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Jewish teens say life on TikTok comes with anti-Semitism

Regardless of content, Jewish teens say they are bombarded. "It definitely affects me. It gets to me."
Jewish TikTok users inundated with anti-Semitic comments.
Jewish TikTok users inundated with anti-Semitic comments.NBC News

Before she posted her first video about being Jewish, Julia Massey considered whether she even wanted to share that part of herself.

"Before, I guess, I 'came out' as Jewish on my TikTok, before people knew, I was getting almost all positive response," Massey said. "And now, every single TikTok I've made since that video, I've received anti-Semitic comments, regardless of the content."

Massey, 18, of California, is far from alone in her experience on TikTok.

A half-dozen Jewish teens on TikTok said they experience anti-Semitism nearly every time they post content to the platform, regardless of whether or not the content is about their Judaism. Sometimes it takes the form of denying the existence or the severity of the Holocaust; at other moments, it takes the shape of equating Jews as a people with the actions of the government of Israel.

Several of the Jewish TikTok users who spoke to NBC News shared screenshots of dozens of comments they'd received, which included nose emoji, a shower and gas pump emoji (in reference to the gas chambers of the Holocaust) and the word "Heil" with an emoji of a person raising their hand, a reference to the Nazi salute. "Always the suffering Jew...yeah right, we get it already. FREE PALESTINE," one user wrote. In more insidious comments, users suggest either that the Holocaust was a hoax or that Adolf Hitler "might have as well finished his job." Many of those comments have been deleted, although it's unclear whether the users or TikTok removed them.

Several creators say their comment feeds are often inundated with the slogan "Free Palestine" and the Palestinian flag emoji. Neither on its own is anti-Semitic, of course. But experts note that when the comments appear over and over again on Jewish content on TikTok — conflating Judaism with Israel and Israeli politics on postings wholly unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — they are wielded in a manner that is anti-Semitic.

"It is absolutely legitimate to criticize Israel for its human rights abuses, just like it's legitimate to criticize any other state ... but when somebody is posting, let's say, their bat mitzvah dress or when somebody is putting up a picture of their family's Passover Seder or when somebody is just talking about their own Jewish pride ... when the response is 'Free Palestine,' what that respondent is saying is 'your Judaism doesn't matter at all,'" said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T'ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization. She said that those comments imply that those creators have no identity as Jews apart from the state of Israel and that they would fall under the definition of anti-Semitism.

TikTok said it doesn't tolerate "hate in any form," including anti-Semitism.

"TikTok stands firmly against anti-Semitism and doesn't tolerate hate in any form. We take strong action against hate groups and ideologies by banning accounts and removing content, including those which deny the Holocaust or other violent tragedies," a TikTok spokesperson said in an email. "Our team is fully committed to fostering a community where everyone feels welcome and safe to create."

But Jewish TikTokers say they're frustrated with what they say is often a barrage of anti-Semitism, which sometimes affects their mental health.

"It definitely affects me. It gets to me. Speaking up about anything is offensive to people now, and just expressing myself and telling people about myself causes all of this conflict and hatred towards me. It really discourages you from making content and speaking up in the future," Massey said.

The kind of criticism that Jews receive, she said, can cause her to feel more cloistered in her expression of her Judaism.

Jewish TikTokers spoke with NBC News shortly after the release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z. The study found that many millennials and Gen Zers didn't know basic facts about the Holocaust. Almost two-thirds, 63 percent, didn't know that 6 million Jews were killed, and 49 percent had seen "Holocaust denial or distortion" on social media. The numbers were widely regarded as shocking.

Mental health and community

Charlotte Baer, 17, of New York, said that she has never experienced anti-Semitism in her in-person daily life but that once she was open about her Judaism online, vitriol was directed at her.

"I come from a family of Holocaust survivors. It's not something that's new to me, but it was something that was new directly to me. I never experienced it directly, and it wasn't surprising but just a little saddening to see," Baer said.

TikTok Holocaust denialism and anti-Semitism fit into a pattern seen on other social media platforms. Last month, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organization dedicated to countering violent extremism based in the U.K., published findings that Facebook's algorithms were actively promoting Holocaust denialism.

Researchers found that content denying the Holocaust is easily accessible on YouTube and Reddit, as well. On Reddit, researchers found that 2,300 pieces of content that mentioned "holohoax," a term marrying the words "Holocaust" and "hoax," had been created in the last two years. On YouTube, 9,500 pieces of content denying the Holocaust had been created in the last two years.

In May, the Anti-Defamation League released its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, which found that 2019 marked an "all-time high." The organization has tracked a consistent rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the last several years. That isn't just an American phenomenon. In February, the Community Security Trust, a nonprofit organization that tracks anti-Semitism in Britain, found 2019 to have had a record number of anti-Semitic incidents, largely due to an 82 percent rise in online anti-Semitism. At the beginning of 2019, France reported that anti-Semitic incidents had sharply risen in 2018.

Jewish TikTokers said they've been able to fight some anti-Semitism through community on the app. In one case, Baer, the New York-based TikToker, has shouted out Josh Cohen, 18, a TikToker based in London, who often makes videos that explore and share parts of his Judaism.

"I've found, especially during lockdown, an amazing community," Cohen said of TikTok.

Cohen said that because his content frequently centers on his Judaism, whether he's discussing Jewish history, showing off his Rosh Hashanah celebration or actually discussing why anti-Semitism is harmful, he is constantly getting anti-Semitic comments.

Unlike Baer, Cohen has experienced anti-Semitism in his day-to-day life. "When I first saw it used on TikTok in one of my videos, it sort of reminded me of when I've seen it in real life," he said.

Cohen recalled times he was on his way to synagogue with his parents as a child, wearing a kippah, when someone would yell "Free Palestine" at them.

Jacobs said: "Sometimes, online, when Jews speak about anything, really, including subjects that don't have to do with the state of Israel, that sometimes there is a response of 'Free Palestine,' which is a suggestion on the part of the person writing it that Jews are not allowed to talk about anything except for the situation in Israel and Palestine."

'Conflating Jews and Israel'

The conflation of Israel with Jewish people is a widespread misconception found both popularly and among politicians.

At the end of a 20-minute call with American Jews just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, President Donald Trump said, "We love your country, also," suggesting that those on the call think of themselves as Israelis.

"Trump is one of the worst offenders in terms of both dog-whistling to anti-Semites and then also pretending that he's acting for the benefit of Israel and certainly conflating Jews and Israel," Jacobs said. "He's done this over and over again."

Many of the Jewish creators who spoke to NBC News said they feel that sometimes when they get "Free Palestine" comments on videos about their Judaism, the posters aren't intentionally trying to be anti-Semitic and may be trying to raise awareness — and unknowingly perpetuating tropes of dual loyalty.

Many Jewish creators said commenters often weren't aware of their personal beliefs about Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"Most Jewish people I encounter on TikTok that are opinionated are pro-Palestine and don't even condone the actions of the Israeli government, so it's just an incorrect assumption to assume they'd defend Israel," said Olive Benito, 15, of California.

Olive's general sense of the Gen Z TikTokers she meets is borne out in both polling data and observation.

Libby Lenkinski, vice president for public engagement at the nonprofit New Israel Fund, said: "There's a ... generational gap in terms of American Jews and their relationship to Israel. The simple part of that is to say younger Jews are more progressive than their parents in general."

Lenkinski said the baby boomer generation is largely liberal but will more often turn to what she called a "sort of blanket support for Israel." That all-or-nothing support, she said, is something "the younger generations are less and less willing to do."

A 2019 American Jewish Committee survey found that 25 percent of American Jews favored dismantling all West Bank settlements in favor of a two-state solution (another 41 percent favored dismantling some of the settlements in favor of the same). In the same survey, they noted that two-thirds of American Jews favored a two-state solution with a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But TikTokers like Olive note that it's not actually about support for Israel — it's that being an American Jew often doesn't have much to do with Israel at all. She said that at one point she tried to reach out to a person who had made a "Free Palestine" comment on TikTok to explain why Jewish American teenagers had no power over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"They couldn't seem to grasp the fact that I am unrelated to the conflict. Like, they kept saying over and over, 'You're stealing my land and hurting my people, and you deserve to get those comments, because you're a land stealer, because you're a war criminal.' I just couldn't get them to understand or explain to them that that's just not the case," Olive said.

Young creators said that when they are overwhelmed by the anti-Semitism, they typically need to take breaks from social media. Cohen said anti-Semitism has made the internet, including TikTok, a toxic place for Jewish people to exist.

"It can often make me think twice before I post something, even if it's irrelevant to Israel. ... I'd love to make what I do into something bigger ... but if I make it bigger, having posts bombarded in this way — if I had a post that did particularly well, would it also have the comments filled with this kind of stuff?" Cohen said. "It can make you think twice before you post this stuff, and it can sometimes get to you a bit."