Growing calls to combat antisemitism on Twitter

180 civil rights groups implore Elon Musk and Twitter to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

  ANTISEMITIC TWEETS would be flagged with a content warning (photo credit: TWITTER)
ANTISEMITIC TWEETS would be flagged with a content warning
(photo credit: TWITTER)

From Kanye West to Kyrie Irving, antisemitism is going mainstream, and social media is helping to spread the message of Jew-hatred. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 antisemitic incidents throughout the US, a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents recorded in 2020, while the number of antisemitic incidents in 2021 increased by 78% in the UK and 75% in France. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, antisemitic tweets on Twitter have been increasing. According to a peer-reviewed study by the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA), between January and August 2020, some 11% of conversations about Jews and 13% of conversations about Israel on Twitter were antisemitic in nature. In May 2021, during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls military campaign against Hamas, the Twitter hashtag #HitlerWasRight was tweeted approximately 17,000 times in one week. 

In an unprecedented joint effort to stem the tide of antisemitic speech on Twitter, 180 nonprofit and civil rights organizations are calling on Elon Musk, head of Twitter, to update the company’s anti-hate policies and adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. 

TEXT OF letter sent by 180 civil rights groups requesting that Twitter adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism (Credit: AdoptIHRA Coalition)TEXT OF letter sent by 180 civil rights groups requesting that Twitter adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism (Credit: AdoptIHRA Coalition)

Granted, antisemitism was rampant on Twitter before Musk took over. However, it seems that the coalition of 180 nonprofit groups believes that Musk’s fresh perspective and unique technological expertise, using the IHRA definition as a tool, make it the opportune time for Twitter to improve its policies.

The IHRA definition includes various types of antisemitism, such as justifying the killing of Jews in the name of radical ideology; Holocaust denial; and denying the Jewish right to self-determination in the State of Israel. The signatories of the letter to Musk include leading Jewish organizations throughout the world, such as B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish National Fund-USA, the Board of the Deputies of British Jews, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Maccabi World Union, and European Leadership Network (ELNET).

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been officially adopted by the US and 37 other national governments, as well as numerous local governments, universities, law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations, and international bodies worldwide, including the UN and the EU. 

The IHRA definition states, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Eleven examples of antisemitism accompany the definition to help showcase how it can manifest itself in many different forms. 

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been officially adopted by the US and 37 other national governments

By adopting the IHRA definition, Twitter will be able to remove antisemitic tweets or clearly label them with a warning message to readers that the tweet contains antisemitic content. The letter’s signatories state their willingness to work with Musk to make Twitter the “modern public square” that he envisions, tackling hate without limiting freedom of speech.

The Jerusalem Post interviewed members of three of the sponsoring organizations to understand the significance of the IHRA definition, why it is important for Twitter to adopt it, and how antisemitism affects the communities served by these organizations.

“In order to fight discrimination, we need first to define it,” says Daniel Citone of the Solomon Observatory on Discrimination (Solomon Osservatorio Sulle Discriminazioni), a signatory of the letter who is based in Rome. The Solomon Observatory is a volunteer organization that combats antisemitism and other forms of discrimination in Italian society. 

Citone explains that people frequently disguise their antisemitic comments with what they term legitimate criticism against the State of Israel. “We need this definition because it is antisemitism hidden mostly behind anti-Zionism,” he says. 

Citone points out that Twitter today is used to spread ideologies, political positions and opinions. “Freedom of speech is a pillar of Twitter,” he says, “but freedom of speech needs to have limits, like many other rights that we have, because if one goes past the limits, one can offend other people.” He cautions that history teaches that words can often turn into actions. 

Another organization among the 180 signatories of the letter is the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). Dr. Charles Asher Small, founder and head of ISGAP, says that the IHRA classification of antisemitism is important because it defines antisemitism in its contemporary form. 

“The IHRA definition was one of the first definitions that included questions surrounding the demonization of Israel and blaming Jews for affiliation and association with Israel,” he says. “It is wonderful that more countries are adopting it. State and provincial governments, municipalities and universities are beginning to adopt it, as it touches on key elements of antisemitism.”

Antisemitism, adds Small, is an indicator of the state of society. “Antisemitism is an early warning system for the general health of society. We can see extreme Right, right-wing nationalists, white supremacists, the extreme Left, and political Islam and anti-democratic movements are attacking the democratic center. Even though these three social movements are very different, they use antisemitism as a key element of their ideology and political agenda.” 

Small notes that it is important that public and private organizations, such as Twitter, deal with issues of discrimination in society and strengthen democratic values and principles. “I believe that most social media networks deal with other forms of discrimination in a more comprehensive way,” he says. 

“I think there is more awareness of other forms of discrimination in society, such as gender inequality, sexism and racism. When it comes to antisemitism, people are confused about contemporary manifestations. Having a clear definition helps our understanding, and once we understand it, we can combat it,” he says.

In Small’s view, the post-COVID economy – which has created disparities between rich and poor, and has fragmented society – has created social, economic and political conditions ripe for antisemitism. “We saw this a few weeks ago with Kanye West and other disciples of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan’s ideology, using the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the notion of replacement theology, where African-Americans are the true Jews, and white Jews are the impostors,” Small explains.

“As obscene and irrational as it is, it is gaining traction in the African-American community, in the hip-hop community and among athletes. If you go to social media, a lot of the rhetoric is supportive of Kanye West.”

Small adds that the fact that private companies took social responsibility and distanced themselves from West and the hatred he caused actually reinforced the trope that the Jews are all-powerful.

“Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter and others need to have social responsibility not only to defend the Jewish citizens of these countries,” he points out, “but to protect civility and democratic principles. It is urgently required that we all act with responsibility when it comes to all forms of discrimination and hatred, including the rise of antisemitism.”

Ilan Sinelnikov, 30, president and founder of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), was born in Israel before moving to the US as a teen with his family. In 2011, Sinelnikov, then a freshman at the University of Minnesota, encountered Israel Apartheid Week on campus. In response, he and a group of friends registered a student club called Students Supporting Israel. Within two years, the club was attracting 100 people per event. Today, it boasts clubs at 200 universities in the US, Canada and Argentina. 

Since its founding, SSI has passed resolutions in 14 student governments across the US and Canada calling for the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism by student governments.

Sinelnikov explains that there is a great deal of ignorance in the general community about antisemitism. “Students, especially non-Jews, don’t necessarily know what antisemitism is,” he says. “It’s one thing to hear about it, but it’s another thing to recognize it. The IHRA definition provides the best tools to recognize the problem.”

He adds that there is a great deal of antisemitism on the Twitter platform and points out that antisemitic tweets by celebrities can have a great deal of influence. “Kanye West has more followers on Twitter – 31.4 million – than the number of Jewish people in the world,” Sinelnikov notes. “When celebrities disparage the Jewish people or the State of Israel, they are helping to spread antisemitism because their followers will believe it. 

“Twitter, as a responsible platform, should have a way to monitor and recognize what is antisemitic. I am not promoting shutting down these people, but these comments should be flagged as antisemitic content according to the IHRA definition.”

Sinelnikov spends a great deal of time with students on campuses and says that antisemitic messages on social media are difficult for Jewish students to handle. “When you see something, and you know it is against you but there is no way to protect yourself, it is hard,” he says. “A celebrity can have many followers, but if you are a student with 500 followers, no matter how much you scream, people will not hear you the same way as people who use the platform to spread antisemitism. It makes you feel powerless.”

Will Elon Musk and Twitter respond favorably to the letter from the coalition of 180 Jewish organizations and adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism? Will labeling antisemitic tweets lessen antisemitic behavior and lead to a more constructive exchange of ideas across the Internet? No one expects that antisemitism can be completely eradicated from social media, but it is hoped that adopting the IHRA definition will help people recognize antisemitism and keep it in check. 

This article was written in cooperation with the AdoptIHRA Coalition.