PARIS - Twitter is a great tool, capable of changing lives. It opens a window on the world, an embodiment of a new kind of digital solidarity.
All the same, in the past few days, many people in France had an eye-opening experience as they discovered Twitter’s unsavory side. The anti-Semitic hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodjew), which for a while was the third most popular hashtag on Twitter, revealed an uninhibited barbarity, recycling stereotypes of a bygone era.
The tweets were a mix of references to the Holocaust, Zionism, anti-Semitism and history into a nauseating ideological stew. The worst were the calls for murder, intoned like a gruesome litany: "A good Jew is a dead Jew." ... "A good Jew is a pile of ashes."
After this 140-character avalanche of hate, some commentators have said that while some were anti-Semitic, not all tweets were offensive but rather just crude attempts at humor. Who knows "A good Jew knows how to get a Jewish woman's number: by rolling up her sleeve" might be somebody's idea of black humor.
But it is the broader environment that cannot be ignored. In France, this is an anxious time for the French Jewish community. With the murders of Jewish schoolchildren by Mohamed Merah, the attack on a kosher grocery in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, and the anti-Islam film wrongly attributed to a Jewish filmmaker, relations among religious groups in France have never been so tense.
In this context, a misguided attempt at humor is contaminated by the anti-Semitic tweets before and after it. We read it differently because it is embedded in the viciousness around it. A joke is not just a joke anymore, it is charged with a message.
To believe that humor makes it okay to say horrible things is just wrong. Even when someone says something "jokingly," they are still saying it. This is not only a way to try to make a violent message acceptable, but also implies complicity: we are not laughing here with Jews, we are laughing at Jews.
Some have used the words “freedom of expression” to justify the unjustifiable, or have brought up the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoons as shorthand for anti-Islamic sentiment.
That conveniently passes over the fact that Charlie Hebdo mocked a rabbi on its front cover without causing any protests, as well as the fact that anti-Semitism is a crime in France, while blasphemy is not. Laughing at six million deaths and calling for murder is not something that can be compared to a cartoon in a satirical magazine, even a tasteless one.
"Freedom of expression" -- all these youthful anti-Semites pouring out hate repeat this word, without understanding its meaning. True, Twitter did not invent anti-Semitism, but it has become a sounding board for anti-Semites. Under cover of anonymity, they feel free to speak. The format makes it easy. The mob effect created by the hashtag encourages users to let loose, and anonymity lets them say whatever they like. Most of all, faced with a collective phenomenon, individuals lose their sense of responsibility.
What can we do? Individual users should be sanctioned, but this is hard to carry out because of anonymity. But silence is not a satisfactory answer.
Some people have said that to speak out would be to give in to the myth of "Jewish repression." Anti-Semites believe in a Jewish conspiracy even if we do nothing. Our actions must not be dependent on their mistaken beliefs. Speaking out will not erase anti-Semitism, but it will prevent the mob effect, the mainstreaming of clichés and the one-upmanship of horror. If we continue to be confronted with such ideas, we will subconsciously start to believe they are okay.
In a twist of fate, last Sunday, French television was showing the Holocaust film "La Rafle" ("The Round Up"), a movie on the mass arrest and deportation of Jews in Paris during the summer of 1942. This time, the tweets were more reassuring. Teenagers seemed to be moved, as they discovered this tragic period of French history.
A racist is someone who is angry at the wrong person. An anti-Semite is too. Let us hope that education and sanctions will succeed in making this faceless crowd aware of its responsibility, so that this time, history is not repeated.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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