February 15, 2019

I got hate mail: Anti-Semitism on Twitter

On Aug. 31, I sat and listened to Donald Trump’s eagerly anticipated immigration speech in Phoenix. And tears began streaming down my face.

Trump’s speech was filled with racist, xenophobic slurs and fear-mongering. It was counter to the founding values of our country. It was also contrary to the primary teachings and values of Judaism. Providing welcome to the stranger (because we were once strangers) is mentioned more than 36 times in the Torah. 

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).

I needed to speak out as a human being, as an American and as a Jew.

I went to Twitter, where I began to “live tweet.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, a “tweet” is a comment of a maximum of 140 characters. To “live tweet” means that you are commenting on an event currently in progress. It’s like having a huge group of people discussing together from all over the world. It’s usually awesome.

Your tweets show on your Twitter friends’ “feed” and evidently, they are also public. I am uncertain about the algorithms of Twitter.

I’m conscious about who I accept as “Twitter friends.” I check to make sure someone is not racist or sexist or lurid. If so, I decline.

By the end of the night, I had begun to receive, from people I do not know, and with whom I am not “Twitter friends,” hateful messages that stunned me. I tweeted, sarcastically:

“Well that was fun. Just blocked 10 ppl with Hitler/racist/white supremacist/ views.”

I went to bed after posting a beautiful photo with the words, “I can’t go to bed without putting love & beauty out into the world,” because I didn’t want the ugliness of the evening to be how I ended the day.

By the next morning, my Twitter wall was littered with hundreds of messages, many accompanied by photos of Hitler, crematoriums, swastikas, caricatures of Jews, and transport trains.

These messages were not from friends. I don’t know these people.

It was landslide of enormous hatred.  Even though I was tweeting about immigrants and refugees from around the world, what was directed at me was about being a Jew. Maybe because my twitter handle is @RabbiJill. Maybe because Donald Trump’s candidacy has emboldened a sick undercurrent of hatred to emerge.

In my entire life, I have never experienced this volume of anti-Semitism. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. However, as an adult, we lived in places where we were the only Jews on the block.

At first, I literally felt sick to my stomach. 

And then, I got angry.

These people, who don’t even know me, wanted to silence me.

And it’s not going to happen.

My husband and family were concerned. My grown kids checked my privacy settings to be sure our home address or phone numbers were not public. A few of the messages were absolutely threatening (like the one where someone took my profile photo and superimposed “Jewish Propaganda” on it.)

After some research, I had a plan. I took screenshots of each tweet. I blocked people and I reported many to Twitter. If a tweet is offensive or harmful, you can ask Twitter to investigate. If the user is found to be violating Twitter decency rules,  the account can be closed. 

I reported more than 60 people. I haven’t heard a word from Twitter (yet.) Its employees might be busy. There is an uptick in the amount of hate speech being reported. I’m not alone.

Some friends advised me to ignore the tweets and to not give them any attention.

I don’t agree. 

I believe it is our duty to expose this hate.

People need to know that Donald Trump’s candidacy has made it legitimate to spew this vileness. He has made it acceptable to be “politically incorrect.” The dike has broken and it’s ugly. Better that it be out in the open.

We say in Jewish circles, “Never again.” 

It’s not only “never again” for the slaughter of millions.

It is also “never again” to let this kind of hate spill over without comment.

Here are a few other gleanings from this experience: 1) Facebook is a love-fest compared with Twitter. When I posted about this situation on Facebook, I received so much loving support it made me cry (with gratitude).

I’m not quitting Twitter. I have made friends — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists from all over the world. Good, kind, funny people. I’m not going to be chased away from relationships that give me hope and make me laugh. I also learn things on Twitter that I don’t elsewhere. Why let them win?

Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants. The prosperity we enjoy in this country is only possible because our ancestors were able to come here and thrive.

When I see the pictures of the children of Aleppo, Syria, and other refugees wandering, looking for a safe place, my heart opens. It is my deep belief that we are better because of our diversity.

Our job on planet Earth is to build bridges, not walls. The country that I want to be in, is one that welcomes all, and where love is stronger than fear.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman founded the Jewish Mindfulness Network (JMN). She was rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Temple Beth El in Riverside and Etz Rimon in Carlsbad. In Jerusalem, she worked at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Her website is ravjill.com.