The phrase in question looks innocent enough at first glance: #unbonjuif - “A good Jew” in French.
Who could guess that these three words would become a magnet for the ugliest kind of anti-Semitism? And now it is also a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over free speech on social networks - when does the free-for-all that happens on Facebook and Twitter cross the line into destructive hate, and when it does – can anything be done about it?
It all began last Wednesday, October 10, when, according to media outlets in France, the hashtag #UnBonJuif on Twitter was rated the third most tweeted subject in France. For those unfamiliar with the ways of Twitter, a hashtag is a topic marked with a pound sign (#) that serves as a sort of a campfire for interested parties to gather around and chat or more often, obsess about it. There is friendly competition to see how many people can use the hashtag in order to have it appear as a “trend” - one of the most-Tweeted topics of the hour or the day. Essentially, Twitter has become the world’s water cooler and the trending topics are what is most discussed.
An article in the prominent French newspaper Le Monde describes the hashtag as “a festival of community 'jokes,' meant to be light, 'fun,' targeting the Jewish community. Most participants deny being anti-Semitic or racist, they advocate a strange form of freedom of expression, devoid of any decency, which would allow anything, even to incite murder - for fun.”
Fun? The contributions can probably best be described as racist humor, but in many cases, cross the line into truly offensive and frightening racism, particularly in the tense atmosphere in France today. And really, are there people who find jokes about the Holocaust funny?
The way Le Monde tells it, it all began when a Twitter user said: “I always wanted to insult Arabs but I care about my life." That’s when his buddy suggested instead that they start #UnBonJuif (A Good Jew)
The paper recounts: “Success was almost immediate, with the keyword literally igniting the network.” And so began the cavalcade of tastelessness, with a heavy emphasis on truly disturbing Holocaust imagery.
Just a few examples:
- #UnBon Juif is hard to cook lol ^ __ ^
- #UnBonJuif should be done medium-rare.
- #UnBonJuif doesn’t exist
- #UnBonJuif is a dead Jew
Hilarious. The worst and most disturbing examples are the ones that paired #UnBonJuif with a picture of concentration camp prisoners. The worst one had to be #UnBonJuif = a picture of a handful of ashes.
Once the controversy became public, there were plenty of critical Tweets, and then clever backlash responses. A running theme in the contributions is the sentiment that Jews are overprotected eternal victims who feel immune from legitimate criticism or humorous teasing.
- #UnBonJuif will criticize the hashtag #UnBonJuif because he sees anti-Semitism everywhere”
- The hashtag #UnBonJuif is not antisemitic. Have a bit of humor, they're only spoofing kindly
- Oh boy, the hashag #UnBonJuif is the talk of the town hahahaha obviously these Jews are too protected
It has been reported widely that the president of the Union of Students of France Jonathan Hayoun has called for an ‘urgent meeting’ with Twitter company representatives. In a statement, he said: "We ask Twitter to take responsibility. Twitter France must ensure that messages which convey racist or anti-Semitic hate speech are not prominent and available to all of its social network. We ask to meet with the leadership of France Twitter to find a solution in consultation. The fight against racism and anti-Semitism is everyone's business, starting with those that regulate social networks.”
Another French website reported that a group called SOS Racism also said it would complain to Twitter and take action against “racist and anti-Semitic excesses" and that it would complain specifically against the accounts from which the worst anti-Semitic messages came. Last year, SOS Racism successfully convinced Apple to withdraw an iPhone application called “Jew or not a Jew” which allowed users to determine whether or not a celebrity or public figure was Jewish, arguing that in France, it is illegal to compile personal data without the consent of that individual.
The case of Twitter and #unbonjuif obviously doesn’t fall into that category legally. So are the expressions of hate on Twitter technically illegal in France?
- 'Good Jew' Tag Soars on French Twitter
- Neo-Nazi Twitterati Foiled in Germany
- Twitter Pulls 'A Good Jew' Hashtag
- Watchdog Decries ‘anti-Semitic Whirlwind’ on Mexican Twitter
- Twitter to Disclose French anti-Semites
It appears that the jury is out. An article in French Slate last summer noted that in France, social networks like Twitter and Facebook have no legal status: they have not been legally defined by case law as being either a private or public space - a big question when it comes to whether the law can step in and severely punish those who use it for hate speech - private hate speech is a minor infraction whereas racist slurs and defamation in public are punishable by steep fines and jail time. The article notes that pursuing criminal action against those who post them is technically hampered by the fact that Twitter - which holds the information that would identify those who post - is located in the U.S., not France.
Ultimately, what is really disturbing is not the medium, but the message - that there were enough Twitter users attracted to #UnBonJuif to make it a trending topic and catch the media’s attention doesn’t speak well to the state of anti-Semitism in France.
But as anyone who has been paying attention to the news knows that these are troubling times for French Jews. Not much has improved since the deadly attacks in Toulouse last spring rocked the community and the country. Over the past month, a man was attacked on the Paris metro for reading a Jewish book, there are gunshots outside synagogues and grenades thrown into a kosher grocery store, and the French president himself publicly vowed to tighten state security at Jewish institutions after “Jewish and Muslim leaders warned …of rising anti-Semitism among young Muslims, two days after the police arrested 11 men and fatally shot one in raids in a handful of cities aimed at young radical French Muslims.”
It should come as no surprise that hate which is so dangerously evident in the real world should show its ugly face onto social networks as well.
(Thanks to Aliza Ben-Tal for assistance in translating from the French)