TikTok Can Be a Great Place to Share About Judaism. Until It’s Not.

For Jewish creators on TikTok, the fun comes with a hefty dose of antisemitism.

It seems as if the kids on TikTok are churning out a new trend nearly every week. The never-ending scroll of the “For You Page” sends users on a twisting path of all sorts of niches and topics. The app truly has something for every interest, from sea shanty challenges to tortilla wrap hacks to — antisemitic caricatures?

Yeah, there are a lot of those. Let’s get into it.

Back in April, controversy swelled about a trend based on the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from the famous Jewish musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Many creators had been using this audio along with the “Expressify” filter, which distorts facial expressions, in order to make their own lip-synced videos. This filter turns the user’s face back and forth from a wide grin to an exaggerated frown. It’s somewhere between funny and downright creepy.

Many have pointed out that the combination of the classic Jewish song and the ugly faces is reminiscent of the infamous antisemitic “happy merchant” caricature. Though I personally think this trend can be chalked up to ignorance of the history of Jewish stereotypes rather that direct antisemitic intent, TikTok’s use of “If I Were a Rich Man” sets the scene of the environment Jewish creators are forced to exist within.

In May, another concerning antisemitic incident took place on TikTok. Lily Ebert, a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, took to the app to wish TikTok a “lovely, peaceful weekend” and “Shabbat Shalom.” Despite the mundanity and kindness of this video, it quickly became the subject of a swarm of hateful comments. Responses ranged from “Happy Holocaust” and “Peace be upon Hitlar [sic]” to one which asked if she believed the treatment of Palestinians reminded her of her treatment in the camps. All of this for a grandmother’s simple greeting. Sadly, this experience of antisemitic hate isn’t exactly unique.

TikTok, as a video-sharing app, is a highly visual medium. With that, most creators share their faces in their videos, and often post about highly personal topics. However, it’s also possible to have an anonymous account, and many on the app use their accounts simply to like videos and post comments. These two usages combined lead to an environment where many openly Jewish creators are exposed to antisemitic remarks from faceless mobs.

Hero Magnus, a university student and TikToker, explains how her Judaism-related content would often get slammed by offensive comments.

“The really vicious comments are usually from actual Nazis, and I just block and delete. When I was making a ton of Jewish content, I would get a couple of those on practically every video,” she explains. “I often also got casually mean stuff from Christians or culturally Christian atheists who wanted to tell me that Judaism is backwards, cultish or stupid.”

Additionally, Jews of Color on TikTok experience vitriol both from outside the Jewish community and within.

Shekhiynah Larks, a Black Jewish TikTok creator, describes that, in fact, most of the antisemitism she experiences on the app comes from white Jews and Black non-Jews, not Neo-Nazis.

“When I do receive antisemitic comments, it’s more coded with anti-Blackness at the same time,” Larks says. “It’s more people posting ‘free Palestine’ on my page and asking me how I can be Black and a Jew, I’m being brainwashed by white Jews, and that I don’t care about Black people.”

She also notes that many white Jews comment on her videos asking her invasive questions that probe into her Jewish identity and conversion, showing they don’t really view her as Jewish enough.

While the invalidation of Jews of Color is rampant throughout the Jewish community in real life as well, on TikTok, these racist commenters may feel more empowered to voice their backwards views behind anonymous accounts.

Further, Larks’ experience with “free Palestine” comments is not unique. All over the app, Jews have voiced concern about their videos being inundated with comments of that same statement. While the phrase “free Palestine” itself is in no way antisemitic, the way it’s utilized on the app is more worrying.

Many Jewish creators have described being spammed with “free Palestine” comments or the Palestinian flag emoji on videos that in no way discuss Israel or the occupation. Videos simply on Jewish cultural and religious practice, or even ones where someone is visibly wearing a Star of David, are subject to these kinds of comments.

Especially recently, since the resurgence of hostilities and violence between Israel and Gaza, this issue has only increased. Antisemitic violence and hate speech has been on the rise as much of the justifiable anger towards the Israeli government gets unjustifiably thrown at random Jews. While many of these instances are happening out on the streets, there has also been a noticeable increase in violent speech to Jews online under the guise of Palestinian justice.

Both Magnus and Larks agree that most of the people commenting “free Palestine” and similar sentiments do not seem to actually be Palestinian, but just trolls looking to irritate Jewish creators.

Magnus explains, “I don’t have a responsibility to educate on the occupation simply because I’m Jewish.” However, Magnus does believe she has an opportunity with her platform to challenge the narrative many North American Jews are taught about Israel, if she so chooses.

TikTok can also be a great place to discuss Jewish issues that may not get a lot of mainstream attention.

Larks’ content, for example, highlights non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities, such as the Bnei Menashe people of India and the Bnei Anusim of Latin America, who are often overlooked in Jewish discourse.

But TikTok has a long way to go in order to make its Jewish and POC users feel safe on the app. The app has stated that it’s moving forward with harsher responses on hate speech, such as banning Holocaust denial videos, but there is still more to be done in order to protect vulnerable creators. For example, there is currently no way to filter out topics or keywords on TikTok, the way you can on Twitter. Implementing those sorts of controls could be helpful for Jewish users who do not want to see antisemitic videos over and over again in their feeds.

So many Jewish TikTokers are making exceptional content on the app, and it’s amazing to see the plethora of topics and experiences reaching thousands of eyes. However, it’s worrying to know that TikTok, with its exceedingly young user base, is generally still pretty toxic for its Jewish creators.

Aviva Majerczyk

Aviva Majerczyk is a student at Concordia University in Montreal, studying communications and religious studies. She enjoys writing about music, entertainment, and feminist issues. She is also an editor at her school’s newspaper, The Concordian. Aviva was a 2019-2020 Alma Ambassador.

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