How Jews Are Re-claiming a Hateful neo-Nazi Symbol on Twitter

To combat the online vitriol, Jews and non-Jews alike are adopting a controversial new method which, some critics say, is equivalent to pinning a yellow 'Jude' star to one’s shirt.

Twitter (illustrative).
Twitter (illustrative). Dreamstime

It is not a particularly pleasant time to be a Jew on the Internet.

In recent weeks, Jewish journalists, political candidates and others with Jewish-sounding names have endured a torrent of anti-Semitic vitriol online, much of it coming from self-identified supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Until it was removed last week, a user-generated Google Chrome extension allowed those who installed it to identify Jews and coordinate online attacks against them. It has gotten so bad that the Anti-Defamation League has announced that it is forming a task force to address racism and anti-Semitism on social media.

Last week, Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, decided to fight back. He changed his Twitter username to (((Goldberg))), co-opting a symbol that neo-Nazis and others associated with the so-called “alt-right” use to brand Jews on blogs, message boards, and social media. The “echoes,” as they are called, allude to the alleged sins committed by Jews that reverberate through history, according to Mic, a news site geared toward millennials that first explained the origins of the symbol.

Then Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine, another popular troll target, encouraged his followers to put parentheses around their names as a way to “raise awareness about anti-Semitism, show solidarity with harassed Jews and mess with the Twitter Nazis.” Several journalists and other Jewish professionals followed suit, and the “thing,” as Internet “things” are wont to do, took off.

Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times editor who changed his username to (((Jon Weisman))) over the weekend, wrote on Twitter that the campaign was a way to show “strength and fearlessness” in the face of bigotry. Weisman was the victim of a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse last month after he tweeted the link to an article in the Washington Post that was critical of Trump. Weisman retweeted much of the filth — including memes of hook-nosed Jews and depictions of Trump in Nazi regalia — that came his way. “Better to have it in the open,” he wrote. “People need to choose sides.”

In Israel, where Twitter is less popular than other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, a small number of journalists, including Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, joined the cause.

Many non-Jews also added the parentheses to their usernames out of solidarity. Among them was NAACP President Cornell Brooks, who tweeted on Saturday: “Founded by Jews & Blacks, the haters might as well hate mark our name [too]: (((@NAACP))).”

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, told Haaretz that she joined the campaign after being targeted on Twitter. “I don’t know if they thought I was Jewish or that they are just awful,” said Tanden, who is Indian-American and not Jewish. “Anti-Semitism is as hateful as racism and sexism and as a progressive, I stand against it.”

Yet the cheeky campaign struck some Jews as unseemly, the virtual equivalent of willingly pinning a yellow “Jude” star to one’s shirt. On Sunday, the journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted that she was “really uncomfortable with people putting their own names in anti-Semitic parentheses.”

Journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted in anti-semitic tweets after writing a profile of Donald Trump's wife Melania.
Screenshot/Twitter

Ioffe, who filed a police report in Washington, D.C. last month after receiving threatening messages following the publication of an article she wrote about Melania Trump, told Haaretz that she understood the purpose of the campaign and was not calling for others to abstain from participating. Nevertheless, she said, it only seemed to provoke more harassment.
 
“The second I started tweeting about it, all those bottom dwellers immediately rose to the surface and said things like, ‘You’re doing our work for us,’” Ioffe said.

Goldberg explained that his goal was simply to mock neo-Nazis by reclaiming and neutralizing an element of their online culture, such as it is. He said he was inspired by “the way the LGBT community took the word ‘queer’ and made it their own.” (On Sunday, he reversed the parentheses around his last name. Why? “Just because I can.”)

In a statement to Haaretz, ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt wrote: “There’s no single antidote to anti-Semitism posted on Twitter. An effective response includes investigating and exposing the sources of hate, enforcing relevant terms of service, and promoting counterspeech initiatives. From our perspective, the effort by Jeffrey Goldberg and others to co-opt the echo symbols is one positive example of clever counterspeech.” On Monday, the ADL added the triple parentheses to its online hate symbols database. 

The parentheses are beginning to disappear from Jewish Twitter usernames as “our little war on #altright,” in Weisman’s words, seems to have reached a stalemate. But the debate about whether or not it was “good for the Jews” to out themselves in such a way is still roiling.

Mordechai Lightstone, a rabbi in Brooklyn who works in the Jewish social media world, said it was dangerous “if we only subvert these hateful acts and use that as the sole basis to define our identities.” A better solution, he said, would be to “channel this into positive actions expressing Jewish pride.” 

How best to fight back against the anti-Semitic trolls is both a moral and logistical dilemma, according to Ioffe. She noted that it is impossible to determine how many there are and whether or not they are real people or bots. (The "Coincidence Detector" Chrome extension that automatically put parentheses around Jewish-sounding names had been downloaded about 2,500 times before it was removed by Google for violating its policy against harassment.)

“It’s hard to figure out how to strike that balance between standing up to them and giving them too much attention, between de-fanging them and giving them more fodder,” she said. “I think it’s something that we Jewish journalists are going to have to continue to grapple with.”