Women Writers Have Always Been Targeted for Anti-Semitic Hatred

Women Writers Have Always Been Targeted for Anti-Semitic Hatred
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Why it is only now that media is paying serious attention to anti-semitic harassment targeted at journalists?

Last week, the Anti Defamation League (ADL) issued a report detailing the rise in anti-Semitic harassment of journalists via Twitter. While this particular report focuses on the past year and how the presidential campaign fueled hatred, the findings of the report are — unfortunately — nothing new for women journalists in general and in particular Jewish feminist ones. Intersectionality matters. 

According to the ADL’s findings, between August 2015 and July 2016 there were a total of 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic harassment and threats. A portion of those tweets specifically targeted journalists across the political spectrum.  The report shows that the majority of the aggressors sending out vitriolic tweets identify as “Alt-Right” and/or as supporters of presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

“Alt Right” organizations openly encourage a systematic targeting of Jewish journalists, and for some, it’s no longer virtual. Those being harassed have received death threats, and others are targets of a dox list of Jewish journalists, taking the harassment offline and into the “real” world. After she wrote a profile of Melania Trump, journalist Julia Ioffe received tweets rife with slurs and expressions such as, “Back to the Ovens!”  Jewish reporters from prominent outlets such as NPR, Politico, the New York Times, are now getting threats at their homes. The tactics now being employed against the media were honed over a period of several years during Gamergate, a grossly misogynistic online hate campaign that primarily targeted women writers and gamers. For the most part, the mainstream media treated the harassment as a problem in the gaming industry and not a “serious” problem of civil rights and free speech.  

According to the ADL’s report, three of the top 10 most targeted Jewish journalists are women: The Observer’s Dana Schwartz, The Federalist contributor Bethany Mandel, and CNN’s Sally Kohn, who is the fourth most targeted Jewish journalist overall on Twitter.  The study did not examine the problem from the perspective of the intersection of gender and anti-Semitism, however. It makes sense that the majority of the top ten targeted journalists were men given the focus on Twitter, where men are more retweeted and verified. The structure of the study’s questions and analysis also made it difficult for to capture the kind of cross-platform, sexualized and sustained harassment that women writers are more likely to face.

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During the years that I have been a writer, I’ve experienced my own share of anti-Semitic harassment via social media. While it has increased over the past year, it has been going on for much longer than that. I’m no stranger to being on the receiving end of horrific and violent memes, being to told to “leave this country,” to “go back to where I belong,” and have had “Jew” tossed my way as if it’s a slur, rather than part of my identity.  As a woman writer on the internet, however, this is just one more arrow in the quiver of hate that I’ve been attacked with. Many women (regardless of religion) have a deep understanding of the hate Jewish journalists have been experiencing simply because they exist online, which somehow is a green light to open the floodgates of harassment. And that is why, despite this eye-opening report and the quick response from the media in covering it, many women — both Jewish and not — are left wondering what took so long for this issue to get some real attention.

“The price I had to pay for being a woman in public was an immense amount of abuse every day. Sometimes with violent threats attached,” says Jennifer Pozner, Media Critic and author of Reality Bites Back.  PoznerPozner’s threats have also moved from online to off.  Pozner returned home one day several years ago to find a note on her door from a man promising to “find you and your mom and rape you both.” While she still uses Twitter occasionally, Pozner — who is working on an anthology related to harassment and social media now prefers to use other platforms, like Facebook, where she has more control. “It was too much after awhile,” she explains. “I’m not as active as I used to be. I don’t use Twitter every day as a site of public discourse like I did before. I could not use the platform in as constructive a way that I wanted to without imbibing a daily onslaught of abuse.”

Dean Obeidallah, an Arab-American writer and comedian placed parentheses around his name on Twitter to stand with Jewish Americans against, as he put it, “… anti-Semitic hate being spewed by white supremacists online.” Obeidallah, who, earlier this year, wrote about anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists and Trump’s despicable refusal to denounce them for The Atlantic, has been a staunch ally when it comes to fighting online harassment. “I am not just upset and disgusted with hate being spewed against my own community (Muslims), but against any minority group in America,” he explains.

Author and activist Jaclyn Friedman has taken on online harassment and online misogyny throughout her career and feels that the current wave of attention regarding harassment has a very gendered slant. “I think the very recent narrative about it stems from the fact that men are being targeted now.”  Friedman hasn’t noticed a rise in anti-Semitic tweets directed at her over the last year but notes that online harassment has been constant over many years. “I’ve been getting harassed for years. It’s not like this has just started,” she says, echoing what Pozner and many other women with an online presence have expressed.  “I think it is important to call out the sexism in it,” Friedman says. “The harassment that folks like Sady Doyle, Aminatou Sow, and Jessica Valenti have been receiving after the most recent WikiLeaks dump, but Jamil Smith hasn’t received the same type of harassment? He isn’t in hiding. It is so gendered, and seeing that erased is incredibly frustrating.”

Friedman and Pozner are among many women who raised early alerts about why online harassment matters and how it affects traditionally  marginalize voices. When it comes to women, religion, sex, race, age, and appearance are all fair game for harassers when “critiquing” women.  Studies show that, for example, when male journalists ideas are called out their harassment is less gendered and sustained. The disparity has always been pretty clear. Yet, the minute these violent and vitriolic attacks spread to men, we start to see more coverage of the issue.

Had researchers started looking at the harassment women have been dealing with online before now, perhaps a better pattern could have been detected or responsive privacy and  security measures developed by media platforms and institutions in place to handle this.  Either way, it’s not looking too bright. Donald Trump’s win validates the harassing behavior that has spiked in the last year and his naming Steve Bannon, whose platform, Breitbart, was a major nexus of alt-right networked hatred, doesn’t suggest understanding or a commitment to change. 

“I feel that there will be actual bloodshed,” laments Friedman. “I think that there is some subset of these guys — and I say guys incisively — who are not going to just say they lost and go home. I think certainly you’re going to see a wild increase in online harassment and abuse. Just the acting out of anger will be terrifying. I would be surprised if it doesn’t result in some real world flesh and blood violence. It’s very scary. I think that violent — both online and off — will be both anti-Semitic and misogynist and racist.”

Socially tolerated targeting of women writers online in these ways was a canary in the coalmine.

Avital Norman Nathman

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, The Daily Dot, Rolling Stone, SheKnows, CNN, and more.

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Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact permissions@womensmediacenter.com. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.