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Antisemitism skyrockets on Twitter, as Israel's requests go ignored

With the number of antisemitic posts on social media on the rise, Israel’s Foreign Ministry focuses on tracing such dangerous trends and battling them on the platforms they are published on.
Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Elon Musk in the Paddock prior to final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at Miami International Autodrome on May 06, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Foreign Ministry is increasingly focusing its efforts on Twitter, where according to a report by the European Institute for Strategic Dialogue released end of March, the number of antisemitic posts has considerably grown since Elon Musk took over the platform last October.

Since Musk took over Twitter, the report cited 325,739 English-language antisemitic Tweets in the 9 months from June 2022 to February 2023. The number marks an increase of 106% weekly increase, when comparing the three months before and after Musk’s acquisition.

What happened just last Wednesday, right after Musk tweeted a derogatory comment targeting American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, clearly illustrates the nature of the campaign the Foreign Ministry has been waging for the past few years against antisemitism on social media. That morning, Director of the Digital Diplomacy Bureau David Saranga signed on to Twitter, as he usually does, but this time, the hottest trends jumped out at him. At the top of the list was #The_Jews. Saranga immediately started to surf the platform more largely, only to discover it was flooded with antisemitic content. 

Saranga is used to seeing antisemitic content, particularly when security incidents take place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They often come with a slew of antisemitic rhetoric. This time, however, it was clear to the digital head that the antisemitism he encountered had reached a whole new level. It didn’t take long before Saranga realized that all the commotion revolved around a tweet by Twitter owner Musk. Musk’s tweet was short but full of meaning: “Soros reminds me of Magneto.” Magneto is a comic book villain featuring in Marvel’s X-Men series, who, like Soros, survived the Holocaust.

The target of Musk’s attack was the 93-year-old Soros, a Holocaust survivor, who is a red flag for right-wing organizations in the United States and the rest of the world, including Israel, over the many donations he has made over the years to human rights organizations and to the advancement of democratic values.

Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, just compared Soros to Magneto, arch villain of the X-Men franchise. Possibly, Musk was upset about Soros’ decision to sell all of his stock in Tesla.

For Saranga, one of the most experienced diplomats in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, this signaled the immediate need for an information campaign on Twitter to fight back against the sudden rise in antisemitism. It was obvious to him that Musk’s tweet was the source of this swell, so he took a screenshot of it and posted it as part of an especially long tweet of his own. In it, he claimed that hashtag “#The_Jews” is trending right now on #Twitter and it’s filled with antisemitic conspiracies and hate speech targeting Jews around the world. “Unfortunately Twitter does nothing to address this problem,” he continued.

Saranga ended his tweet by tagging Musk, along with the hashtags #Holocaust and #Antisemitism. He also shared his tweet with the official Hebrew and English accounts of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, ensuring its widespread distribution. 

Musk’s tweet and the Foreign Ministry’s response were unusual, not least because of who was behind them and the vast economic and digital power wielded by Musk, the richest man in the world, and Soros, a famous billionaire in his own right.

Both of these American magnates are well known in Israel because of the influence they wield on Israeli politics. The Israeli right sees Soros as a villain because he funds groups that criticize the Israeli government’s settlement policies, with some of these groups advocating to boycott settlement production or boycott Israel. In contrast, they see Musk as a noble knight, fighting for freedom of expression. The Israeli center-left camp sees Soros as champion of democracy and liberal values, persecuted for his beliefs. 

This background explains why not everyone in Israel was happy about the way the Foreign Ministry acted. Not everyone in Israel considered the Musk's tweet as antisemitic. In fact, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen took the unusual step of distancing himself from his ministry. “There will be no more tweets like this,” he said. A trivial event had been transformed into something of a diplomatic incident and moved the discussion from antisemitism itself to other areas.

Rising antisemitism on Twitter

A senior staffer at the Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor that they see a rise in the level of anti-Israel incitement online each month. He said that it spikes whenever there are incidents involving Gaza or the Temple Mount. Israel’s goal is then to reduce the hate-driven discourse. 

“The Foreign Ministry is in direct contact with the management of the major social network sites, but they don’t always respond to our concerns. In most cases, they respond that they are upholding their users’ freedom of expression,” said the senior staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

As far as the Israeli Foreign Ministry is concerned, Twitter is the most powerful platform online. Most of its activity takes place so that Twitter is now seen as the cornerstone of Israel’s information campaigns. The ministry spokesperson’s office told Al-Monitor they have some 800 accounts on the various social networks (Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.), including dozens of accounts in languages other than Hebrew and English. Currently, one of the most active accounts is in Farsi.

While there has supposedly been a noticeable rise in antisemitic content ever since Musk took over the company, for the Foreign Ministry the owner of the site is not the real issue. The fight against antisemitism is one of its top priorities this year, just as it was in previous years. This has become especially challenging in the age of social networks, platforms whose importance cannot be overstated. A single tweet is enough to ignite the security and diplomatic fronts. Focusing on problematic incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip brings them to the attention of millions of people in a minimal amount of time.

According to Knesset member Boaz Bismuth (Likud), a former Israeli ambassador to Mauritania (2004-2008), the fight against antisemitism today is much more intense than when he was ambassador, so the challenges posed to Israel’s information campaign have grown noticeably. 

“In the current age of unfiltered social networks, everything gets through and everything is empowered, including antisemitism,” Bismuth said in a conversation with Al-Monitor. 

“This ancient phenomenon of antisemitism will long outlive us too, but we still need to fight against it as hard as we can. Israel’s job is to make it unacceptable and to ensure that the consensus opposes antisemitism. Unfortunately, antisemitism has gained legitimacy over the past few years," Bismuth adds.

The new language is similar to the old, labeling the Jewish people stereotypes from an ugly era. "The red lines have been crossed. Once again, Jews have been linked to money. The challenge we now face is to bring the discourse back to where it once was," the fomer diplomat said.

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