Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Jewish Currents is constantly getting quotes and scooplets from our network of sources, and every Tuesday, we release small stories exclusive to our newsletter subscribers in emails like this one. In addition to original reporting, the Tuesday News Bulletin serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.
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(Note: this is a guest post from Jewish Currents assistant editor Mari Cohen)
A woman takes a selfie while holding a Palestinian flag during a March 2022 rally in Gaza City.
Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP Images
November 22nd, 2022
On May 13th, after Israeli police attacked mourners at the funeral of slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the BBC’s official Twitter account posted its coverage of the incident, reporting: “Violence breaks out at funeral of reporter Shireen Abu Aqla in East Jerusalem[.] Her coffin was jostled as Israeli police and Palestinians clashed as it left hospital.” The passive voice jumped out at Sana Saeed, a host and senior producer at AJ+, who tweeted a revision of the British broadcaster’s language: “Israeli occupation forces attacked the funeral procession, beat mourners, caused her casket to fall to the ground,” she wrote, adding that she considered the BBC tweet “one of the worst obfuscations of Israeli violence yet.”
Her tweet struck a nerve, racking up 5,000 likes and over 2,000 retweets. The both-sides rhetoric of major news outlets like the BBC stood in stark contrast to the videos and photos of police beating Palestinian demonstrators that were then going viral on Twitter. “Even if the mainstream media and the Israeli press attachés and AIPAC and the paid hacks completely black [the video] out, it’s on alternative and social media,” the historian of Palestine Rashid Khalidi told Jewish Currents at the time. “You can say anything you want about bullets and Palestinian gunmen and the supposedly murky circumstances under which this woman was murdered, and they’re doing an incredibly effective job at that, but you cannot unsee this image.”
Over the past few years, Palestinian activists have used Twitter to share reports from the ground in Palestine and to call out media coverage that unquestioningly adopts the Israeli government’s line. Now, that platform is at risk: Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, has laid off more than half of its 7,500-person staff since he took control at the end of October and prompted 1,200 more to resign, raising fears that the site could soon stop functioning. “Twitter has been a lifeline for many Palestinians around the world, for civil society organizations and grassroots activists,” said Marwa Fatafta, who serves as MENA policy manager at the digital rights advocacy organization Access Now. “It has managed to connect an otherwise fragmented population: Palestinians from Gaza, Jerusalem, Europe, the US.” Mariam Barghouti, the senior Palestine correspondent at Mondoweiss, said that Twitter’s role in bringing Palestinians together is especially key considering the restrictions that Israel places on their freedom of movement: “It’s our only avenue for speaking with the world from under a military occupation that controls all our entry and exit points,” she said. “We’re left to share through soundbites of 280 characters. If even that is taken away, we’re looking at the slaughter of Palestinians in silence.”
Palestinian digital activism on Twitter has been especially effective in moments when violence on the ground has surged. Fatafta pointed to May 2021, when Israeli forces bombed Gaza for 11 days while Hamas fired rockets into Israel. “[Twitter] showed in real time the horrors and violence inflicted on Palestinian families in Gaza,” she said. Palestinians also used the platform to push back against media coverage that ignored the broader context behind the bombardment, which began after Israeli settlers attempted to seize Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, sparking resistance and a response from Hamas. Even reporting that acknowledged this backdrop tended to gloss over the way that the evictions fit into a longer story of Palestinian dispossession, said Abdallah Fayyad, an opinion writer at The Boston Globe. Using Twitter, he said, “a lot of Palestinians were trying to contextualize that the violence erupting in [Sheikh Jarrah] wasn’t isolated—it was about the forcible removal of people from their homes and land as part of a longer pattern that has existed for the better part of the last century.”
Fayyad said he believes these efforts pushed mainstream outlets to bring in more Palestinian voices, which have been systematically marginalized: CNN aired an interview with writer, activist, and Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed el-Kurd about his family’s resistance to dispossession, while The New York Times commissioned op-eds by Gazan translator and editor Basma Ghalayini and Palestinian American writer and scholar Yousef Munayyer. “I don’t think we would’ve seen these Palestinian bylines, I don’t think we would’ve seen these Palestinian experts on TV, if it wasn’t for the attention that the anti-Palestinian bias of media outlets was getting on Twitter,” Fayyad said.
At the same time, Twitter, like other social media companies, has often censored Palestinian speech. In May 2021, Barghouti was covering the protests that spread across Israel/Palestine, known as the Unity Intifada—and their repression by the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government—when her Twitter account was briefly suspended. (Twitter later apologized and said the suspension had been an accident.) That month, 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights advocacy organization, collected information from 500 Palestinian social media users who reported that their posts had been unfairly flagged or removed, or their accounts banned, during the escalation in violence. Even in less heated times, those who speak out about Palestine can expect to face significant harassment: “We get death threats through these platforms,” said Barghouti. “They impact me negatively for sure. It’s cyberbullying, and it’s being allowed.” Some of the harassment is coordinated by the Israeli government itself, which has sponsored initiatives that encourage Israel advocates to bombard Palestinian activists with “pro-Israel” memes and troll responses.
Twitter can also pose internal challenges for activists. Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond, said that since the unifying moment of May 2021, she has seen the Palestinian community become fragmented on the platform, breaking down along lines of political difference, geographic location, and relationship or lack thereof to the official NGO sphere. According to El Kurd, the culture of Twitter encourages “antagonism,” sometimes exacerbating this atomization: “Given the transnational characteristics of Palestine solidarity work, we rely on that online space—so the Twitter dynamics have an outsized effect,” she said.
The downsides of Twitter could intensify under Musk, who has reinstated accounts that promote hate speech, dismantled the team in charge of content moderation, and used informal public Twitter polls
to make major decisions. As Fatafta put it: “If May 2021 were to erupt
today, I’m not sure whether Twitter would be able to uphold the
community’s freedom of expression and ensure their safety on the
internet.” It’s not clear what Palestinian activists will do if Twitter
continues to decline, though El Kurd said she hasn’t yet seen many leave
the platform. As long as Twitter lacks an obvious replacement,
Palestinians will probably keep relying on it to be heard.
- On Saturday, Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians in Hebron, punching people and throwing rocks and empty bottles at homes and cars. The violence occurred during a pilgrimage in which thousands of Israelis came to the West Bank city to mark the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which is in part about Abraham buying a cave, said to be located in Hebron, in which to bury his wife Sarah. (Israeli settlers frequently carry out violent attacks against Palestinians in Hebron. Because about 700 Israeli settlers live in the center of the city, Israeli soldiers have also imposed severe restrictions on Palestinians there, barring them from accessing several streets where settlers reside.) Palestinians responded to the settler attacks by throwing stones of their own, prompting the Israeli army to intervene. One of the settlers hit an Israeli soldier with a stick, injuring her, which led Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid to call the incident “a national disgrace.” On Sunday, Israeli authorities arrested the settler—an off-duty Israeli soldier—who allegedly attacked the soldier.
- On Monday morning, Israeli troops shot and killed Mahmoud al-Saadi, a Palestinian high school student, during an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. Soldiers stationed in the Jenin refugee camp blocked al-Saadi’s path to school; when he turned around to go home, “an Israeli soldier in an Israeli military vehicle . . . shot him in the abdomen with live ammunition,” according to human rights group Defense for Children International–Palestine. This year, Israeli soldiers or settlers have shot and killed 33 Palestinian children in the West Bank, according to the group.
- On Sunday, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told the Israeli news site YNet that most American Jews were alarmed by the rise of extremist Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir. He compared the prospect of Ben-Gvir serving as minister of public security to the idea of a US president appointing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to the post of attorney general. “Most American Jews find it unimaginable that someone like Itamar Ben-Gvir or [fellow right-wing politician] Bezalel Smotrich would be the face and voice of modern Israel,” Jacobs said. “Honestly, it’s a scary thought.” Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are the top lawmakers in the Religious Zionism coalition, which brought together Israel’s most extreme right-wing parties during Israel’s elections. The coalition won 14 seats, helping Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc win Israel’s elections earlier this month. Jacobs was particularly concerned about one of the policies that far-right parties in a Netanyahu-led government may pursue: changing the Law of Return so that only Jews with at least one Jewish parent can obtain Israeli citizenship. (As it currently stands, those with one Jewish grandparent are eligible.) “With the current rise in antisemitism, this change [to the Law of Return] would be so painful and damaging to the close relationship we have,” Jacobs said.
- Twenty-one Palestinians in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp died last Thursday after a fire broke out in a multistory building during a family birthday and graduation party. Hamas government officials in Gaza blamed the loss of life on Israel’s long-standing air, land, and sea blockade of the coastal enclave. The officials said the blockade, which impedes the import of equipment and machinery, was the reason why Palestinian firefighters couldn’t quickly stamp out the blaze. Initially, Gaza officials also said stored gasoline—which is common in homes there to avoid power outages caused in part by the Israeli blockade—made the fire spread faster. But on Sunday, a Palestinian official said the blaze was ignited accidentally by a man using gasoline in a party trick.
- One-hundred and eighty Jewish and Israel-advocacy groups sent a letter to Elon Musk last Wednesday, calling on the new owner of Twitter to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as a guide to content moderation on the social media platform. “Adopting the IHRA Working Definition would provide Twitter with an effective and neutral tool to protect Jewish users from antisemitic content along with the hate and violence it can inspire,” reads the letter, which was signed by groups such as B’nai Brith International, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Israeli American Council, and the Jewish National Fund–USA. Palestinian rights advocates have argued that the IHRA definition of antisemitism conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The letter to Musk includes examples of tweets that the group says amount to antisemitism under the IHRA definition. Some are clear examples of antisemitism, like a tweet with a demeaning caricature of a Jewish person. Others, however, express criticism of Israel, such as a tweet from the BDS movement’s official account linking to an article stating that “right-wing and far-right movements and political parties across the world . . . idolise Israel as they view the Zionist colonial project as a successful model of European domination over the indigenous populations of developing countries.”
- Two attorneys have filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education after student groups at the University of California Berkeley School of Law passed a bylaw pledging not to invite speakers who support Zionism. The attorneys—Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of Israel-advocacy organization the International Legal Forum, and Gabriel Groisman, the former mayor of a Florida municipality that passed an anti-BDS law in 2015—urged the department to investigate whether the school is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans institutions that discriminate against protected minority groups from receiving federal funding. The complaint, according to a report in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, “is premised on the idea that Zionism, support for a Jewish state, is essential to Jewish ethnic identity and that anti-Zionism is ‘simply a modern day form of antisemitism.’” Defenders of the student groups’ approach say the bylaw expresses a legitimate political opinion, much like a pledge not to invite white supremacists to speak.
- Last Monday, Palestine Legal, a group that defends the civil rights of Palestine activists in the US, sent a letter to the US Department of Education criticizing the department for its delay in investigating anti-Palestinian racism at Florida State University. The group filed a complaint about the institution 19 months ago. “This delay exceeds the Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) internal benchmark to resolve a complaint within 180 days of receipt by a factor of three—and we have received no explanation or justification as to why,” the letter reads. In contrast, the department’s Office of Civil Rights “has acted with great speed when opening or otherwise making a determination into Title VI complaints targeting speech supporting Palestinian rights,” the letter notes. In April 2021, Palestine Legal filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of Florida State University student Ahmad Daraldik, accusing the school of fostering a hostile environment of anti-Palestinian racism. It is the first complaint to allege discrimination on the basis of national origin on behalf of a Palestinian.
- The Adelson Family Foundation is sharply reducing its grants to Birthright Israel, the initiative that takes young Jews to the country on free trips. In 2022, the foundation—currently run by Miriam Adelson, the Israeli American physician and widow of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—decreased its gift to Birthright to $20 million, down from an average of $35–$40 million in previous years, according to data obtained by Haaretz. The foundation plans to give Birthright $10 million in 2023. The drop in donations from the Adelson Foundation comes as Birthright is cutting the number of free trips it offers by a third, citing inflation and increased travel costs. Palestinian rights advocates have criticized Birthright trips for glossing over Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians, and for being a symbol of Israel’s discriminatory travel and entry practices, since it welcomes Jews to visit while Palestinians are barred from returning to the land where their families lived.