Anti-Semitic TikTok Trend Fuels Violence in Jerusalem

The popular social network has ties to the Chinese government

Israeli security forces disperse Palestinian protesters outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on April 23, 2021, amid tensions following yesterday's clashes between Palestinians and far-right Jews. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
April 23, 2021

Videos depicting anti-Semitic violence are trending on TikTok in Israel, encouraging Arab assaults on Jews amid ongoing violent protests in Jerusalem.

The videos, which show Arab teens assaulting unsuspecting Jews, have stoked violent conflicts in the Old City of Jerusalem. Tensions came to a head Thursday night as the far-right Jewish group Lehava organized a street march in protest, chanting "death to Arabs."

TikTok began removing anti-Semitic videos Friday. The popular social media company has come under fire for censoring content critical of the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is a Chinese tech giant.

Fights broke out in Jerusalem earlier this week after Israeli police blocked Palestinians from congregating at Damascus Gate, a popular spot for evening prayers during Ramadan. The brawls intensified after the release of a TikTok showing Arab teens assaulting an Orthodox Jewish man on the Jerusalem light rail.

On Thursday night, the clashes between Jewish and Arab protesters roiled the Old City of Jerusalem, injuring over 100 people. Police arrested more than 50 people for throwing rocks and assaulting police. According to police, protesters on both sides set trash cans on fire. Videos showed beatings of unarmed Jews as well as police breaking up groups from Lehava with riot grenades.

This is not TikTok’s first brush with anti-Semitism. Users with symbols of Judaism in their bios report being inundated with anti-Semitic comments. In July 2020, a song mocking Holocaust victims went viral on the app, and videos with the song were viewed millions of times. TikTok eventually removed the video and reiterated its commitment to user safety.

While anti-Semitic content proliferates on the app, TikTok also frequently censors criticism of the Chinese government. Documents leaked to the Guardian in 2019 revealed TikTok maintained internal policies of banning videos that advocate greater freedom for Tibet or that reference Tiananmen Square or the pro-independence group Falun Gong. Observers believe TikTok censored videos supportive of protests against the regime in Hong Kong.

The platform similarly censors videos that mention the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs who have used TikTok to share their plight found their accounts shuttered soon after.

Users also suspect the app’s algorithm promotes pro-China content. In the summer of 2020, many users with low follower counts saw their views skyrocket after creating tongue-in-cheek "ilovechina" videos with the Chinese flag prominently featured.

TikTok’s ties to the Chinese government are well-known. The Justice Department alleged that ByteDance’s founder has shown he is "committed to promoting" the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party, and that the company employs 130 party members in its Beijing office. A former party official ran the company’s global content policy team for five years, according to the Financial Times.

The Trump administration attempted to ban TikTok from app stores in the United States in 2020, citing the app’s ties to the Chinese government.