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Social media battle rages alongside Israel war

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From death threats to photos of dead babies, our community’s social media personalities have been subject to online abuse that would shock even the most jaded among us. Yet they remain undeterred in their commitment to counteract the propaganda that continues to flood our feeds.

“We’re coming for these two Jewish kids next. These are her babies, what would she feel if we murdered them? We should teach her a lesson and take her children away.” When Gabriela Demby posted a video of the Nelson Mandela Bridge bedecked with red balloons, each attached to a poster of one of the hostages being held by Hamas, she had no concept of the horrific threats that would follow.

A “momfluencer” – a mom who builds her social media following by sharing their motherhood experiences – Demby shared the video as her own reel on her popular Instagram page @momsyandmee on Friday afternoon, 27 October. When Shabbat came out the next evening, she found her page not only brimming with antisemitic vitriol, but death threats on photos of her children that she’d shared on her profile.

“It was horrible. Their faces are there, and I just went into a complete panic,” she says. “I deleted all of it, I didn’t want that on my page. Then I realised that I should have screenshotted the comments. l know better, but it was just so terrifying.” Yet there were still enough threats to constitute the 53 screenshots she later sent to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for further investigation.

With more than 500 comments on the video and more than 11 500 views, which far surpassed her then-following of 2 800 people, Demby had been tagged in a multitude of threatening comments that were drawing widespread attention.

“Really horrific things were being said, obviously about the situation, but a lot about me,” she says. “They were tagging me and tagging the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], saying, ‘We’ve got to find this white girl. We don’t want her in South Africa.’ My inbox was flooded with horrible messages about me being a white, Jewish princess and saying, ‘You’re lucky you don’t have a location on your page. We would come for you,’ as well as general antisemitic comments.”

Yet it was the threats to her children that evoked the most anxiety, which almost two weeks later, still lingers. “My good friend from the Community Security Organisation calmed me down, telling me that they are keyboard warriors and this is the only way they can be part of the conflict. It’s a tactic to instil fear in another human being, he said, which is another form of terror, but you have to know that nothing is going to happen to your kids, they’ve moved onto the next Jewish person.”

Though she has removed hundreds of threatening followers and made her page private, Demby says she’s not a victim and remains firm in her convictions. “Nothing will shake my Jewish pride,” she says. “I still feel very strongly about my stand. I’ve continued to post and share. Seeing the messages of encouragement and unity, that’s the magic piece to the Jewish people. We draw strength from each other and when we’re unified and doing mitzvahs and bringing light into the world, that’s our mission. I’m proud to be part of that.”

South African influencer Jenna Berkowitz, now based in the United Kingdom, is also committed to speaking up for Jews and Israel on her Instagram page, jennababez_, which has more than 6 300 followers. Though she has more than 64 000 followers on her TikTok profile, jenberks, she has steered clear of that platform in recent weeks even though it’s a source of income for her. “TikTok is a different ballgame. It’s so scary, so my Israel posts are all on Instagram because it’s more niche,” she says. That’s not to say that she hasn’t been subject to a deluge of hatred on the platform.

Though initially Berkowitz just posed the news as it happened, she later decided to educate people about the facts surrounding Israel and the terrorist nature of Hamas in her Instagram story, especially since she has both Jewish and non-Jewish followers.

“I don’t know why it’s such a difficult concept to wrap your head around – terrorists being such bad people,” she says wryly. “I’ve lost more than 500 followers, and I genuinely don’t care. I get hate messages almost every single day, which is insane.” Something that was initially seen as a “land problem” has turned into pure, deep-rooted antisemitism, she says.

Berkowitz has been called a “dumb b**ch”, received a deluge of Palestinian flags in her comments, frequently been told to “go and die”, and has been accused of committing “Jennacide” in a not-so-subtle play on her name. “It’s draining and I’m constantly on edge,” she says. “It’s never been a secret that I’m Jewish though – that’s what my content is all about, being a Joburg Jewish girl, and so on. And people are asking how I could support Israel. What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I?”

Berkowitz says the propagandistic nature of social media is alarming. “A lot of what’s shared on social media is people’s opinions. That’s the problem because it’s not fact.” If you look for pro-Palestinian posts, that’s all you’ll find, she says, and the same is true if you look for pro-Israel posts, which simply reinforces people’s pre-existing narratives.

“I’ve been exposed to more antisemitism in the past four weeks than in my entire life,” says writer, radio presenter, keynote speaker, and analyst, Howard Feldman. From receiving messages about Hitler being right and being called “an evil apartheid loving baby killer” and “genocidal apologist” because he’s a Zionist, Feldman finds it hard to take such messages seriously. “I don’t mind engaging up to a point,” he says, “but not if it becomes harassment. Or if they keep sending me photos of dead babies. Those are always distressing to look at.”

In this context, his strategy has changed about publicly discussing Israel. “Whereas I didn’t want to focus on Israel and for it to become part of my brand, I realised that that’s not an option for me,” Feldman says. “I have a role to play, and that means speaking the truth, even though it will make me unpopular in a South African context.”

In a world where social media shapes perceptions about global conflicts, Feldman says it’s vital to get the message across. “Whereas we’ll never change a hater, there are neutral people who are flooded with anti-Israel messaging. Those are the ones who need to see the truth. This is more the focus.”

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