Exposé: The prevalence of anti-Semitic talkbacks on Israeli Russian language sites

AuthorDr. Helena Rimon
Publication Date25 October 2021
Over a million Russian language speakers live in Israel, with ten news sites in the Russian language providing them with news and opinions. Non-Russian speaking Israelis are almost certainly not aware of the facts this article reveals about these sites, starting with the observation that, in contrast to Hebrew and English sites, the most popular sections of the Russian language Israeli media are actually the talkbacks, and continuing with the content that characterizes them.

Many of us are of the opinion that this section of a news site is of no significance, thinking that only news, features and opinion articles are of any value, while readers' responses are unimportant. These are generally believed to be private opinions and spontaneous reactions unauthorized by the editors in charge. Some even see them as stupidities written only by misfits and the deranged.

That may well be the case on Hebrew and English sites, but on Russian digital media in Israel, the talkbacks have become a genre in their own right. Sometimes, in terms of general volume, they go way beyond the articles themselves, and some are so successful that they are even quoted, analyzed, and repeated by many readers. Not a few news readers admit that the main reason they click on the site is to see the talkbacks and not the editorial content.

There are several reasons for the popularity of talkbacks on the "Russian Street." People who read Russian news in Israel, often (although not always) are not familiar with complex issues of Israeli history, politics and ideology, most especially the complicated relations between religion and state, a topic that they had no need to know about in Russia and which greatly interests them.

In Israel today, there is not one high level Russian language newspaper. Once, the Friday Russian newspapers were many-paged sources of political insights, economic analyses, cultural life in Israel, including literature, theater and cinema, but the printed page could not stand up to competition from the internet and was replaced by fairly dismal sites that contain only political news and yellow journalism, scandals and gossip.(An exception to this is Arutz Sheva's much-needed Russian language site.) It is not surprising, therefore, that their readers turn to talkbacks for excitement. It should be noted that the vast majority of these sites are said to be funded by one source. Some are broadcast from Moscow and Kiev.

One the other hand, those who read the news are hungry for more understanding of its underlying causes – historical, political and religious. Most of them know very little about those parameters and have a strong psychological need to feel part of the conversation and to express opinions, sometimes extreme and polarizing ones. That is why talkbacks became such a popular genre, albeit a problematic one, and as it turns out, they are a most convenient way to effect brainwashing.

There is almost no theoretical research concerning this unique genre. It is hard to define the status of the texts in clear fashion: sometimes they appear under assumed names, making them anonymous like folklore, and sometimes their writers can be identified. On Facebook, statuses and responses are reviewed and vulgar or nasty texts often blocked – but on Russian news sites the level of checking is much lower, and sometimes it actually seems as though management encourages antagonistic responses, incitement and hostility, and blocks the more moderate ones.

Talkbacks, are, at least in part, authentic, informal and spontaneous modes of expression for various groups within the Russian-speaking sector, such as non-Jewish Israeli citizens, the vociferously anti-religious as well as the newly religious and converted. Many are people with only a vague idea of what Judaism and Jewish history are about. All these readers want the chance to express their beliefs and opinions.

Nevertheless, the perception that talkbacks come only from private, independent individuals who make up "the voice of the people" is misleading, camouflaging the fact that most of the Russian-language media responses seem to be coming from some ideological center that has taken upon itself guardianship over all issues relating to Russian immigrants. This can be deduced from the times when waves of amazingly similar responses on the same subject appear. There is no way to know, of course, if this reflects the opinion of a majority of readers, but one can say that it is what the Russian language media wishes to present to its readers because positive, Zionist responses, sent intentionally to check this out,have not been posted.

Instead, there are skeptical, cynical, pragmatic, anti-religious and sometimes even anti-Zionist voices of the "state of all its citizens" type. There is no vestige of the old Russian Jewish sentiments of "let My people go" that warmhearted Israelis sometimes still expect from Russian immigrants.

The number of talkbacks increases dramatically when events involving haredi or Mizrahi Jews occur – the two population sectors that elicit extreme hostility on the talkbacks. Talkbacks not aligned with the political line of the sites are erased (I know this for a fact from personal experience and that of my friends)- or subject to vulgar, insulting responses such as "Madam, stop writing idiocies!" "You obviously never finished high school!" "Your beloved rabbis are ignorant boors, they belong in the Middle Ages," "No matter how much you kiss their feet, you will always be a mindless goy to them!" (Vesty 08.17.2021) and more. This stymies attempts to express opposing viewpoints and creates the impression of a "choir" of "popular opinion," a totalitarian one that it is uncomfortable and possibly dangerous to oppose in public.

The strongest evidence of an organizing and orchestrating factor behind the talkbacks is the fact that after this article was posted on a Jewish-Russian site located in Germany (that is, the article you are reading here in English translation), the obscene talkback discussions on the article's subject (Judaism's outlook on incest) disappeared. For how long? I do not know. Perhaps those who moderate the flow of words on the talkbacks decided to wait until the storm the article caused subsides.

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