How a TikTok video led to clashes in Jerusalem

"They simply represent a dark and dangerous phenomenon that has no connection to the sane, law abiding, and liberal Right. All of us, Right and Left, from all shades, must unite against such dangerous phenomena.”
Videos of clashes between Jewish extremists and police were widely circulated on social media the last week. (Photo: Twitter)

Violent riots erupted in the streets of Jerusalem after videos of several assaults against Jews went viral on social media. In one clip posted to the video-sharing app TikTok, an East Jerusalem teenager is shown slapping a Haredi Orthodox teen on the Jerusalem light rail.

In response, on Thursday, a fringe Jewish extremist group known as Lehava led a march through downtown Jerusalem toward Damascus Gate where Palestinians had gathered in a counter-protest. Violence broke out between the two sides despite police trying to keep the groups apart. Videos circulated on social media of the Lehava protesters chanting, “Death to Arabs” and “Arabs, get out!”, and attacking an Arab home in the Old City. Meanwhile, another video showed several Palestinians beating and kicking a Jewish man lying on the ground.

There have been regular clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan started two weeks ago. Palestinians said police were blocking them from sitting on the steps of Damascus Gate where they typically gather in the evenings of the holiday. Israeli police said the restrictions were meant to ensure that Muslim worshippers can safely access the main Islamic prayer site in the Old City. Israeli media reported that police removed the barricades it had placed outside the gate on Sunday.

Israeli police used metal barricades, a water cannon and stun grenades to push back the extremist Jewish protesters from the Palestinians at Damascus Gate. Israeli news outlets reported that there were hundreds of protesters on each side. About 20 police and 16 civilians were injured in the clashes. Palestinian media reported that 105 Palestinians were hurt. Police arrested more than 50 people for violent acts.

Separately, hundreds of people gathered in Zion Square in Jerusalem for a pro-peace protest organized by the Peace Now NGO. The protesters chanted, “Jerusalem has no place for Lehava” and “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”

Jewish influencers across the political and religious spectrum took to social media to condemn the rioting and share footage of the violence. With all the buzz about the riots, we wanted to know if they are actually as large of a problem as social media makes it seem. How many people are actually involved, and is this story deserving of all the media attention?

Attacks on Jews in Israel

It all started with a series of violent attacks on Jews in Jerusalem, which were caught on camera and shared on social media. For example, this disturbing video shows a group of Arabs violently attacking a Jewish man and beating him, as others watch and cheer. And this clip shows a 27-year-old Jewish man getting kicked, beaten with a club and hit with rocks. The man was subsequently hospitalized and believed he was “a hair’s breadth from death.” The videos of these attacks fueled outrage across Israel and the rest of the Jewish world. Violent clashes broke out between extremist Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.

Then on Friday and Saturday Palestinian terrorists launched more than 40 rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip “in what seemed [to be] a retailiation for the incidents in Jerusalem,” Ynet reported. Al Jazeera reported Hamas, who governs the Gaza Strip, also staged demonstrations across the Strip in response to the clashes in Jerusalem to show their “support for armed struggle.” And according to reporting by The Jerusalem Post, “Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip called on their supporters to ‘escalate the uprising in Jerusalem.’” Hamas also endorsed the rocket fire which in turn prompted the Israeli military to strike a number of Hamas targets in Gaza.

Guy Camelmacher, who has served as a spokesperson for several Knesset members, highlighted the attacks against Jews in Israel as part of rising antisemitic violence around the world, tweeting in Hebrew: “A wave of antisemitism is sweeping Europe. In Paris, boiling coffee was poured on the face of a Jewish boy with a kippah; in Brussels a man slapped an ultra-Orthodox man on a train and posted it on the internet; in London, a man threw off the hat of an ultra-Orthodox man; in Berlin a group of boys savagely attacked an ultra-Orthodox boy riding his bike. Just kidding, that’s here in Israel.”

Unpacking the Lehava extremist group

To be sure, Lehava, which organized the anti-Arab march, is a fringe group and is not at all mainstream in Israeli society. Lehava means “flame” in Hebrew and is an acronym for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land” (LeMeniat Hitbolelut B’eretz HaKodesh).

Ari Engelberg, a lecturer at the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, conducted a research project into Lehava involving interviews with the group’s members and leader, Benzi Gopstein. Back in 2018, Engelberg did an extensive interview with Haaretz about the findings from his study. He said that although Lehava’s Wikipedia page says Lehava has 10,000 members, the real number of activists in the Jerusalem area is actually closer to 200.

Engelberg said that most of the activists are Mizrahi teenagers from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Jerusalem; another prominent group in Lehava consists of teenagers “from the fringes of Haredi society.” Many Lehava activists are also members of La Familia, the far-right fan group of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.

“Lehava’s activists visit those neighborhoods, talk to the young people [and] invite them to all kinds of activities,” Engelberg said, adding that the organization offers a direction and gives meaning to “teens from disadvantaged neighborhoods who are a little [socially] alienated, some of whom are at risk” or on the street. He said Lehava has the structure of a youth group with older teens leading groups of younger teens.

When Engelberg asked the Lehava teens why they had joined, many replied, “I knew a [Jewish] girl who went out with an Arab.” He said the teens insisted that assimilation is a widespread phenomenon in Israel and that Arab men are marrying Jewish women “in order to do away with the Jewish people,” adding that “they perceive their role as being to protect” the women and Judaism.

Gopstein is known for his anti-Arab rhetoric: the Lehava leader has boasted that he refused to hire or work with Arab employees and asserted that “there’s no shortage of Arabs who deserved to be beaten up.” Lehava is also against LGBTQ+ rights and is known for its efforts to disrupt the annual Pride Parade held in Jerusalem. 

In 2015, after three Lehava members were charged with setting fire to a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem, then-Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon tried to designate it as a terrorist group. “Those who engage in spreading hatred against the Arab minority and anyone who is different at all, is dangerous to Israeli society, which is made up of multiple shades. Such people do not represent the Jewish values we were raised on, values whose light must lead the state of Israel,” Ya’alon said.

He further argued that classifying Lehava as “extreme right” would be inaccurate. “They don’t in my view represent any [political] Right… They simply represent a dark and dangerous phenomenon that has no connection to the sane, law abiding, and liberal Right. All of us, Right and Left, from all shades, must unite against such dangerous phenomena.”

What role did social media play?

Does social media mirror events in real life, or does it generate what is going on in the world, or both?

In the case of the clashes in Jerusalem, it seems that social media created an atmosphere of anger that led to the violence and captured the violence as it unfolded. Understandably, the series of videos showing Palestinians violently attacking Jews prompted outrage across Israel, creating a climate in which the protests took place. Then, once the rioting broke out, scenes from the protests were caught on camera and shared on social media. With this footage taking over a lot of the Jewish conversation on social media, this created an impression that the violence was more widespread than it actually was.

The role social media plays in real life events is a topic that people have discussed in the past. Michael Barbaro, host of the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily, posed this question to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in August 2020. Barbaro asked Dorsey if he thought Twitter was “a reflection of society or an amplifier or creator of divisiveness and polarization.” Although Dorsey answered that he thought Twitter and other social companies both reflected and amplified divisiveness, he focused on the idea that social media mirrors reality in the interview.

“Isn’t more attention on those problems helpful?” Dorsey argued. “Isn’t more acknowledgement on those issues unfolding in real time in the public important so that we can acknowledge it, so that more people can try to help solve them?”

On the other side of the debate, Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology and a star of the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” said in an interview on CNBC earlier this year that the business model of social media companies “has been about inciting violence.” Harris added, “It profits from more polarization, from the more extreme speech… If car crashes keep us clicking, or hate speech keep us clicking, it shows you that.”

Reactions from the Jewish and Arab worlds

Is this story deserving of all of the attention it has received, or is this being blown out of proportion relative to the actual violence and state of relations between Jews and Arabs? We asked historian Gil Troy, who lives in Jerusalem, to share his reactions to the rioting and report on how this has impacted daily life.

Troy said that although the violence is “dismaying, unacceptable and infuriating,” it “has certainly not changed the chill atmosphere in the city — unlike, say, the spate of stabbings in 2015. In fact, the overwhelming emotion we are all experiencing is relief because we can walk around without masks in public, and are returning to some semblance of normal life.”

Troy added, “So far, the clashes are warning signs: small groups of Arab thugs filming themselves beating Jews, and small groups of Jewish thugs using the marginal examples of violence as excuses to bully Arabs. Similarly, the clashes the last few nights around the Damascus Gate seem to be carefully orchestrated by a few extremists — and not spreading, as of this writing.”

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, who lives in Tel Aviv, said in an email that Israeli police will only be able to “solve the problem of violence in the Arab sector” if they have the tools to adequately respond. Rosner clarified that he was certainly not arguing in favor of police violence, underscoring that police should be “determined and tough” and also “as restrained as possible.” However, he warned, “a police force that cannot use force — paralyzed by fear of cameras and social networks, paralyzed by fear of populist politics and media righteousness — will not be able to bring order.”

On social media, Jewish influencers and groups in Israel and around the world condemned the rioting. Avi Mayer, managing director of global communications for the American Jewish Committee, who lives in Jerusalem, tweeted that those perpetrating the violence “are as foreign to me and my Judaism as are skinheads, white supremacists, and other racists around the world. They have no place here.”

On Instagram, the Israeli organization “HaBayit” (“The Home”), which promotes peaceful relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, underscored that the violence does not represent the vast majority of these relationships, noting that “among most people, there is more peace than war 95% of the time.”

Orthodox rabbi Avraham Bronstein of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., noted the hypocrisy of observant Jewish Lehava protesters chanting “death to Arabs”:

Meanwhile, Lahav Harkov, diplomatic correspondent and senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post, responded to those condemning the Jewish extremists but not the Arab ones, tweeting: “It’s possible to condemn Lehava and their ilk attacking and chanting ‘death to Arabs,’ and not ignore the Arabs attacking Jews… More people should try it.”

What about reactions from Palestinian residents? Mahmoud Muna, the owner of a popular bookshop in East Jerusalem, wrote a Facebook post sharing the perspectives of Palestinian youth living in Jerusalem. Citing the move by Israeli police to place barriers at Damascus Gate during Ramadan (the barriers have since been removed), Muna wrote that Israel’s “policy of further restricting and shrinking the Palestinian space has now crossed a red line for the Palestinians in Jerusalem.” 

Muna added that Damascus Gate is a social hub “for the youth to hang out, to smoke, to eat sweets, or whatever else one might like to do” in an open space where young Palestinians can “breath a little freer” given their “narrow and crowded” living conditions in East Jerusalem. Elsewhere, Sheikh Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the Waqf Islamic Affairs Council and a professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, condemned the TikTok attacks by Muslims against Jews in a sermon he posted to Facebook. “Yesterday, several young people poured hot coffee in the face of a respected ultra-Orthodox man,” Abu Sway said in Arabic. “This behavior is not Islam in any sense… We must go only to the light of the morality of Islam.”

The bottom line

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ability to hold two opposed ideas at once is the mark of an educated mind. The rampant antisemitism around the world and even in Israel is scary and provocative, and the idea that there is a fringe Jewish group in Israel is also scary and provocative.

Social media can sometimes create incomplete perceptions of reality, so let’s make sure the world knows that Lehava is a fringe movement that does not in any way represent the Jewish people or Israel. In the same way, the violent protests over the past several days do not reflect the vast majority of relationships between Jews and Palestinians most of the time. Let’s be more critical consumers of social media knowing that our newsfeeds can easily become filled with the scary and provocative moments instead of the uplifting ones. And let’s hope that the violence in Israel ends quickly.