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NOT A “NOTHINGBURGER”
Reading Nadine Epstein’s “First Encounter of a Hateful Kind” (“From the Editor,” Winter 2023), I was struck and saddened that the cutting antisemitic remark, “Jew ’em down,” muttered by a man in rural Pennsylvania to Epstein’s father, is an incident that would go down, as she put it, “in the annals of hate…as a nothingburger.” Once antisemitism is pervasive, accepted and normalized in a culture, this creates fertile soil for further dehumanization and then normalization of greater degrees of dehumanization. This phenomenon within a society is clear in Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and many other books. The slow drip, drip, drip of antisemitism that inevitably permeates an entire society starts with normalizing “nothingburgers.”
ARE ALGORITHMS DANGEROUS?
Andrew Michael’s first-person account “From Zero To Hate In Just a Tik And a Tok” (Winter 2023), describing how the TikTok algorithm can lead to Nazi content even for those not looking for it, generated a spirited response online. On the web forum Reddit, a debate ensued over the concept of radicalization described by the author. “This whole concept of algorithmic extremism is frankly nonsense,” a commentator with the username Party_Reception_4209 wrote. “What the algorithms do is optimize for engagement. If you constantly signal to the platform that you want a certain kind of content then you’ll get it. No platform serves up extremism when all the user ordered was memes of hot moms dancing in their kitchen, which is all I ever see on the app.” Disagreeing, another commentator (username: Vecrin), explained that it is the ability of algorithms to shift a user’s recommended content over time that makes them insidious. “Let’s say you’re a random teenager who likes gaming. TikTok feeds you amazing Fortnite clips. All good. But then it starts to push this guy who starts making fun of some ‘crazy’ woman who is ‘ruining gaming.’” Over time, Vecrin noted, a user’s feed will continue to develop. “You happen upon a TikTok talking about how feminists are trying to ruin culture…Pretty soon you’re listening to people complain about how women aren’t having relationships with guys like you anymore. Feminism has corrupted them…So you start to listen to that type of content more. It’s fun. They’re just joking around. What’s the harm in listening to a few slurs drop every once in a while?…So you continue to listen and think, huh, maybe they’re right about this stuff.” They warn, “It starts with a normal, fun subject (like gaming) and slowly pushes you down the rabbit hole.”
THE MAGIC OF SEMICHA
AN INEFFABLE LEANING
I love words and so was pleased to see yet another “Jewish Word” column (“Semicha—When a Rabbi Becomes a Rabbi,” Winter 2023). I found George Johnson’s article compelling and educational, especially the historical review of ordination through the generations. I appreciated how the article progressed from numerous historical examples of rabbis/teachers leaning on their successors to convey semicha to a current-day example in which a female rabbi was told to “lean back” into the hands of her teacher as she was being ordained. The feeling of pressure from her teacher’s hands as they transmitted the blessing caused her to shake, feeling that “something ineffable was happening.” Including this modern-day example was insightful, as how Moshe and Joshua might have felt during the laying of hands is not mentioned in the Torah. In a religion that focuses so much on rules and obligations, it was refreshing to read about human touch as reinforcement of the transfer of authority.
A MODERN HELL
Jennifer Bardi’s chilling article about antisemitism on TikTok (“The Good, the Bad and the Algorithm,” Winter 2023) unfortunately reinforced a grim conclusion that I’ve long harbored about social media in general. Bardi’s suggestions about how to thwart antisemitic deportment on TikTok reflect the assessments of an intelligent, civilized individual. However, I’ve concluded that bigots and their ilk, having found cybermegaphones that allow them, literally, to reach practically everyone, will never be purged from the internet. Dante’s Hell was a place of punishment; the web is a very modern kind of hell, a ghastly theater of the depraved for antisemites, racists, etc. And the future? I dread what will happen when the bigots are able to manipulate AI—or the other way around.
New York, NY
A PERFECT STORM
I have close to zero familiarity with TikTok (to me it’s just cool dances and fun stuff), but your article describes a really appalling development. Many of us have been wondering why antisemitism seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, and among many who are not “the usual suspects.” It seems to be a perfect storm between the advent of this technology with its ingenious algorithms and the vanishing generation of people who experienced the Holocaust firsthand or knew those who did. For a lovely interlude in the second half of the 20th century, antisemitism seemed to be on the wane, and young people, Jewish or other, were oblivious to what it was like to experience it. Thank you for your coverage, and please keep presenting information like this so we know what we’re up against, even if we don’t use TikTok.
New York, NY
FOUR WINTERS, TWO THUMBS UP
I just read the article about the film Four Winters (“Tales of Rifles and Resistance” Winter 2023) and I thought it was terrific—detailed and evocative. Great choices were made about which elements in the film to highlight, and there were vivid quotes from the film’s director. I also loved how the photos were used in the article.
All the attention that Four Winters is receiving means the partisans’ stories will be heard more widely. ABC News, for instance, did a piece about the film in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. That sort of coverage as well as Moment’s article and all the other media attention is really useful in spreading the word about Jewish bravery and resistance during WWII.
New York, NY
ANOTHER GREAT PROGRAM
Thank you for the recent program “The Educational Legacy of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.” I was aware of the Rosenwald schools and heard several interviews with Andrew Feiler when his book on the topic came out. My most enthusiastic praise is for the ease of registering and joining on my computer despite having registered on my phone. Thank you for a stellar program and for a very easy experience to join and enjoy it.
Louise Eighmie Turner
Editor’s note: All programs are available at momentmag.com/zoominars
MOMENT DEBATE POLL
In the previous issue, Moment asked if changing the Law of Return will harm Israel-diaspora relations. We asked our Twitter followers to weigh in. The majority answered yes.
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