A Facebook Group Blew Up and Jewish Voices Were Silenced

LAST APRIL, Amanda Krekau, a 35-year-old editor in California, started a new version of a Facebook group that had recently blown up over its posting of a job at the right-wing Fox News. Krekau’s new group—“Binders Full of Writing Jobs— Anti-Racist Edition”—was another spinoff of the Binders, a private Facebook group for women writers that started in 2014, spawned a plethora of subgroups, and is still going strong. Krekau is Jewish, considers herself politically on the left, and says she likes to take on tough subjects. Her personal Facebook page (independent of her postings on Binders) includes musings over antisemitism on the Left, and what the word “Zionist” means to her, as an American, a Jew, and a leftist.

A few weeks after Krekau’s new group was up and running, one of its members friended her and saw Krekau’s posts on her personal Facebook page. This person then posted to everyone in Krekau’s new job-seeking Facebook group that she was “concerned” about Krekau’s personal “defense” of Zionism. “Especially in light of the recent war and the fact that this binder purports to be anti-racist,” Krekau’s new friend wrote.
The post set off what many Facebook users would describe as a “classic shitstorm” in the comments: a long thread of back-and-forth arguments among members. Meanwhile, Krekau says she was bullied for three hours on Facebook Messenger by the moderators, whom Krekau, as administrator of the group, had recruited. Two of them were Jewish. The “mods” informed Krekau that being a Zionist was incompatible with a group that called itself “anti-racist.” In fact, Krekau later told me, she didn’t even think of herself as a Zionist. Krekau finally decided she’d had enough; a few days later, she left the group.

Intra-progressive conflicts over definitions of Zionism and antisemitism—and whether the former perpetuates racism— happen in in-person organizing, too (see the Women’s March), but even in these trickier cases, they don’t implode in a day. That’s because in “real life” organizing, friction tends to build more slowly and deflate during face-to-face meetings, allowing groups to last longer and have a greater chance to build trust and do good, even if they do eventually fall apart.

But if a conflict exists in the real world, you can bet it will show up in heightened, almost hyper form on social media, whether that conflict elevates to become a transformative global movement (see Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign) or deteriorates into overly simplified incidents like the one above, which was so far-reaching it has been chronicled in the Forward and Medium. Or like the time a 2019 post by a Jewish member of the group Academic Mamas, asserting that it wasn’t her Jewish child’s job to “tiptoe around your Christian child’s belief in Santa,” received more than 1,000 responses and caused a mass defection of Jewish members.
Jewish feminists are far from alone in struggling to be heard in Facebook groups. A discussion thread in a group for connecting parents with nannies looking for work in Massachusetts devolved into a shouting match after one woman told a nanny who is a person of color that her salary request was too high. The administrator finally shut down the group, but then resurrected it under a different name—and some members of the original group were not allowed in. Similarly, the notorious Upper East Side Mommies group dissolved after members spoke up when they saw Black womens’ comments being systematically erased. And even when Jewish-only groups form on Facebook, they face their own internal conflicts and breakups over racism, exclusion of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, sexism, transphobia and more.

A Facebook group implosion, then, is a common phenomenon (as is its Twitter equivalent, the pile-on). Moderated by volunteers who can have limited time and experience—and populated by people typing away without personal connections to each other–they are often like a tinderbox. On top of that dynamic, social media, particularly Facebook, has a documented problem with antisemitism. A recent study by the Center to Counter Digital Hate found that “for posts that included antisemitic conspiracy theories about 9/11, the pandemic and Jewish people controlling world affairs, social media companies didn’t take action on 89% of them. These platforms also didn’t act on 80% of posts denying the Holocaust, as well as 70% of posts with neo-Nazi and white supremacist images.” The worst offender of the lot was Facebook, which only recently reversed its policy on “free speech” and finally, under pressure, actually banned Holocaust denial.

Companies like Twitter and Facebook are coming under increasing pressure to clean up their act. But policing content is not a simple matter of, say, closing down a site run by the Aryan Brotherhood. Expressions of antisemitism in social media can be hard to recognize, according to Yair Rosenberg, a journalist who writes a newsletter for Atlantic. Often, they arise—ostensibly—around Israel. In his weekly newsletter, Rosenberg recently wrote that “Antisemitism is an ancient, byzantine conspiracy theory that blames Jews for all of the world’s many problems.

Teaching your algorithms and underpaid content moderators to remove tweets with obvious slurs will not address most antisemitism. Without serious schooling in anti-Jewish prejudice and its many manifestations, these arbiters will not be able to identify anti-Jewish conspiracy theories…. They will not know that antisemites love to lazily swap ‘Jew’ with ‘Zionist’ or ‘Israeli’ in their ram- blings to maintain plausible deniability.”
Indeed, conspiracy theories in general don’t even need to focus on Israel to be antisemitic: that loaded term “global elites” will do quite well. Perhaps the scariest example to date is QAnon, the once-fringe movement that went mainstream, whose core belief is that liberal elites are plotting to take over the world, all the while running a pedophile ring (see “QAnon and its Dangerous Appeal to Women,” in Lilith, winter 2020-21.) And yes, Qanon is antisemitic. Because for Jews, antisemitism can be a You know it when you know it situation. But can you get your Facebook friends to believe it?

It’s a particularly hard task to tease the threads of antisemitism from the general atmosphere of rancor and para- noia in the lightning-fast environment of the internet—and then convince others, whether it’s Facebook administrators or your group’s moderators, that it’s real. But in today’s world, we need social media for our careers-and to connect with like- minded people.

While the Binders group started by Amanda Krekau was fragmenting, the moderators jumped in. They posted that they were anti-racist and therefore “Pro Palestine.” They explained their position in several paragraphs rife with misinformation (“Israel was founded in 1948 by Britain…to create a homeland for the Jewish people. It was also a way for Britain to maintain a pseudo-colony in the region after it could no longer afford to stay in the Middle East after the war.”) Some Jewish members of this group were suddenly finding themselves blocked, or having their comments deleted. Some of those thrown off had not actually posted on the thread, but had “liked” com- ments by other Jews who were defend- ing Zionism. Or they had recognizably Jewish-sounding names.
In the midst of this meltdown, Leila Marshy, a Montreal writer, posted: “God this is all exhausting. As a Palestinian who founded a group with Hasidim in Montréal I just want to say that the real world is far more complex and nuanced and even forgiving than these (mostly) American groups would lead you to believe. So much contempt here it takes my breath away.” Another woman wrote that she was Black, Jewish, and appalled at the antisemitism she was seeing in this group.

Meanwhile, Krekau reached out to the main Binders to report the antisemitism she’d experienced. Nobody responded, and a week later Krekau says she was kicked out of the main Binders. So were several other Jewish women who did the same, says Talia Liben Yarmush, who administers the Jewish Binders. Yarmush was kicked off another Binder—this one only for administrators—after she posted to them about the antisemitism she was seeing. While all this was going on, I asked Yarmush for her thoughts.

“Being a Jew in liberal spaces right now is hard,” she wrote in an email. “I have had several people tell me that the Jew(ish) Binder is the only binder group they now feel safe in. In one binder, a writer was asked if she was Jewish, and when she answered in the affirmative, having written nothing else after, she was summarily removed from the group.”

She continued: “Jews should not have to tell anyone our feelings about Israel for them to have our backs … We should not have to pass other people’s arbitrary litmus tests in order to belong. We are sad and angry and scared. And we feel betrayed.” I spoke with other Jewish Binders—Binderot—who also used the word “betrayed,“ along with “shocked” and “angry.” “Why do Binders feel that it’s important to make a proclamation about Palestine and Israel? What does it have to do with them?” said Michele Chabin, a journalist who lives in Israel and is a longtime member of Binders groups. Hana Tova LaRock, who belongs to sev- eral Binders, said that if Jewish members of these spaces bring up antisemitism, the response is always along the lines of, “Oh,ou’re just complaining!” She added: “You realize you’re not in a safe place and you never were.” In fact, some women from Jewish Binders who spoke with me didn’t want to go on the record. They said that they feared being the targets of online attacks—and not unreasonably.

Social media can create useful bonds, of course; from #Blacklivesmatter to #MeToo, to pipeline defense, this format has allowed quick communication that has created change. The very same friction and escalating energy that causes blowups can also ferment small revolutions. But unregulated, these media platforms often become weaponized. When those we Jewish feminists consider our allies are also dealing with a torrent of racist, sexist and transphobic abuse online—and in real life—it is hard for everyone to find the space to vouch for each other and listen. The format doesn’t offer the chance to slow down and catch our breaths, and build “real life” relationships of trust.

Certainly, until the end of time there may be bitter disagreements between Jewish members themselves whether a statement criticizing Israel has antisemitic overtones or not. But nuanced discussions of these matters almost never happen in the comments section of a Facebook post, which feels like a com- munication medium specifically designed for ego gratification, not progress.

And even more troubling, if this format is inherently hostile to productive debate and fosters prejudice—but it’s also the main way we organize now–then we are at an impasse. Jewish feminists have to talk, to find solidarity with other groups struggling to feel safe online. But the takeaway from what happened on Krekau’s anti-racist binder is that we’re going to have to do it somewhere other than Facebook.

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, journalist and author of three books, is a contributing editor at Lilith.