Social media influencer Lizzy Savetsky was two weeks into filming Season 14 of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York” when a tidal wave of antisemitism forced her to quit the show. She fielded death threats and a barrage of online harassment.
“I had been having a lot of anxiety about putting my family — including my three young children — at risk and not having control over how my story would be portrayed,” says Savetsky. “I felt like I had a target on my back. I also feared that my presence on the show would create more antisemitism instead of my goal, which was to be a light for the Jewish people.”
Savetsy, “a proud Jew and Zionist” with 246,000 Instagram followers, now uses her social media platform to educate society about antisemitism, debunking baseless tropes about Jews and Israel and holding institutional establishments and pop culture icons accountable for seminating what has festered into a miasmic cesspool of unchecked, unfiltered and socially acceptable Jew hatred.
On Oct. 7, as Hamas, an Iran-backed terrorist organization that has controlled Gaza since 2007, launched an unprecedented attack against Israel, killing thousands of Israelis, wounding thousands more and plunging Israel into all-out war, rabid online Jew hatred once again raised its thorny head. Although the images beamed around the world showed atrocities inflicted on Israelis, some high-profile entertainment figures were painfully slow to condemn Hamas’ actions.
But this is nothing new, notes Savetsky. Specifically, since May 2021, online terrorism of Jews has metastasized like a disease.
“The real turning point was in 2021 during the conflict in Gaza, when Israel was not only being pummeled on land, but on social media,” says Savestsy. “Mainstream press and celebrities were posting a lot of disturbing anti-Israel content. A whole new separate war was happening.”
It is a war that any self-identified Jew on Instagram or X (formerly known as Twitter) knows well. To be Jewish and on social media is like walking naked through a fire — you will get scorched. You will encounter non-Jews who self-righteously define antisemitism. You will be flatly dismissed as “thin-skinned” for calling out anti-Jewish hate-crimes. This September, Elon Musk, who owns X, blamed the Anti-Defamation League for X’s flailing finances, which is, of course, the most tireless antisemitic stereotype there is: Jews control the great big bank in the sky. Antisemitism, after all, has never been known for its originality.
Offline, this online antisemitism erupts into real-life violence. “From the 2019 Chanukah stabbing in Muncie to the shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, there’s a direct correlation between hate speech on social media and violence against the Jewish community. It translates into crimes against Jews,” says Hen Mazzig, the U.K.-based senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute, a multidisciplinary laboratory compiling data on antisemitism and developing social media strategies for online Jewish advocacy.
“When Kanye West announced on social media in October 2022 that he was going to go ‘death con 3’ on the Jewish people, we saw those actions in the street,” says Mazzig. “We saw people holding up antisemitic signs, we saw people being attacked. It’s not happening in a vacuum. When people have big platforms they also have big responsibility.”
Hate speech is not always conspicuous. According to the Institute’s pilot project “Decoding Antisemitism: An AI-Driven Study on Hate Speech and Imagery Online,” conducted in tandem with the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin, 95% of online hate speech in 2021 was coded language: “showers” stood in for gas chambers, “Hola” instead of Holocaust.
But since 2021, the Tel Aviv Institute has advocated for Jews at over 500 universities across four continents and reached more than 100 million online users. The institute additionally works with a network of 120 content creators, including celebrity chefs and reality TV stars, inviting a select group of influencers each year for a three-day “crash course” on antisemitism and Jewish identity.
“We’re building an army,” says Mazzig. “We’re empowering these social media influencers to speak about their Jewish identity online.”
Combating hatred has given way to a wellspring of online Jewish activists, from actor Joshua Malina to Israeli actor, producer and book author Noa Tishby. Like Savetsky, these activists have done everything from waging parenthetical protests — encasing their X handles in curved punctuation marks to declare their Jewish pride — to posting Instagram stories that fact-check antisemitic screeds. But activists require knowledge, a support network. Retrofitting social media as a reliable source for fact-driven information about Jews and Israel, is no easy task.
To that end, Brandon Kaufer, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of the Social Good Club, created New Approaches, “a creative incubator focused on creative, innovative ways of celebrating Jewish heritage, building bridges and combating all forms of hate online.” This month, New Approaches launched the Dog Whistle Dictionary.
“It’s an online platform where we break down coded language and the conspiracy theories behind them in short, easy-to-understand formats,” says Kaufer. “The Dictionary serves as the home base for larger awareness and education. It’s time to break the echo chamber and get this messaging out of Jewish circles and into the places it’s needed most.”
Tel Aviv-based digital activist Hallel Silverman and Blake Flayton, who also lives in Tel Aviv and is a columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, are also leaders in this space.
Flayton has emerged as a master of quashing online antisemitic propaganda.
“What I like to do is give a short, two-sentence history lesson and just describe antisemitism as a campaign to attack the primary expression of Jewish peoplehood depending on the era,” says Flayton. “500 years ago, the primary expression of Jewish peoplehood was through religion. And so antisemitism was faith-based. We were attacked for not accepting Jesus Christ, and in the Islamic world, for not accepting Mohammed. After the Enlightenment in Europe, Europe became more secular, and the primary expression of Jewish peoplehood was as a race, an ethnicity. Jews became outsiders in European society. We could never be French, Italian, English, German — so we were demonized for that. And in the post-Holocaust era, the primary expression of Jewish peoplehood is nationality by way of the State of Israel. And so antisemitism is directed at the idea that Jews have no right to self-determination, to a national identity. This is how I like to break it down to people.
“If you hold these facts in your head before responding to someone on the Internet, you can say something positive about Israel,” Flayton continues. “This puts things into perspective and gives Jewish advocates a much stronger foundation from which to respond.”
Silverman, an associate of the Tel Aviv Institute and niece of comedian Sarah Silverman, plunged into the world of activism in 2013 when she was 17, shortly after she and her mother, Rabbi Susan Silverman, were arrested by Israeli police for praying with a group of women at the Western Wall while wearing tallit (Jewish prayer shawl traditionally worn by men). Two months after their arrest, the Supreme Court of Israel changed the law, granting women the legal right to pray at the Western Wall with a tallit.
It wasn’t long before Silverman, who took to social media to advocate on behalf of Zionism and progressive Jewish causes, received her first online death threat.
“Someone wrote to me on Twitter that my ancestors should have been killed in the Holocaust and that would have saved the whole world from Auntie Sarah, my mom and me,” she says. “I was so hurt by it. I was terrified. I was shaken. I was so young and vulnerable in that moment.”
It was also at that moment that Silverman realized that she could not turn away from the work of activism, that it was her professional —and spiritual — calling.
“I was crying and my mom said, ‘Honey, it’s awful, it’s disgusting, but if you want to do this, and you don’t have to do this, but if you want to do this, then you can’t feel it.’ And she mimed a bubble around herself,” says Silverman. “And it was such simple advice, but from thereon in, I was able to be like, OK, I have a protective shield now. This is how I’m going to do it. And I let things bounce off. It wasn’t perfect, but it allowed me to build my presence. I realized right then that you can’t pay attention to the people who don’t know you. The only people who can hurt you are the people I love.”
But as Hamas rockets rained down on Israel early October and Silverman hunkered down in her Tel Aviv apartment while air raid sirens wailed outside, the reality that people on social media—and in real life—wanted Jews dead and Israel destroyed, was near impossible to shake off. The apathy and victim-blaming could not be ignored.
“We are the only people in the world who could be massacred and blamed for it,” says Silverman. “Israel has been my home for 17 years. I’ve served in the military. I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. This feels different. I’m actually afraid right now.”
This article is part of Variety’s Antisemitism and Hollywood package.