By Emily Schrader
It’s no secret that Arabic social media has a problem with antisemitism. In fact, some of the mainstream sentiments on Arabic social media would shock your average Western reader. Despite the fact that the coronavirus is bringing out some of the very best in humanity, we must also call attention to the fact that it’s bringing out some of the worst as well.
Palestinian and some Arab leaders have used the pandemic to spread and promote antisemitism and irrational anti-Israel hatred, and that example has been spread, emulated, and exaggerated on social media. This has perhaps never been more obvious than last week with the shameful #COVID48 campaign on Yom HaShoah.
As Israel and Jews around the world united to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, social media in Arabic – particularly on Palestinian and Jordanian social media, was filled with posts with the hashtag #COVID48, a reference to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the present day coronavirus crisis. The messages of the posts across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were riddled with incorrect and purposely misleading information accusing Israel of murdering Palestinian children, of intentionally denying Palestinians aid and testing for coronavirus, and other unfounded and debunked accusations.
The content itself was filled with doctored photos and videos demonizing Israel and the IDF, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, and calls for the destruction of Israel. Posts compared Israel to the virus explicitly – both in English and in Arabic. One tweet in English reads, “Nothing but the zionist is the real virus, murdering innocent people, destroying their houses and attacking their families cruelly since 72 years.” Another: “Zionism is more dangerous than COVID-19.”
It’s important to note that this rhetoric is a far cry from being critical of Israel’s policies or the occupation, but rather a collective digital call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
This is not the first time Arabic social media (and social media in general) has been overrun with comparisons of Israel or Jews to the coronavirus. Dozens of cartoons and social media posts have accused Israel or Jews of spreading, or even “being” coronavirus. This antisemitism alone is alarming, but the fact that #COVID48 was trending on social media with over 56,000 conversations in the first few hours of Yom HaShoah certainly says something about the intentions behind the campaign.
A little digging into these posts demonstrates that the campaign originated with students in Jordan – a group called “Children of Palestinian Camps in Jordanian Universities.” The students organized an event, on Yom HaShoah to demonize the Jewish state and spread false information about Israel. Within 30 minutes, the hashtag was trending on Twitter in Jordan. The group also had a planned agenda of comparing Israel to COVID-19 in the days leading up to Yom HaShoah, which focused on Palestinian prisoners, comparing the coronavirus death count to Palestinian death counts, comparing quarantine measures to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Gaza, and finally a culmination of inappropriate comparisons with a international Twitter storm on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. But this online campaign of hate isn’t occurring in a vacuum. It’s coming from the top.
Despite Israel’s unprecedented cooperation with Palestinian leadership, and the routine transfer of aid, medical equipment, COVID-19 tests, and protective gear to Palestinians, some of the Palestinian leaders have been fomenting anti-Israel conspiracies in order to drum up hate. Naturally, terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip is blaming Israel for COVID-19, but one of the ringleaders of the incitement campaign has been Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, who has publicly accused IDF soldiers of intentionally “spreading coronavirus” to Palestinians, and has claimed Israel is refusing to fight coronavirus because “they love money.”
Shtayyeh’s public statements came at the same time Israel is working closely with other Palestinian government officials to effectively combat the spread of coronavirus, and even conducting joint training sessions with Israeli and Palestinian medical professionals from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Shtayyeh’s incitement is dangerous not only because it is untrue, but also because it inspires radicalism in Palestinian communities that is endlessly amplified and exaggerated on social media.
Social media acts as a magnifying glass for everything that occurs in the real world, and with so many voices online, facts are increasingly distorted. When Palestinian leaders are making blatantly untrue statements, that is eventually manifested online as well. Sadly, despite the obvious antisemitic nature of many of the posts with the hashtag, and despite the Holocaust revisionism and subtle calls for the destruction of Israel, the social media networks did not block or remove this hateful hashtag.
Once again, social media platforms have failed the public when it comes to effectively shutting down hate even when it violates their own standards, and the Palestinian leaders have failed their people as well. The result is a larger echo chamber of hatred, antisemitism, conspiracies, and “fake news,” which is the last thing the world needs at a time we should be uniting against COVID-19.
There is a time and a place for legitimate criticism of Israel, but the #COVID48 hashtag and its accompanying messages are most certainly not it.