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‘We Are at War:’ Jewish Activists Noa Tishby, Bari Weiss, and Eve Barlow Discuss How Social Media Emboldens Antisemitism

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

(Left to right) Eve Barlow, Noa Tishby, and Bari Weiss in a panel discussion hosted by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. Photo: Screenshot.

Israeli author Noa Tishby and Jewish journalists Bari Weiss and Eve Barlow discussed the fraught relationship between social media and the rise of antisemitism, and their efforts to defend Israel and counteract Jew-hatred at a virtual event on Wednesday.

The three Jewish activists took part in a panel discussion moderated by award-winning news broadcaster Jamie Gutfreund and hosted by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, as part of the organization’s annual State of the Union event. The panelists analyzed how social media has allowed the proliferation of anti-Jewish sentiment and disinformation about Israel, and what the public can do to stop it.

“There’s a worldwide war right now on truth and facts,” explained Tishby, the actress-turned-author who published earlier this year her debut book, “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.”  She said, “it’s a long-term battle, it’s going to be ugly,” urging online audiences not to get “triggered” when they see antisemitism.

The Tel Aviv native said she has already spoken to members of Congress about ensuring that major social media companies are held accountable for what people say on their platforms. She also spoke to Congress about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and said, “BDS needs to be rooted out of Western society.”

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She argued that while it’s often seen as effective to have celebrities and recognizable figures speak out against antisemitism, she believes “the work needs to be from the bottom up” — with outreach to organizations at the grassroots level, to support the Jewish community.

“This is a well-funded political campaign that has been waged against Israel in the past 20 years,” Tishby added.

“This is not going to get solved by tweets [or] by Hollywood,” she continued. “This is gonna be long work, thorough work … and we need to understand that we are at war.”

Weiss echoed Tishby’s sentiments about forming alliances with other communities, like Hispanics and Hindus, based on common interests. The former New York Times journalist also warned that turning to major technology companies to combat Jew-hatred, and pushing for more censorship online, could backfire.

“Big tech companies … they are more powerful, in certain ways, than the government, than nation states,” she noted. “They operate across borders … It has the power to unleash social pandemics and social contagion. My fear is that in asking these companies ‘do more censorship on our behalf,’ in a way we are feeding the fuel that will come to burn us … If we are saying to these companies ‘intervene on our behalf,’ what happens six months from now when they now want to go censor Zionists? We need to think very deeply as a community about whether or not we’re trading away the long gain in favor of the short one.”

She said that people are now “focusing on a defensive reactionary posture,” but they need to rethink that approach and “fundamentally reorient ourselves toward a version of fighting antisemitism that has a lot more to do with nurturing our Judaism, Jewish community and Zionism.”

The panelists also discussed how expressing hatred of Israel online has become “fashionable,” according to Tishby, and is “worn as a badge of honor,” in Weiss’ words.

Barlow, a Scottish-born, Los Angeles-based music journalist, has faced a barrage of online hate because of her Jewish and Zionist activism. She said the antisemitic threat posed by social media is “extremely real and growing all the time,” and that “truth does not line up with online popularity at the moment.”

“Posts online are valued by popularity as opposed to truth, fact and rational. It’s an incredible space for conspiracy theories to fester and grow,” she said. She spoke about the “off-line ramifications” that have resulted in physical violence against Jewish communities around the world, and argued that social media “is emotion-rooted and emotion-based” and “favors emotional responses over long, logical arguments because you only have a certain amount of characters in a tweet.”

Barlow suggested that social media users are focused on “self-validation” that will get them trending and the most “likes,” regardless of the truth in what they upload online. She additionally explained that with the “proliferation of group thinking and how people are driven by hashtags and not thinking outside of that, there’s never been a clearer time in which to be courageous in your own independence and to speak freely.”

She said, “We really need to come together as a global Jewish community and not just see ourselves in these different silos as part of the diaspora. We are fighting the same kind of things all over the world. Now more than ever, we need to instill a sense of Jewish pride among ourselves in a global sense.”

Weiss similarly added, “Absolutely be unapologetic, full of pride, [and] wear our Judaism and Zionism as a badge of honor. The mere act of doing that is radical and contagious, and changes the whole conversation.”

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