TikTok removed the account a far-right Jewish supremacist organization this month. This is the third time in the past year that Lehava, an anti-assimilation group infamous for its firebrand racial politics, is banned from the platform.
TikTok, which blocked the group’s account after a complaint was filed by a left-wing nonprofit, did not officially say what the reason was the blocking was. However, in its response to the group, Mehazkim, it hinted that the decision was made because the leader, led by Bentzi Gopstein, incites violence against Arabs and uses TikTok to spread hate speech.
“The safety of the members of our community is our first priority,” said TikTok. “Our community rules make it clear that we do not allow any offensive content or hatred on the platform and we condemn acts of violence of any type. We act constantly to remove offensive content and even prevent them from posting to the platform, and take the action of blocking accounts when necessary,” said the company.
The blocking of the account last week is not the only sanction taken by social media companies against far-right Kahanist activists recently. On Wednesday Facebook reported that it had permanently blocked the pages of far-right activists Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari, because of their support for Kahanist organization that are on lists of terrorist organizations.
All three are followers of the late anti-Arab rabbi, Meir Kahane. Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi, served one term in the Knesset in the 1980s as head of the Kach party, which advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries and also called for a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Kahane’s movement was subsequently banned from Israeli politics as racist and its U.S. affiliate group was also outlawed in America.
The recent spat of bans follow others by other social media platforms. For example, in May, WhatsApp also decided to block some 30 accounts linked to the main political party associated with the extreme Jewish right - Otzmah Yehudit. WhatsApp deactivted the accounts of key activists and their supporters, including the account of Gopstein’s wife. At the time, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said: “We do not respond to specific accounts, but we do block access to accounts that break the law and do not meet our guidelines on preventing violence.”
Lehava’s history with TikTok began in October 2020, when the group opened its first account.
This resulted in a rather large amount of media attention, but the account was removed within a few days. A few months later, the group opened a different account which it used to post videos, including about Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip in May and the severe riots in Jerusalem and other cities. The account operated alongside a number of other accounts on other social media platforms, including Telegram and WhatsApp. Lehava used these accounts to enlist hundreds of activists, some of whom confronted police officers and attacked Arabs in a number of incidents, such as a march to “restore Jewish dignity.”
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, has had a somewhat dramatic year in Israel. After the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, TikTok decided to hire a local lobbyist. Following the wave of violence which occurred in mixed Jewish-Arab cities this April and May, there were calls on law enforcement agencies to find ways to prevent the dissemination of video clips showing violence on the popular social network.
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In the weeks preceding those incidents, other video clips showing violent actions of Arabs against ultra-Orthodox Jews stoked tensions in Israel. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had even suggested freezing access to the platform, a suggestion that was rejected by legal officials.
“During Operation Guardian of the Walls we saw how Lehava set the street on fire with the help of WhatsApp groups, Telegram and their TikTok account,” said the director and founder of Mehazkim, Ori Kol. “The incitement worked and blood was spilled. Now TikTok is acting responsibly when they removed the users who encourage terror.”
The same account was clocked at the beginning of May because of a request from Mehazkim to TikTok. But it seems the account returned to operation under the slogan: “We are in favor of peace with the Arabs [heart emoji] but when they don’t want it, we will be the first to throw [them] to the dogs!”
It is not clear how or when the account returned online, but it is possible that the movement appealed its removal, and their objection was accepted. But Mehazkim turned to TikTok once again when it discovered that the account was active again, and it was again removed.
In June, Israeli television reported that Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to declare Lehava a terrorist organization. Bar-Lev said last month that he has in the past made similar requests when he was Knesset member prior to becoming a minister.
“I met with [Mendelblit] as the Public Security Minister too and he said the matter was under examination,” Bar-Lev said. “I assume it is not a simple process in legal terms, but I hope that in the end it will succeed.”
However, Mehazkim says that according to Israel’s anti-terror laws, the responsibility for declaring any group as a terrorist organization does not belong to the attorney general or the public security minister – it is the responsibility of the defense minister, in this case Benny Gantz.
Kol said it was regrettable that while TikTok is acting against groups that incite to violence and violate its community standards, Gantz has not yet acted against a group that violates the law.
“We must not wait for the next Baruch Goldstein,” Kold said, referencing the settler physician from New York who shot nearly 200 Arab worshippers at a Hebron mosque in 1995, killing 29 of them. “We call on the government and the rest of the social media to put an end to this abandonment and declare Lehava a terrorist organization, like the rest of the Kahanist organizations, to protect our children from their racist poison,” said Kol.