How the Ugly Depths of Online Anti-Semitism Reached the U.S. Capitol

January 27, 2021

By Katrina Lantos Swett and Yigal Carmon

Each year, the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. On this date in 1945, the Red Army liberated the largest of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau.  As the children of Holocaust survivors, we observe this day with deep sorrow, but also with a fervent commitment to the solemn vow of “never again”. Yet, this year, the day comes with almost fresh images of neo-Nazis rampaging through the U.S. Capitol – one of them proudly wearing a shirt with the slogan “Camp Auschwitz”.

Anti-Semitism is the world’s most ancient and enduring hatred. We have never been under the illusion that its time has passed, or that the world has successfully moved beyond it. But the events of the past few weeks have brought into sharp relief a disturbing reality: white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in America are more emboldened today than they have been in decades. The Anti-Defamation League reported that 2019 had the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents since it started tracking them in 1979. These forms of hatred have led to the unspeakable tragedies of the Pittsburgh and Poway attacks and the devastation of Jewish communities. Perhaps nothing has played a greater role in energizing anti-Semitism in America than the free-for-all of the modern internet, which gives people an easy way to connect, share, and spread their particular brand of hate and incitement.

Our respective organizations, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), partnered to produce a 2019 report titled The Hater Next Door: Online Incitement Against Minorities in America. The report examined and exposed online expressions of explicit hatred and demonization of targeted communities, including Jewish individuals, people of color, Muslims, feminists, and members of the LGBTQ community. Over four months of research, it found that purveyors of online hate are not necessarily ideologically homogeneous – some are distinctly neo-Nazi, others are fascist, still other voices are specifically racist, segregationist, etc. But one important commonality was the prevalence of “calls to action” that accompany nearly all vitriolic expressions of hatred on the internet. “Reading the actual posts from online platforms makes it clear that these individuals must be exposed and stopped before they act on their evil impulses,” we wrote in the report. “Our goal above all is to prompt action to save innocent lives.” The Pittsburgh and Poway murderers each spent time online and were likely motivated in part by fringe, anti-Semitic internet sites and channels inciting violence.

We know that this month’s riot and storming of the U.S. Capitol did, indeed, cost innocent lives and will leave an indelible mark on generations of Americans. Moreover, our research shows that the actions of this violent mob, comprising people spouting many forms of hate and bigotry, had their genesis – and certainly found common cause – by way of the internet.

In the weeks leading up to and on January 6, MEMRI’s Domestic Terrorism Threat Monitor found shocking examples of extremist and anti-Semitic language and imagery across social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Gab, Parler and Telegram. These posts often included violent anti-Semitic rhetoric alongside calls to attack the very center of American democracy. One Telegram post from January 6 reads, “Burn down the Capitol building, burn down America, burn down this kike system. We will have total Aryan victory.” Other posts, far too numerous to list here, called for the killing of Jews and Muslims and the toppling of the U.S. government, featured anti-Semitic images, including swastikas, and made reference to the Jewish people as “rat-people parasites from the infernal abyss”.

The events of January 6 may have finally shocked our society – law enforcement, the media, legislators and even the public – into placing greater focus and emphasis on combatting the dangers of online hate and incitement. It may have taken such a moment of collective disbelief to fully recognize that the “highways of hate” on the internet can translate into devastating real-life consequences. It is our fervent hope that we can at least learn from this dark day in American history. We hope that lawmakers will take strong action to regulate the internet in a way that safeguards our vital, constitutionally protected freedom of speech fairly and without ideological bias, but also protects our citizens from speech that incites violence and life-threatening peril. We must also re-examine the role of giant social media companies and consider whether they have become analogous to public utilities requiring reasonable oversight to ensure that they are acting in the public interest.

Important as these potential reforms are, we must remember that the fight against anti-Semitism, or any form of hatred, will never be won through government-imposed regulation alone, and it cannot be waged only on the internet. Indeed, during the Holocaust itself, it was more often the actions of a small collection of brave individuals who refused to turn away from evil that made the difference between life and death. We use the term the “righteous among the nations” to describe the non-Jews who took great personal risks and sometimes paid the ultimate price to save their Jewish countrymen, or simply their fellow human beings. Their examples remind us of the power that each of us has to push back evil.

We will rarely need to take such great risks in our day and age, but we surely cannot hope to beat the scourge of anti-Semitism and bigotry without the collective power of brave citizens who refuse to be silent in the face of evil. Let us heed the words of the Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, “There is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings…in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Americans of all faiths, backgrounds, and political ideologies must come together and take responsibility for making our beloved country more just and safer for all those who find themselves the target of hate and violent incitement.

Katrina Lantos Swett is President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice. She is a human rights professor at Tufts University and the former chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. Yigal Carmon is the President and Founder of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Between 1988-93 he served as Advisor on Countering Terrorism to two Israeli Prime Ministers.

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