By Stephen Oryszczuk
What do the two words ‘antisemitism’ and ‘influence’ bring to mind? Antisemites influencing people to hate Jews? Antisemitism spreading to influence other things and people?
Maybe something more positive, such as how people may be influenced away from antisemitism?
Possibly very few who heard those words would think of influencers; specifically, influencers using their social media channels to inform, educate, and ‘influence’ their mostly young following about the world’s oldest hatred, nipping any potentially nasty thoughts in the bud with viral videos or whatever digital dishes these online sages spin.
Yet that’s exactly the plan that is exciting Dr Moshe Kantor, the 68-year-old Russian Jewish billionaire who sits atop a symphony of Jewish organisations and who has just been given Austria’s highest honour.
Kantor, a London-dwelling scientist turned fertiliser magnate, is a sparky, funny, and slightly elbow-pulling thinker who’s three steps ahead of the pack and who – for wont of a better phrase – is bang on the money when it comes to antisemitism and social media.
He said more in the six minutes Jewish News had with him (before his people yanked him away) than we had heard over two days in the Austrian capital. And it’s worth breaking it down.
“Today’s young people are not thinking about the lessons of World War Two, about the lessons of the Shoah. The more we speak about this, the further away we go from them. We have to speak their language, on their values.”
Stop talking about the Holocaust if you want to combat antisemitism? As a message from one of the world’s most senior Jewish leaders, that’s one of the more eyebrow-raising. Yet what he is saying makes sense.
“We need proper influencers, both micro influencers, from the same age group, the same group of interests, and macro influencers, who influence all groups, sometimes going from one group to another.”
Not only does he know what an influencer is (many people of a similar age wouldn’t have a clue) but he has mapped out the different kinds of influencers needed (micro, macro) and the different targets (age, interest etc). This isn’t an old man trying to be on-trend. This is a well thought out strategy.
It felt like one of those moments when you first hear of a phenomenon that then becomes huge, that becomes the new era, that becomes the norm. This is a big real-world problem meeting a big real-world solution via the stated clenched-fist aim of determined billionaire.
As one of four journalists flown out to Vienna, I wasn’t ostensibly there to hear this. I was there to witness the unveiling by Kantor and others of a five-volume mini antisemitism library you need a wheelbarrow to transport. Compiled over almost four years to great fanfare by a select group of scholars and destined to be the preserve of other select scholars, it’s about as far removed from popular culture as is possible to be. Yet he thought it was needed.
“We wanted to create the academic platform on which we can develop other more simple and clear instruments,” he explained. “Earlier today, I spoke with Prof [Armin] Lange about the need, for the younger generation, to have everything on one page.”
There is a certain comedy value in a philanthropist bringing 119 of the world’s leading antisemitism scholars together for four days in February 2018, then funding Prof Lange et al to distil into 2,240 pages their accumulated thoughts and work, and now telling Lange that he really ought to squish it down a bit, preferably to one page, for the youngsters.
“These [five] books will give an academic platform for something that’s very important and very meaningful today: social media. People addicted to social media are losing their ability for long-term education. We have to create something for them that is very easy to digest and understand, from the first sentence.”
There’s a lot there to unpick here, but he obviously knows the younger generation, and knows where the antisemitism of tomorrow might today be brewing.
He knows that the attention span of the average 15-year-old today is such that no 15-year-old will still be reading this article by now, if they ever started, and therefore we cannot hope to infuse a teen love of/tolerance for Jews using such arcane devices as multi-syllabic words, multi-pronged sentences, pages without pictures, sentences without hashtags, or videos without end. That’s what we did yesterday, he’s saying.
Rumour has it that Kantor spent his own youth designing mirrors for Soviet spacecraft, yet here he is, nearly 70, recognising that for a message to be understood by the largest number of phone-addicted young people today it has to be a) online b) short c) understandable to all d) understandable in its entirety.
Today, we need to enlist the help of those who can hook a fleeting and easily distracted 15-year-old mind in online for enough crucial seconds for the information to be delivered or for the message to sink in, before that young head is turned.
It can be done, too. Kantor is the president of the Anna Freud Centre in London, he says. “For the last 18 years, the centre takes care of young people addicted to extremism.
“We wanted to find the language, the vocabulary, of how to speak with them. And we got a very interesting result during the pandemic.
“Before, we thought it took months and months of talking to potential extremists, young guys, together with their parents, to change something. Just now, we found that one session, sometimes even just one hour, is enough to change their platform completely.”
He knows that to speak to the young, you have to speak their language. “They have a different vocabulary. I don’t understand my [young] sons, especially when they speak to each other. We have to come to the young, not ask that they come to us. That’s why we have to follow-up on these books, to make it understandable for young people in every country.”
Kantor doesn’t just talk about social media. He wants “a law… against antisemites”.
If influencers are his carrot, legislation inlaid into a state’s constitution (to hedge against changing political winds) making it illegal to be hateful to Jews is his stick.
Is he proposing to pay famous online names to tell people not to hate Jews? If so, is he in danger of becoming the digital version of a well-known self-publicising Israeli-Canadian businessman who pays millions of dollars to the world’s sporting and musical superstars to perform in Israel? Alas, there is no time for such queries.
With a polite nod, Kantor is off, whisked out of the palace surroundings to the opera house, leaving the assembled journalists to contemplate how Kim Kardashian could help the Jewish cause, as we lower the crane down to pick up the first of our five volumes.
Back at the hotel, I find the bit in Volume 5 that deals with social media. It’s all data, algorithms and policy frameworks.
In other words, it’s written by an academic and it is hard to see how it will influence people very much. To do that, it turns out you need a pensioner.