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Clubhouse’s antisemitism problem

Once on stage, a person will simply start screaming, ‘Kill the Jews!’ or ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘Zionist pigs’ until the moderators scramble to kick them out
Clubhouse is a new social media app focused on audio discussions

“Are you a Jewish?” the accented voice asked me.

“Yes, I’m Jewish,” I replied. I was hosting a Clubhouse room for LGBTQ+ Jews in honor of Pride month. But at this point, all the queer Jews had trickled out and I was left with four people I did not know.

“I don’t like the Jewish,” they responded.

“Why?” I asked, but received no answer.

“Do you like Hitler?” another voice chimed in.

“No, I don’t,” I stated.

When these random people began questioning why I didn’t have an affinity for the genocidal fascist dictator that tried to exterminate my people, I ended the room.

For those unfamiliar with Clubhouse, it is a new social media platform, launched in March 2020, with a focus on “drop-in audio.” The invite-only chat app allows users the capacity to host rooms on any subject that can accommodate thousands of people.

I was super wary about Clubhouse at first, seeing the potential for misuse leading to online harassment, something I’ve been against very vocally for years. I was secretly glad that the platform was for iPhone users only, as an Android user… until it became available for Android, too, in May 2021. I eventually bit the bullet, and asked a friend to send me an invite to join. As entertaining as my time on it has been, turns out my gut feeling about the app was spot on.

At least as far back as September 2020, there have been reports of antisemitism on the app and criticism of the way it is moderated. Still, many Jews used it to find a sense of community during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I really took to the app, it was an amazing reprieve from the pandemic,” Lena Bacharach, an observant Canadian Jew currently studying in Seattle, tells me. “I got to talk to real people! Real Jews! It was just a really special place.” However, she notes that since the recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas, “every other room is about antisemitism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that intimacy is all but gone.”

One room in particular Bacharach mentioned when we spoke that represented what she called a “big shift” was titled, “y’all be talking about Jews but don’t know the first thing about them.” It featured mainly speakers associated with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who are labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to Bacharach, the room lasted at least four days and only ended, with a temporary ban on the moderators, after a mass reporting campaign and complaints about the platform from Twitter accounts with many followers.

Just last month, Oscar-nominated actor LaKeith Stanfield participated in a Clubhouse room that focused on the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has said hateful things about Jews, including calling Jewish people “termites.” Although Stanfield did not speak in the room, his presence on the stage attracted thousands more listeners. While Stanfield has since apologized for his participation in the room, this instance is just another example of how dangerous rhetoric can be spread on the platform, especially when people of influence are involved.

It’s important to note, though, that the Black Hebrew Israelite and Nation of Islam strains of antisemitism are only one mutation of the oldest hatred prevalent on Clubhouse. Arab and Palestinian antisemitism is also present, especially in rooms about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Benger, a Jewish person from New York who uses Clubhouse regularly, recalls an instance of a Somali woman pretending to be an Ethiopian Jew to spread disinformation about Israel. He also tells me about a room where “a medical professional spoke calmly about the Zionist ‘threat.’ It seemed at first that for her, a faithful Christian, it appeared that it was the secularism of the Zionist pioneers that was most offensive to her. She spoke about the ‘persecution’ of the Hassidim who reject the State Of Israel, and then called Zionism ‘a Godless ideology which was formed by an atheist, Theodor Herzl.’ She was worried that ‘as believers… we’re all going to be vulnerable to persecution [via] this ideology.’ She went on to declare that ‘pride and racism’ are in the collective conscience of Zionists. She moved on from the religious discussion to deploy an ancient antisemitic canard shrouded in contemporary geopolitics: ‘I feel like they’re just trying to milk America dry for our tax dollars.’ This rhetoric may sound relatively milquetoast compared to the violent threats that are commonplace, but this mild-mannered approach is far more effective and persuasive. It is dangerous, and should be reportable.”

Other examples Benger provided included evidence of mass reporting of Jewish accounts to the Clubhouse technical support team, which is also a form of harassment, in addition to the phenomenon of “Zoom bombing” that Zoom faces, where people can infiltrate a room. Ellen Borenstein, a Jew living in Toronto, remembers how the “Ask an IDF Veteran Anything” room was almost immediately shut down because of mass reporting and suspension of accounts in the room, some of whom didn’t even speak. Even just having something Israeli in their profile picture, such as an IDF uniform, was enough to get these Jewish accounts suspended.

“Occasionally,” Benger notes, “a person will simply enter a Clubhouse room, ask to be invited up on stage to ask a question or share a comment. Once on stage, they will simply start screaming, ‘Kill the Jews!’ or ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘Zionist pigs’ until the moderators scramble to kick them out.”

Borenstein recalls that over the course of two separate rooms she participated in, users shouting antisemitic phrases including “I am Hamas” and “Heil Hitler” as well as threats like “If I see you in person, I will behead you.” Borenstein filed a police report with her local hate crimes unit in light of these threats.

In other instances, there existed rooms perpetuating antisemitic conspiracy theories pushed by white supremacists, such as the idea of “Jewish privilege.” In light of this, Clubhouse shut down numerous rooms and suspended users who violated its purported rules against hate speech. However, as mentioned earlier, this was only after backlash by popular Twitter accounts like @EliKohn3, whose Tweet about the issue garnered a lot of attention.

Even outside of antisemitic rooms, Jewish people are harassed through the app. Benger explains, “Because Clubhouse users are encouraged to link their Clubhouse bios to other social media accounts, Jewish users appear on Clubhouse with their real names (in accordance with Clubhouse guidelines), and are then harassed on their Twitter and Instagram accounts by the antisemites who find them via Clubhouse. They have received threats of physical and sexual violence, and some are afraid of being doxed.” Doxing is the act of finding and publishing one’s personal information (phone number, address, etc.) for malicious intent.

There are numerous issues of reporting and moderation on Clubhouse, mainly rooted in the fact it’s an audio-based app so there isn’t the same sort of text transcript you would see on a more traditional social media platform.

“Conversations are prohibited by Clubhouse’s guidelines from being recorded, transcribed, reproduced, or shared without explicit permission,” says Benger. “Because the conversations are not being recorded, it is difficult to provide evidence when reporting someone for misconduct. You can only declare your discomfort with another individual, but you cannot, by definition, provide any evidence without giving yourself away as a transgressor of the guidelines.”

Additionally, there is not currently a mechanism for reporting a room, only individual accounts. Rooms such as the one screenshotted below, calling for a second Holocaust, remained up for extended periods of time.

A Clubhouse room titled “We should do a new Holocaust”

“This is a room that should have been reportable, but under the current Clubhouse user interface, the room is untouchable,” Benger says. “The only recourse is to enter the room, and try to begin reporting the moderators and the other people sharing hateful opinions. But in order to do this, one first has to stomach the violent, stomach-churning rhetoric to sit in the room while working through reporting all of the active speakers. Moreover, moderators will frequently kick out people who they do not believe to be friendly to their cause. So the room goes on, and it cannot be interrupted in any way.”

Jews are routinely silenced on Clubhouse in this way. Indeed, even in rooms irrelevant to politics or religion, there is hateful rhetoric and censorship of Jewish voices. “I was in a clubhouse room about Formula 1 racing, and some people were talking about what countries they would like to see host a Formula 1 race,” recalls Brian Highkin from Portland, Oregon. “Somebody said that they wanted a Palestinian Grand Prix in the ruins of Tel Aviv because it is all really Palestine and Israel isn’t real. When I objected to this, I got treated like the bad guy and booted from the room.”

Benger has a few suggestions for how Clubhouse can possibly improve its user experience to protect marginalized groups. For one, Clubhouse can follow up on reports they receive. “A report is submitted, sent off into the ether, and never heard from again. Twitter, for example, updates users on the results of their report, and gives them the opportunity to appeal decisions. Clubhouse should have a similar process,” he says.

Additionally, Benger believes that Clubhouse should implement an internal messaging feature so users can interact with one another privately. “It can be very rudimentary (like Twitter’s messaging, for example) but there must be a way for people to transmit text and contact one another directly without having to resort to publicly identifying their email address or social media handles.”

Lastly, Benger would like to see the app provide users with a way to better curate their experiences, such as the option to block individual accounts or even terms they do not wish to see rooms of. For instance, a user can block the word “Holocaust” and not see any rooms with that term in the title.

Ultimately, I don’t know what the answer is to this problem on Clubhouse, but I do know that it is important to bring attention to the issue. Antisemitism exists in every facet of our society, and its existence on this new app is unsurprising. However, the Jewish community on Clubhouse have been meeting to discuss ways to combat this harassment and denormalize it in any way we can, whether that be reporting the moderators of hate-filled rooms or interrupting when we hear an antisemitic trope being used. When it comes down to it, the Jews of Clubhouse will not be silenced by hate, harassment, and intimidation.

About the Author
Rafaella Gunz is a writer and social work student living in NYC. She is passionate about Jewish cultural identity, LGBTQ+ rights, and feminism. Her work has appeared in Bust Magazine, Hey Alma, Jewish Journal, Gay Star News, Deadstate, and more.
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