Each time there is an upsurge in the Israel-Palestine conflict there is a rise in violent and other abusive incidents against Jews around the world. This phenomenon is now well-known. So it was in 2014 with Israel’s military operation ‘Protective Edge’ in July and August. Numerous backlash incidents against Jews in the UK and elsewhere in the world were reported by news media.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become a global phenomenon spreading from Gaza and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank into some of Europe’s major cities and other cities around the world. Jews are seemingly targeted as representatives for the State of Israel and attacked as proxies for the Israel Defence Force. It is a crude form of political violence.
In the UK we have the most robust data collected internationally on the problem of anti-Jewish incidents. Last year, such incidents reportedly more than doubled compared to 2013, according to a report published by the Community Security Trust.
What was noticeable this last time around in the Israel-Gaza conflict of July and August 2014 was an apparent upsurge of abuse against Jews on social media. By the end of July 2014, some of the press were reporting an “explosion” of such abuse.
John Mann MP, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, instigated a parliamentary inquiry into the lessons that could be learned from the upsurge of anti-Jewish incidents associated with last year’s conflict. The report of that inquiry was published this week. It includes some of the key findings concerning anti-Jewish abuse on social media produced by a rapid response analysis commissioned from a team at Lancaster University — Paul Iganski and Abe Sweiry from the Lancaster University Law School, along with Mark McGlashan — as part of their work with the Lancaster University ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science.
We downloaded a sample of 22 million Tweets from July and August 2014 and carried out a detailed analysis of a sub-sample of 38,460 Tweets containing the words “Israel” or “Gaza”, along with the words “Jew”, “Jews” or “Jewish”.
The results were very telling:
- A keyword analysis – one of the core methods of corpus linguistics – showed that in the sub-sample analysed, the spectre of Nazism, with words such as “Hitler”, “Holocaust”, “Nazi” and “Nazis”, was present in the top 35 keywords for the downloaded sample. “Hitler” was mentioned 1117 times; “Holocaust” was mentioned in 505 tweets, and; “Nazi” or “Nazis” were mentioned in 851 tweets.
- The Nazi theme was also evident in hashtags analysed for the sub-sample, with the high frequency of the hashtags #hitler, # hitlerwasright, and #genocide.
While providing a very useful indication of patterns of discourse, keyword analysis and hashtag analysis alone is never sufficient: the contexts of the tweets in which the keywords and hashtags are situated need to be interpreted. Using the linguistic technique of collocation analysis, tweets that seemed to express negative sentiment targeted explicitly at ‘Jews’ were isolated and subjected to a closer reading. Sadly, there was little interpretation that needed to be applied to our sample. The sentiments conveyed were stark:
- Some contained explicit anti-Jewish invective which if shouted out on the streets – as does happen in many incidents – would clearly be racially or religiously aggravated public order offences.
- Others wished violence upon Jews as proxies for Israelis, or simply just as Jews.
- A number expressed the type of sentiment that “Hitler should have finished the job”. Some of these invoked Hitler to return for the task.
- In other tweets, the use of gas chambers for Jews was invoked.
- Others simply included Nazi-slogans.
Deep wounds are scratched when the Nazi-card is played in this way in discourse against Jews. Playing the Nazi-card is not simply abusive. It invokes painful collective memories for Jews and for many others. By using those memories against Jews it inflicts profound hurts. Those who play the Nazi-card know exactly what it means.
Reaction to the military practices of the Israeli state can be expressed in a variety of forceful and trenchant ways – none of which would be antisemitic. The hurts inflicted against Jews when the Nazi card is played cannot be written-off as collateral damage in the protest against Israel, just as the deaths and injuries of innocent Palestinian civilians cannot be written-off as the inevitable casualties of war. As Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, stated in his written evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Against Antisemitism, playing the Nazi-card with a statement such as ‘Hitler was right’, “invokes both a set of antisemitic stereotypes and a genocidal project targeted at Jews”.
In the UK a sufficient statutory framework is arguably in place to prosecute against the types of anti-Jewish abuse we identified by proceedings under the Malicious Communications 1988 or the Communications Act 2003. In such proceedings courts can treat the anti-Jewish abuse as racial or religious aggravation according to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The inquiry’s recommendation therefore that the Crown Prosecution Service should give consideration “to the suitability of existing guidance on communications sent via social media” and “that hate crime guidance material on grossly offensive speech be reviewed to clarify what amounts to ‘criminal acts’ that ‘will be prosecuted'” is opportune.