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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Google lets antisemites occupy cyberspace

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Like many people, I’ve been following the controversy in the blogosphere about antisemitism among the ranks of the anti-capitalists. More precisely, I’ve been reading a series of reports about antisemitic expression among the Occupy Wall Street protesters, along with interpretations, confirmations, and refutations of those reports.

That there have been rants against Jews, posters blaming real estate foreclosures in America on Israel, Zionists, and Jewish bankers, and attempts to co-opt the movement to a boycott-Israel agenda is clear. Photographs of these expressions have been published in major newspapers and circulated on the web. More dramatically, there have been videos of encounters with vocal expressions of antisemitism at Occupy Wall Street and its correlatives in other cities. Under debate is whether or not these sentiments characterize the movement or its leadership – an argument either complicated or made moot by the idea that the Occupy movement, by design, doesn’t actually have what you would call a leadership.

For some observers, the tolerance of antisemitic expression damns the movement as a whole. For others, it’s simply what occurs when a “happening” draws a wide swath of people together without checking credentials, organizational membership or fingerprints – people with varied backgrounds, motivations and degrees of sanity or nuttiness. Among the crowd, hateful, paranoid people speak out, but they don’t represent the collective.

I haven’t been within 800 kilometres of Zuccotti Park in the past few months, so I won’t venture a guess as to which take is right on the money (if you pardon the expression). (I’m pleased to say that when I’ve passed by St. James Park in Toronto, I saw no evidence of antisemitic expression.)

What interests me here is the place of the Internet in this phenomenon. It’s not simply a matter of the rapidity and reach of the web in disseminating these images. I know from my own e-mail inbox that, for a variety of reasons, people concerned about antisemitism circulate links to photos and video clips that capture offensive expressions about Jews. My guess is that such links circulate among people who might also watch them with head-nodding agreement.

More than that, the Internet plays a role in creating the phenomenon. I’m certainly not the first to note the role of social media in making certain protest movements possible across the globe and in linking geographically distant movements together. But the Internet does more: it provides a forum, and a potential virtual audience for people who may not easily gain for themselves an audience in situ. And the more outrageous the expression, the more likely it is to circulate virally on the web.

A few examples: in one extended clip, a young man rants, sneers and raves at a (presumably) Jewish man whose long grey wavy hair and kippah can only be seen from behind. The younger man clearly thinks of himself as a performance artist. He later tells an interviewer, “I don’t watch television. I read and I eat healthy. I got off the drugs. I’m not mentally ill… My heart tells me what to say.” He then invites the reporter interviewing him to find him on YouTube under his performance moniker and directs him to his website.

Other antisemitic speakers tell their interlocutors to Google such phrases as “Jews and bankers,” “Zionist control Wall Street,” and other terms resonant with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These people offer as proof of the rightness of their conspiracy theories the fact that the conspiracy theories show up in the results of an Internet search. Creating a perfect circle, their own placards, interviews and videoclips now show up on a Google search.

I won’t deny that whether such language is pervasive in the Occupy movement or is the singular expression of rare hate-mongers, nut cases and media hogs, it makes for disturbing viewing. And the Internet provides an easy platform, a place for like-minded bigots to congregate virtually, rather than feel chastened by social isolation.

Still, I was slightly heartened by one extended antisemitic video clip. In a twist on the now-famous Helen Thomas demand that Israeli Jews “go back” to Poland and Germany, one Occupy demonstrator concluded his antisemitic rant by telling a Jewish man to “go back to Israel.”

At least he acknowledged that Israel is the Jewish homeland.

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