In the Face of the Establishment’s Failure, a New Generation of Jewish Social Media Activists Is Rising
I have recently written in somewhat strident terms about the failure of the American Jewish establishment. If it hadn’t been obvious before, it certainly was by May of this year, when a wave of antisemitic violence struck the United States that left the establishment in shocked silence. It is impossible not to be discouraged by this failure, but there is no reason to despair. A younger and better generation of Jewish activists is rising, and the sooner it replaces the old establishment, the better.
Social media is immensely important to today’s political discourse — it both elected and then silenced a president — so I spoke this week with some social media activists who are part of the phenomenon informally dubbed “Jwitter”: Hen Mazzig (@HenMazzig) is a writer and senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute; Blake Flayton (@blakeflayton) is a columnist for the Jewish Journal; Rafaella Gunz (@DiscoxBloodbath), who was forced out of the City University of New York by a campaign of antisemitic harassment, is a journalist and activist; Eve Barlow (@Eve_Barlow) is a journalist; Amy Albertson (@theamyalbertson) is a social media coach and Jewish advocate; and Matthew Nouriel (@theempressmizrahi), who identifies as non-binary and queer, uses social media — especially Instagram — as a platform for education and activism.
All of these influencers are hyperactive on social media; they are relatively young; several are from gender, sexual, ethnic, or racial minorities; they are Ashkenazi and Mizrachi and Asian-American and points beyond; they are more or less on the progressive left politically; none are affiliated with large establishment Jewish organizations. And one thing is clear about all of them: they’re not going to take it anymore. They have chosen not to adopt the establishment’s self-destructive strategy of quiescence and denial.
Instead, they have chosen to lean into the storm. I freely admit that I admire them for it. And I am also thankful, because in the face of the establishment’s incompetence, Jwitter is picking up some of the slack.
It’s not easy. One thing these activists made very clear to me was the ubiquity of antisemitism on social media, as well as its sadistic cruelty, which includes threats of physical violence.
Nouriel told me that, when they defended Israel during its latest conflict with Hamas, “those two months were incredibly difficult, because it was a constant flow of hate messages. I had to turn off commenting on my posts because of all the hate and I was receiving death threats in my DMs constantly. It’s not the first time I’d been on the receiving end of this type of cyber hate. I’ve gotten it before both for being Jewish and for being queer, and at times even for being both, but I’d never experienced it at such an intense and overwhelming volume.”
Gunz, Barlow, and Mazzig put the situation in stark terms. “I encounter antisemitism pretty much every time I open Twitter and begin death scrolling,” said Gunz. As Barlow told it, “Whether I’m online or not, my account is a target for antisemitism on a daily basis.” Mazzig concurred, saying, “I encounter antisemitic hate speech on a daily basis online, almost every time I visit the platform, which is 10-15 times a day.”
As for where this antisemitism is coming from, Flayton pointed to “left-wing accounts with enormous followings. I characterize these people as ‘the dirtbag left,’ a term I didn’t invent, as they are often cruel, incendiary, and relentless in attempting to assassinate my character online.” Albertson called trolls and bots — “basically accounts that only exist to harass people” — a major problem, but “other than that, it is almost always hyper-liberal people, self-proclaimed communists and socialists.”
Barlow agreed, saying, “It comes from all echo chambers, including the far-right, but by and large it comes from the woke left and what I refer to as hammer-and-sickle-emoji Twitter.” Gunz said, “Most of the antisemitism I come across on Twitter isn’t from neo-Nazi or white supremacist types. In fact, it’s often perpetuated by those on the far-left who consider themselves progressive.”
Mazzig said he believes that social media antisemitism “comes from everywhere: white nationalists in the west, Arabic speakers, anti-Zionists, and from left to right. Antisemitism knows no borders — like the people spreading it.”
Why do these activists keep doing it in spite of this abuse? All of those I talked to see it as a matter of dignity, pride, and integrity. And they believe they are making a difference.
“What motivates me to continue advocating for Jewish people and Israel is because I feel deep in my guts that it’s the right thing to do,” Gunz said. “As viscerally painful as it can be sometimes, I know that using my voice to stand up for my people after centuries of pogroms, persecution, and ‘dhimmitude’ would both make my ancestors proud and impact generations of Jews to come.”
For Barlow, “It’s a matter of more than just Jewish identity. For me, it’s about combatting the great untruths of online discourse. I’m solely driven by integrity of storytelling as a journalist. Social media is an extension of that, and combatting the libels online about Jews and Israel is obviously something deeply personal to me, as a Jewish voice.”
“As scary as the hostility is, it just makes me want to keep going because it shows me how much it’s needed,” said Nouriel. “At the end of the day, I don’t do it for the antisemites and anti-Zionists. I do it because I want to show that we as a people will never be stateless or powerless again.”
Mazzig agreed: “Advocating for Jews is bigger than just me. I’m fighting for my ancestors and my future children and grandchildren. I am also fighting for our community.”
Flayton described a sense of hope, saying, “Personally, I know that many important and influential Jewish figures follow my Twitter account, along with many young Jews who are looking for a confident pro-Israel voice. I do it for those two groups, and also because of the opportunities I have been given as a result of my continued activism.”
For Albertson, Jwitter is “where I’ve found a lot of connection with my Jewish peers. I see the power and potential of reaching people on social media.”
Jwitter, like most social media phenomena, is young, engaged, and on the vanguard of online discourse — in distinction from the rest of the Jewish community, which tends to be older, established, and less frequently online. Asked what the larger Jewish community may not understand about social media antisemitism, Barlow said, “That it doesn’t matter where the threat comes from, it must be called out with the same force. When the center is no longer holding, you have to fight Jew hatred across the political spectrum and stop excusing the hate that lives on ‘your side.’ I would also say to the Jewish community that they have to understand the value in individuals who are at the forefront of this fight, because the establishment is not the voice leading these conversations, and the individuals doing so are taking on enormous risks in order to make their voices heard.”
Albertson said that the community must understand that “antisemitism is rampant on both the right and the left. I think when people think about what antisemitism is or what it looks like, they envision physical violence or mass murder, like the Holocaust or the Charlottesville mob chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ But antisemitism is much more sophisticated than that and often more subtle.”
Nouriel said they combat antisemitism in a simple way: “I just seek out and speak the truth. Antisemitism and hatred are insidious and illogical so I see no point in engaging or arguing with people who hold those beliefs. I’d rather spend my time empowering Jews, our allies, and those who are open to learning to speak up.”
Barlow concurred, but feels that the most important thing is to focus on how to help other Jews deal with antisemitism. “I’m not in the business of fighting antisemitism or engaging people who are not willing to converse with nuance and respect,” she said. “It’s too challenging to have those conversations on a limited forum like Twitter, where everyone is subjected to pile-ons. On Twitter my objective is to empower Jews to speak up, or to have tools to share if they feel they want to stand up against hate.”
Flayton, on the other hand, believes in a more direct approach, saying he tries “to highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. For example, I mention to antagonizers their silence on human rights abuses and injustices elsewhere in the world, and draw attention to the obsessive nature of their fixation with Israel. By painting this as absurd, others will see this as absurd and suspicious too.”
For Mazzig, the issue is more complicated, and is as much a struggle within the Jewish community itself. “I see some people, even within our community, trying to change the meaning of antisemitism, giving it new terms to make it ‘more accessible to others’ and I don’t think it works,” he said. “Ideas like changing antisemitism to ‘anti-Jewish racism’ makes Jews into a race. It also erases the fact that Jews come in all races. It’s beyond me why some Jews feel like conflating antisemitism with racism is the way to fight hatred against us. There are many Jews who experience racism and antisemitism — this takes away their agency.”
“We shouldn’t co-opt other people’s struggles, no #JewishLivesMatter, but rather Am Yisrael Chai,” he said. “We have slogans, we have a story, we just need to tell it better.”
I posed another central question to these young activists: if the Jewish establishment finally wakes from its convenient slumber, what can it do to help them and other Jews who fight antisemitism on social media?
At the moment, said Barlow, the situation is not good. “I feel as though I get a lot of lip service support from establishment and non-profits, and genuine love from followers, but there’s frankly not enough structural and sustainable financial support for online advocates who are doing tireless work for free and often sacrificing their own opportunities in the process,” she said.
“I feel I am getting support,” said Flayton, “but not nearly enough. The Jewish community needs to realize that young people are on the frontlines of fighting antisemitism, simply because we know how to use social media better than older generations. We need funding, sponsorship, resources, opportunities, etc. Many in the Jewish community promise this, but when the rubber hits the road, fail to deliver.”
Gunz gave practical advice for helping activists like her, saying, “Follow me on Twitter if you want and boost my tweets, especially if you see me struggling to deal with an onslaught of trolls in my mentions. It always makes me feel better to know that Jewish Twitter has my back in those moments, as they can be really anxiety-inducing. Just listen to diverse Jews in general. We are not a monolith, and there are so many powerful voices out there.”
“I think more funding and resources need to be invested in young digital activists,” Albertson said. “We might be ‘young,’ but what we do is work. Yes, we do it because we believe in it wholeheartedly, but we also have livelihoods and need support.”
Nouriel said that, even with the lack of support than the establishment, they are optimistic because of the support they receive from other Jews and their allies. “With all this that I’ve spoken of, all the antisemitism and all the hate, I want to state that the positive by far outweighs the negative,” they said. “I would just ask for people to keep following us, engaging with us, and sharing our content to keep getting our message out there.”
The most important thing about these young activists, and thousands of others like them, is that they prove Jews can fight back against antisemitism. They do not have to follow the establishment’s failed strategy. As other minority groups are currently doing, they can express their anger and demand justice without shame, in loud and uncompromising terms. They can take pride in their identity and help others do the same
I also believe that they are something like the wave of the future. This gives me hope, because they are at least doing something at a time when the establishment is telling us — if only by example — to do nothing.
This is something that Zionism has always given the Jews. Zionism, after all, began when a young generation of Jews decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. These young social media activists are living, of course, in a very different world. Jews today are no longer stateless and defenseless. But the old enemies are still there, and the struggle against them and for ourselves is urgent and pressing, whether the establishment likes it or not. Thankfully, whatever happens, I believe Jwitter will continue not to take it anymore.