Update 2/27/2017: Another incident of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery occurred yesterday, this time at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Clean-up crews have counted more than 500 overturned headstones. This copycat act highlights the need for leaders to continually speak out against hatred, especially when those leaders are particularly charismatic or strong communicators.
Finally, two rather different individuals spoke out against anti-Semitism this week: the U.S. president and PewDiePie, the biggest entertainer on YouTube.
Their statements followed an alarming spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including bomb threats and vandalism at a cemetery: on Monday more than 170 Jewish headstones were knocked over near St. Louis, Missouri. Some people reacted immediately and spontaneously: within hours, Muslim activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi started fundraising to repair the damage. They aimed for $20,000, met that goal in only three hours, and had raised more than $120,000 within two days.
This is great, but grassroots reactions must be joined with statements from leaders, since they have the influence and reach to convince a broad range of people that violent hatred is unacceptable. For weeks, such statements have been largely missing. After hundreds of bias-related attacks November and again in January, we called on Donald Trump to denounce such attacks - especially when they were carried out in his name. Trump has uttered only a few phrases on hateful speech since the election - always in response to questions from journalists. He said, “Stop it,” on 60 Minutes and, “I disavow and condemn them,” in an interview with The New York Times.
The desecration of graves finally garnered a stronger response - although Trump was still responding to questions. Asked about the anti-Semitic incidents, on Tuesday, he called them “horrible” and “terrible.” The next day Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance at the cemetery and said, “We condemn this vile act of vandalism and those that perpetrate it in the strongest possible terms.”
These statements are a step in the right direction, but they are not the end of the story. Trump and Pence must continue to denounce hatred and discrimination against any group as long as these incidents continue. This is an obligation grounded in their high levels of influence, especially with extreme right-wingers and white nationalists who have recently posted anti-Semitic content online and offline - even more than usual.
Violent anti-Semitism has also polluted the videos of YouTube celebrity Felix Kjellberg (known online as PewDiePie). Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a series of anti-Semitic messages in his videos - including one in which two men hold up a sign reading “Death to all Jews,” and another in which Kjellberg gives a Nazi salute. Following this report, Disney and YouTube cancelled some contracts with Kjellberg. He claimed it was all satire, but many have accused him of attempting to disguise messages meant for (other) anti-Semites.
Kjellberg has a particularly strong obligation to reject anti-Semitism - and to apologize - since the repugnant content was his own. He released a defensive statement, describing the concerns of his critics as ‘laughable’:
With over 53 million subscribers, Kjellberg’s channel is by far the most influential on YouTube, so any statement he makes carries great weight - especially with the easily-influenced adolescents who follow him in large numbers. If that influence also extends to neo-Nazis and other hate groups, then his message denouncing anti-Semitism and “hateful attitudes” can influence them as well. In any case, Kjellberg’s audience is so vast and generally susceptible to influence that he should speak out consistently, especially when he is not under pressure to do so. For example, he could make anti-hatred messages part of his regular, humorous videos - not only one formal statement which they are not as likely to see.
While Kjellberg’s type of influence is significantly different than that of Trump and Pence, their obligation to make clear that they reject violent hatred is the same. Leaders and stars of all kinds - political, cultural, artistic, religious, even sports figures - should not take that responsibility lightly, nor should they expect one statement to be enough.