Yesterday, the supreme leader of Iran posted an anti-Semitic tweet to his nearly 900,000 followers. In the past on the same platform, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denied the Holocaust and compared Israel, home of half the world’s Jews, to a “cancerous tumor” that should be “uprooted and destroyed.”
This was, in other words, a normal Wednesday for him. Here’s the tweet in question:
For those who haven’t already cracked the code here, allow me to translate: “The Jews have always been a plague, even before establishing the fraudulent Jewish regime. Even then, Jewish capitalists were a plague for the whole world.”
What’s happening in this tweet is pretty straightforward. Every anti-Jewish bigot worth their salt has figured out that if they just take classical anti-Semitic libels and replace the word “Jew” with “Zionist,” they can continue being anti-Semitic with few consequences, particularly on social media. This is who Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to in 1967 when he said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.” Because criticizing Israel is a perfectly legitimate endeavor, but attacking Jews is not, these individuals attempt to disguise their anti-Jewish animus as mere anti-Israel activism. We’ve covered previous examples of this phenomenon before. Here’s another one from a 2016 Trump rally, in which an attendee pulls the exact same stunt as Khamenei:
We need to end Zionism, which is huge, and it’s probably the biggest problem that we have in this country today and around the globe, which is a few people controlling pretty much everything—all the money, all the business, brainwashing all the people from the education systems …
Zionism is basically an ideology in which a few people at the top from a specific religious group control the masses and most people have no idea; they’ve never heard the term, but it’s probably the biggest problem we have in the world today …
They control all the quote-unquote politicians who really don’t have the people’s interest in mind.
The fact that this MAGA-hat-wearing American Trump supporter sounds indistinguishable from the leader of an Islamic theocracy despised by Trump is a reminder of two things:
- Anti-Semitism is often a conspiracy theory about Jewish domination rather than simply a prejudice, and thus is expressed by conspiracy theorists of all backgrounds, regardless of their particular religious or ideological orientation.
- Social-media companies like Twitter either do not understand this, or do not care about it.
A strong case can be made that given Khamenei’s access to political and military power, the virulence of his anti-Semitism, and the way it defines his global outlook, he is the world’s most powerful anti-Semite. He denies the Holocaust while threatening another, and deploys the very rhetoric used to incite the murder of Jews for centuries while actively pursuing the nuclear weaponry that might make such murder possible. And yet Twitter, which has banned another notable world leader, could not seem to care less. At least to the public eye, they have never even disciplined Khamenei’s account or required him to take down any of his most incendiary tweets, as they frequently do for ordinary users charged with lesser offenses. I have argued that there are two reasons for this: Twitter’s decision makers don’t understand anti-Semitism, and they aren’t embarrassed by it. As I’ve written previously:
Anti-Semitism is not just people with swastika avatars going around calling people “kikes.” It 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 anti-Semitism. Without serious schooling in anti-Jewish prejudice and its many manifestations, these arbiters will not be able to identify anti-Jewish conspiracy theories—“the Jews control the government/economy/media,” “the Jews were behind the slave trade,” etc.—as anti-Semitic. They will not know that anti-Semites love to lazily swap “Jew” with “Zionist” or “Israeli” in their ramblings to maintain plausible deniability.
There is also a cultural component to social media’s anti-Semitism exception:
If you pay attention to the things that social-media executives do and don’t remove from their platforms, you’ll discover a pattern. Despite what they publicly claim, I’d argue that social-media companies don’t ban people simply for disseminating dangerous misinformation—they ban people whose misinformation makes their leadership uncomfortable at liberal dinner parties. And since most of these companies are American companies, it’s mostly just American content that proves embarrassing enough to get policed. Donald Trump lying about the election being stolen and inciting his followers to riot in the Capitol was embarrassing and somewhat frightening, and so he got removed. Anti-vaccine content is embarrassing and somewhat frightening, and so it gets labeled or removed. By contrast, government-linked Ethiopian groups inciting mass murder, human traffickers in the Middle East advertising their wares, anti-Muslim actors spurring genocide in Myanmar, or Iran’s Supreme Leader denying the Holocaust and repeatedly referring to the home of half the world’s Jews as a “cancerous tumor” to be excised—denying one genocide and advocating another—are not embarrassing. The populations these violations affect are far away, do not make much noise in San Francisco, and do not come up in everyday conversation. And so the content targeting them remains.
I certainly don’t think Khamenei’s Twitter feed is the biggest problem facing Jews today. I also don’t think banning it would solve much. Frankly, it’s better that the world be able to see just how unhinged he is in his hate, so that it cannot be swept under the rug. All of which is to say: I’m not highlighting Twitter’s double standard here to pressure them to remove Khamenei. I’m noting it because it says something about our society and its elites, and how seriously they take anti-Semitism—or don’t.
The silly substitution of “Zionist” for “Jew” assumes that the audience is stupid and will not figure out what the anti-Semite is up to. When it comes to Twitter, that assumption appears to be correct. But while social-media companies may not care about this bigotry and how it manifests itself, we should.