidelines, given the immense pressure they’ve been under with regard to content moderation.
In the EU, the largest IT companies – Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google, and more recently Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok – have taken significant steps to tackle illegal hate speech by signing onto a voluntary Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online. While in 2016 this was a milestone achievement, today, as the opportunity for reform is in front of us, we must move beyond illegal content and pay dedicated attention to tackling the overflowing amount of legal but harmful content online. More importantly, we cannot rely on voluntary compliance by platforms – however positive the results have, thus far, been – but must ensure efforts are coordinated and harmonized within upcoming legislation, and commitments are made into legally binding agreements.
A positive development in this sense has been the proposal of the European Commission to categorize illegal hate speech and hate crimes as euro-crimes. This would allow for an EU-wide harmonization of rules and standards for what is clearly a cross-border issue. It is important that EU member states approve this proposal unanimously.
Tackling Anti-Semitism Online
As attention is now turning to users’ safety and dealing with harmful content, tackling anti-Semitism must be a core part of this shift. For one thing, the EU’s vocal efforts to tackle anti-Semitism – ones with real tangible effects and national level echoes – must also permeate the online space. More fundamentally, however, that’s because of the inseparable link between anti-Semitism and the main challenges that are faced in the online space today such as conspiracy ideologies, radicalization, far-right and Islamist extremism and COVID-19 misinformation. Understanding how to tackle anti-Semitism and, indeed, generating the political will to do so will not only help rid the online space of anti-Jewish hatred, but will contribute towards addressing the broader issues that it underscores.
Civil society has an important role to play here in articulating the needs of the community, educating policy-makers, platforms and other relevant stakeholders such as the Inter-Parliamentary Taskforce on Online Anti-Semitism, and proposing innovative solutions. To that end, B’nai B’rith International has contributed to a joint policy position by major Jewish organizations – a 10-point set of recommendations to be implemented as part of the future EU Digital Services Act (You can see more at www.deleteantisemitism.org). If we are to make significant progress in addressing online anti-Semitism, we cannot shy away from putting in place clear legislative measures. We need regular and transparent data collection and analysis to better understand the spread of hate online; platforms must make algorithms transparent, so that scrutiny prevents them from leading users to extremist content; we must disincentivize profit stemming from harmful content and create clear references in community standards about what constitutes anti-Semitic content.
Beyond this, we must acknowledge that content falling short of immediate incitement to violence or clear Holocaust denial – and thus, constituting legal speech – still poses serious threats: it contributes to radicalization, feeds conspiracy ideologies that often have externalities in the physical world and chips away at the fundamental right to a sense of safety of those targeted. Innovative solutions are required to facilitate reporting, early detection and communication with law enforcement in cases that fall outside the scope of illegal speech. In this context, the anonymity granted by the online space is a particularly thorny issue. It’s a central aspect supra-national bodies, governments and platforms must consider through law or self-regulation.
Grappling with Difficult Questions
The conversation around how to best govern the digital space is certainly a difficult one. Questions around freedom of expression, concerns over government overreach and skepticism about censorship at the hand of private platforms are all justified. But spare a thought on the silencing effect that hate speech has on the freedom of expression, of practice and of manifestation in public life of those affected. In the physical space, it goes without question that we put in place regulations to facilitate our interactions and foster good governance. The digital space should be no different.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: