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Taking aim at online anti-Semitism

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For all the benefits that the internet and social media bring to humanity, malign actors misuse these powerful platforms as vectors of our societal ailments. Anti-Semitism is chief among these pathologies. It has been increasing globally for more than a decade, largely because of its propagation online. 

In response to this growing problem, the Trump administration will broadcast on Oct. 21 and 22 the first-ever U.S. government-sponsored conference on combating online anti-Semitism. Hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the conference (titled “Ancient Hatred, Modern Medium”) will bring together senior U.S. and foreign government leaders, representatives of social media platforms, and prominent voices from the legal community, academia, and civic and religious organizations.

Anti-Semitism online is ideologically diverse. Haters from the far-right far left utilize similar tactics, misusing modern media to spread the ancient hatred with unprecedented speed and reach. The adage has never been truer: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” 

Some foreign governments compound the crisis, using their state apparatus’s full force to spew anti-Semitic disinformation at home and across the globe. 

As concerning as the spread of anti-Semitism on social media has become — in the first eight months of this year, 1.7 million anti-Semitic posts appeared on Twitter and YouTube alone — the depravity is dramatically worse on the “deep web,” where increased anonymity brings out unadulterated venom. 

Parents do not want their children wandering through violent, hate-filled neighborhoods. But in the online world, increasing numbers of the world’s youth are lured into dangerous virtual neighborhoods where they are vulnerable to poisonous influences and can be lost to violent radicalization.

A recent European study found that radicalization to the point of violence is accomplished much more quickly on the internet than through face-to-face interaction.

 The results can be devastating. We have seen murderous attacks on synagogues and schools, vandalism of community buildings, relentless harassment of Jewish university students, and acts of terrorism from those radicalized to violence. The type or source of threat may vary by region and country, but no part of the world has been entirely spared the scourge.

Americans understand that we cannot legislate hatred out of existence, nor can we purge it from the internet. Our bedrock First Amendment protection of freedom of expression means that even despicable speech cannot be subjected to government censorship or punishment. 

But much more can be done to counter the vicious hatemongers. We must address this urgent challenge by creating working alliances among social media giants, ethnic and faith communities, human rights advocacy organizations, and governments. Our conference aims to begin forging such alliances and crafting practical policy solutions.

In this regard, an important tool is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism. The State Department uses it, as do many countries and organizations worldwide, and President Trump recently issued an executive order that employs it for the entire federal government. Defining a threat is the first step in effectively confronting it. It would be critically important for the technology giants to adopt this widely accepted definition, which provides examples of the many forms anti-Semitism takes in today’s world.

There is good news from the frontlines. President Trump has made combating Jew-hatred a top national priority. The administration designated a violent white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, ensured Holocaust education for future generations of schoolchildren, issued an executive order protecting besieged Jewish college students, sent senior government delegations to stand with survivors of violent anti-Semitic attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Brooklyn, Halle, and so many other places, and strongly supports the State of Israel against those seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state.

We have principled partners throughout the world. Many foreign leaders are appalled at rising anti-Semitism and press the issue at home. They appreciate the U.S. resolve in championing this cause. Some of those leaders will be featured in our conference.

While the conference’s focus is anti-Semitism, many of the conclusions and recommendations that emerge will be equally applicable to other forms of online hate. The strategies and alliances formed will serve as tools in the broader cause of defending human dignity and religious freedom everywhere.

It is time for us to come together for the common good. Much more must be done to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred online. We expect our conference will be an important step forward. If governments, faith communities, civic organizations, and individuals of goodwill work together as a coalition of conscience, there is every reason to hope that we will build a better world for our children where hate has no place online or off.

Elan S. Carr is the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. 

Tags Anti-racism Donald Trump Mike Pompeo New antisemitism Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism

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