“Why is hollywood so far up Israel’s ass… I am discussed,” comedian Chelsea Handler, one of the celebrities featured in Mean Tweets Israel Edition Video, reads, followed up by a wink. She is one of six celebrities featured in the video produced by Hallel Silverman and Tali Wiesenthal in what started out as a final project for university but turned into something so much more.
Some of our favorite celebs read & laugh at some of our not so favorite antisemitic tweets #MeanTweetsIsrael@RealSarahIdan @JoshMalina @ilzoabi48 @chelseahandler @SarahKSilverman @WestsideGravy @AlizaRSilverman Produced with @TaliWiesenthal pic.twitter.com/SHzJDBermL— Hallel Silverman (@JustHallel) May 4, 2020
Silverman and Wiesenthal hope that their spin on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night TV show segment called “Mean Tweets,” featuring celebrities reading not so nice posts people have written about them, will raise awareness about the issue and extent of antisemitism.
“Our video shows the celebrities’ reaction to these kinds of tweets, which demonstrates that anyone can be impacted by them,” Wiesenthal told The Media Line. Just because you’re online, doesn’t mean you can hide behind a screen.
“The message is that antisemitism is alive and well and definitely prevalent on Twitter. … Just highlighting these tweets on the video shows that we see these things and they affect us,” she added. “I hope it spreads awareness that people do actually say and write these kinds of things, which I even find hard to believe.”
Silverman, who is also an Israeli activist, told The Media Line: “We wanted to break through the barriers that people put up which enables them to accept this antisemitism, often disguised as anti-Israel sentiment, rhetoric. … This video highlights timeless antisemitism in the form of new media in the 21st century.”
For the producers, humor was an important tool to relay this serious message in a way that would be more accessible to a wide audience.
“This format shows different celebrities and other activists shining light in satirical fashion on antisemitism,” said Silverman. “How do Jews deal with things? Through humor.”
Silverman and Wiesenthal’s video stems from a senior-year group project for a nation-branding seminar at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
“You spend a year crafting it with the goal of going viral, so you’re actually graded on virality,” Silverman said.
The team quickly knew they were creating something more significant than a school assignment.
“After the first person agreed to be in it and we started sending tweets, some people we had were so excited to be part of it, asking us: ‘Do you want me to do it again? Was it good? Do you want me to read a different one?’” Wiesenthal said. “They were just so willing to be a part of it. … So that’s when we realized this video is going to be bigger than us and seen by many different types of crowds.”
The video has already been cross-posted and retweeted by Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry.
It took half a year and hundreds of rejections before six people were selected to appear in the video: four Jews and two Muslims.
“It was important to us that it was not just Jews reading things about Jews. It was important to have a diversity of activists and celebrities that truly represented this message reading ‘mean tweets,’” Silverman said.
Celebrities are also key to getting the video’s message out.
“The positivity of influencers on my end is that I’m able to reach audiences that I would have otherwise and beyond that,” Silverman said. “Millennials and Generation Z don’t want to listen to politicians or spokespeople. They’re more receptive to what their favorite actor or celebrity is saying.”
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, agrees with the importance of celebrities in this project.
“There is no question that celebrities have an impact, and many people take their cues from them. So if they’re unfairly critical of Israel, that has a ripple effect,” Zuroff told The Media Line. “Some of the problems are due to the abysmal ignorance of people, especially in the United States, about the realities of the Middle East and real historical facts. So they often make their positions [based] on what some celebrity says.”
“Alternatively, it helps [when a celebrity says something positive about Israel], depending on the who [the person is] and how popular they are,” he added.
Besides Handler, the video features comedian Sarah Silverman, actress Aliza Silverman, rapper Westside Gravy, actor Joshua Malina, Israeli Arab LBTQ activist Muhammad Zoabi, and former Miss Iraq Sarai Sarah Idan. The former two are Hallel Siliverman’s aunt and sister, respectively.
“I believe the project can help raise awareness about important issues. I always and gladly throw myself in projects I believe can make us better humans. I’m not worried about backlash. I am used to them by now. I try to talk with those people and if it’s hopeless I go for the block button,” Idan told The Media Line. “It’s difficult to know whether people will be receptive. I did get a few good interactions with some Arabs but I believe the point is, show them what Israel is dealing with. Whether they like it or not, it’s a good reminder.”
Activist Zoabi wanted to be part of the video because he understands what it is like to be a member of a targeted minority.
“The reason I wanted to be in the video comes from an authentic place of solidarity as a member of a minority community myself, seeing the rise of the ultra-nationalist Right in Israel and elsewhere and experiencing the racism and stigmas that come with it. It makes me genuinely relate to Jewish people who live outside of Israel, especially in America,” Zoabi told The Media Line.
“I hope the video will raise awareness of dangers of racism in general, of hatred, and of anti-Semitism and I hope that it will help the effort to fight it,” he continued.
The Wiesenthal Center’s Zuroff explained the state of antisemitism in the US further:
“In the US, we see all three types of antisemitism [that are present] in Western Europe, among people on the extreme Right and extreme Left and among Muslim immigrants. For the first time in many decades, that anti-Semitism has become lethal and this is a cause of great concern,” he said. “For years, the prominent feeling was that in America, these things don’t happen. … America is different. But unfortunately, incidents like the [2018 Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation shooting] in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania show that this kind of antisemitism also exists in America.”
The Mean Tweets Israel’s Edition video also highlights increased coronavirus-related antisemitism, showing headlines including “Anti-lockdown protests spawn more anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Holocaust imagery,” showing a woman holding a “Heil Witmer” poster with a swastika, referring to the Michigan governor who extended the quarantine.
“The pandemic has led to all sorts of incidents of antisemitism and all sorts of myths attributing responsibility to Jews for the spread of the virus. … It’s reminiscent of the days of Black Plague in that respect – Jews were accused of poisoning the wells in the Middle Ages,” Zuroff said.
“Right now, the world is preoccupied with the virus and so what we’re seeing is that anti-Semitism is manifesting itself in direct relation to the virus and the spread of the virus, and all sorts of lies about profiting off of vaccines and whether Israel is helping or not helping other countries. Those are the latest manifestations and those are the ones that are getting the attention,” Zuroff continues.
He argues that for however long the coronavirus pandemic might negatively impact society, anti-Semitism will outlast it.
“Antisemitism is not going to go away. The main reasons for this plague of antisemitism continue. It takes different forms: There’s classic antisemitism and new antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism,” Zuroff said.
While the video addresses both forms, the latter is particularly important to Hallel Silverman.
“Our country is not perfect. Our people are not perfect. Our government is definitely not perfect, but it does not represent Israelis. We are being unfairly judged and racially targeted. People forget that antisemitism is straight-up racism,” she said.
“I want to shine a light on all this extra hate just because we are Jewish,” Silverman added. “This does not mean you cannot critique the State of Israel – God knows I do – but you cannot deny its right to exist. Those are two very different things.”
While a realist about the ability of the video to transform perspectives, Hallel Silverman is also hopeful: “I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind with this but I hope to open their minds a bit.”For more stories like this visit The Media Line.