PARIS - Twitter is a great tool, capable of changing lives. It opens a window on the world, an embodiment of a new kind of digital solidarity.
All the same, in the past few days, many people in France had an eye-opening experience as they discovered Twitter’s unsavory side. The anti-Semitic hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodjew), which for a while was the third most popular hashtag on Twitter, revealed an uninhibited barbarity, recycling stereotypes of a bygone era.
The tweets were a mix of references to the Holocaust, Zionism, anti-Semitism and history into a nauseating ideological stew. The worst were the calls for murder, intoned like a gruesome litany: "A good Jew is a dead Jew." ... "A good Jew is a pile of ashes."
After this 140-character avalanche of hate, some commentators have said that while some were anti-Semitic, not all tweets were offensive but rather just crude attempts at humor. Who knows "A good Jew knows how to get a Jewish woman's number: by rolling up her sleeve" might be somebody's idea of black humor.
But it is the broader environment that cannot be ignored. In France, this is an anxious time for the French Jewish community. With the murders of Jewish schoolchildren by Mohamed Merah, the attack on a kosher grocery in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, and the anti-Islam film wrongly attributed to a Jewish filmmaker, relations among religious groups in France have never been so tense.
In this context, a misguided attempt at humor is contaminated by the anti-Semitic tweets before and after it. We read it differently because it is embedded in the viciousness around it. A joke is not just a joke anymore, it is charged with a message.
To believe that humor makes it okay to say horrible things is just wrong. Even when someone says something "jokingly," they are still saying it. This is not only a way to try to make a violent message acceptable, but also implies complicity: we are not laughing here with Jews, we are laughing at Jews.
Some have used the words “freedom of expression” to justify the unjustifiable, or have brought up the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoons as shorthand for anti-Islamic sentiment.
That conveniently passes over the fact that Charlie Hebdo mocked a rabbi on its front cover without causing any protests, as well as the fact that anti-Semitism is a crime in France, while blasphemy is not. Laughing at six million deaths and calling for murder is not something that can be compared to a cartoon in a satirical magazine, even a tasteless one.
"Freedom of expression" -- all these youthful anti-Semites pouring out hate repeat this word, without understanding its meaning. True, Twitter did not invent anti-Semitism, but it has become a sounding board for anti-Semites. Under cover of anonymity, they feel free to speak. The format makes it easy. The mob effect created by the hashtag encourages users to let loose, and anonymity lets them say whatever they like. Most of all, faced with a collective phenomenon, individuals lose their sense of responsibility.
What can we do? Individual users should be sanctioned, but this is hard to carry out because of anonymity. But silence is not a satisfactory answer.
Some people have said that to speak out would be to give in to the myth of "Jewish repression." Anti-Semites believe in a Jewish conspiracy even if we do nothing. Our actions must not be dependent on their mistaken beliefs. Speaking out will not erase anti-Semitism, but it will prevent the mob effect, the mainstreaming of clichés and the one-upmanship of horror. If we continue to be confronted with such ideas, we will subconsciously start to believe they are okay.
In a twist of fate, last Sunday, French television was showing the Holocaust film "La Rafle" ("The Round Up"), a movie on the mass arrest and deportation of Jews in Paris during the summer of 1942. This time, the tweets were more reassuring. Teenagers seemed to be moved, as they discovered this tragic period of French history.
A racist is someone who is angry at the wrong person. An anti-Semite is too. Let us hope that education and sanctions will succeed in making this faceless crowd aware of its responsibility, so that this time, history is not repeated.