Social media is a melting pot for self-expression. Whether it’s an Instagram photo posted to your feed after hours of meticulous selection, a carefully curated tweet or a TikTok put together with friends, each post someone makes is a glimpse inside their head, a preview of what they think and believe.
Users make their splash in tons of different ways, ranging from an encouraging comment on a friend’s post to activism and advocacy. Kids, teenagers and adults alike are able to hop behind their screens and talk about an endless list of relevant, important issues they may never have engaged with otherwise.
Social media exploded with support and advocacy for Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. This past November, when tragedy struck Oxford High School, social media erupted once again with support and love for those affected. University of Michigan students were no exception.
There’s no doubt that social media has become a source for spreading awareness, love and education. But what does what is not shared say about someone?
Late last month was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a heavy day for Jews around the world. Post after post popped up on my feed, all from Jewish organizations, Jewish friends and Jewish family. But from my non-Jewish friends: radio silence.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I had watched the same thing happen just last month when a synagogue in Texas was taken hostage by a gunman. I had thought to myself that this time, surely, someone would speak up. Who could sit back and watch such an atrocious display of antisemitism and remain silent? Yet, it was the same: radio silence.
You do not need to be Jewish to notice the void here. With the millions of Instagram posts on hashtags for other, vital, social causes, #antisemitism has garnered merely 121,000.
Even in normal circumstances, social media is not the most supportive place for Jewish people to be unabashedly themselves. NBC News cataloged the experiences of about a half a dozen Jewish teens in the fall of 2020, specifically their experience on the social networking app TikTok. What they consistently describe is a pattern of hatred, antisemitism and harassment. The online space may often be negative for Jews, but another concerning occurrence is the erasure altogether of Jewish voices and struggles.
Why is this the case? Why is it that individuals who use their platforms to speak out about marginalized groups skirt around Jews and antisemitism? Is it rooted in fear? It can be scary to post about something you don’t completely understand, or haven’t experienced yourself, but how else do we learn and spread awareness?
I began by trying to put myself into the shoes of a non-Jewish person. Perhaps they regularly post about issues relevant to different social identity groups. They are confronted with a glaring news headline: Synagogue in Texas targeted by gunman. They recognize how horrible the situation is, yet cannot bring themselves to even reshare a post.
The following week, a handful of posts remind them that it is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. After a solemn moment of reflection, they decide they don’t need to post. After all, it was a long time ago, and what’s their post going to do anyway? They didn’t have family affected by the Holocaust.
I went through these scenarios over and over, yet each time found myself circling back to the same disturbing conclusion I’d been stubbornly ignoring: We are taught that antisemitism is a thing of the past. Even when Jews around the world are blowing the whistle, demanding to be heard, the sound goes unnoticed.
Unfortunately, conversations today surrounding Jewish issues are often placed on the back burner and tend to look a lot like this.
What we’re taught: The Holocaust? It was horrible, but it would never happen again. I mean, it was so long ago.
Reality: It was less than 100 years ago. Many survivors of the Holocaust are still living today.
What we’re taught: A gunman at a synagogue? That’s awful, really, but it’s more of a gun violence issue, right? How do we really know it was tied to antisemitism?
Reality: He walked up to a synagogue.
If this is the narrative, how do we change it? How do we force society to view antisemitism as something that is real and affecting Jews everywhere, and end this social media blackout once and for all?
Some of it starts with education. We are taught to overlook antisemitism, to view it as a thing of the past. Jewish history has to be a topic of discussion everywhere, not just in Jewish communities and schools. Holocaust education is just one of the many areas that are lacking. A recent study centered on Millennials and Gen Z found that 48% of those interviewed could not name a single ghetto or concentration camp. Just recently Tennessee banned the graphic novel “Maus,” a work that retells a narrative of the Holocaust through rodents. Banning books should concern everyone, but the specific banning of educational material related to the Holocaust should set off alarm bells in a time of worsening antisemitism.
Some of this vitriol is tied to Israel. There is a much too broad association between American Jews and the actions of the Israeli government. One can support Jewish self-determination and independence while still believing in freedom for the Palestinian people. The two are far from mutually exclusive, and until we as a society move past this assumption, many will remain afraid to speak up about Jewish issues.
Now is the time to act. The Anti-Defamation League described 2019 as an “All-Time High” in American incidences of antisemitism. The portrayal, or rather dismissal, of Jewish voices paves the way for real world violence against Jewish people. Jewish people are having to go to more extreme lengths to protect themselves. Business Insider recently reported that some synagogues pay in excess of $75,000 per year for necessary security.
Like any other social movement, combatting antisemitism starts with the actions of a single person. Share a post. Make your voice heard. This alone can help to make Jews everywhere feel heard and safe. Here at the University of Michigan, there is a vibrant, active Jewish community, and reaching out to lend your support can go a long way.
Together, Jews and non-Jews can make a difference. They can fill the void of silence on social media that should be overflowing with discussions of Jewish issues. Each individual voice matters. Together, let’s shed some light on a situation that has been in the dark for far too long.
Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org