An 88-year-old Holocaust survivor using TikTok to make sure a new generation does not forget says he’s being bullied off the social media platform by resurging antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Gidon Lev, a TikTok celebrity with nearly half a million followers, plans to deactivate his account after the flood of hateful comments and messages following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks made him fear for his safety.
Lev, a retired dairy farmer who for years lived on the Gaza border, says he’s taking refuge from TikTok on Instagram.
“A survivor of the Holocaust had to leave Tiktok after the worst massacre against the Jews since the Holocaust. Imagine that,” his partner Julie Gray told USA TODAY.
“Every Israeli knows someone who was raped, murdered, taken or is serving in the IDF right now. So we have tried to post a few things about hope and how we are doing but we cannot post anything without a storm of comments condemning Zionists, Israel and even Gidon of genocide. It is unbearable.”
Lev and Gray posted a farewell video “Just say no to Toxic TikTok” that sends followers to their Instagram account.
“We have reached millions of young people on this app. It had its challenges and sometimes took quite a toll on both of us. But it’s also been wonderful. But increasingly over time and definitely now, it is clear that Bytedance/TikTok is causing a great deal of harm for all users and creators,” Lev and Gray wrote in the video. “We can’t be part of something that causes more harm than good. So for the time being, for our collective well-being, we are taking our leave.”
Asked for comment, TikTok said it “stands firmly” against antisemitism and has removed over 730,000 videos for hate speech since last month.
“We’re actively listening to the Jewish community and civil society as we work to strengthen our protections to stop the spread of hate,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Holocaust survivors mourn the loss of TikTok voice
As the number of living survivors of Nazi concentration camps dwindles, a small clutch of them have turned to TikTok to bear witness and reach young people where they are.
A 2020 survey found that almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zers don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and almost half can’t name a single concentration camp.
The work of educating the world about the Holocaust has become even more pressing as antisemitic incidents in the U.S. surge to historic levels and anti-Jewish hate spreads on social media, particularly from celebrity accounts with large followings such as Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.
The 99-year-old Jewish influencer Lily Ebert survived the death camp at Auschwitz. Her mother, brother and sister did not. With more than 2 million followers, Ebert was the first Holocaust survivor to join TikTok with the help of her great-grandson Dov Forman.
Success on TikTok led to their bestselling memoir “Lily’s Promise: Holding On to Hope Through Auschwitz and Beyond – A Story for All Generations.”
“It’s incredibly difficult and sad to see a fellow Jewish creator who has built such an incredible platform be terrorized and have so much fear that they have to leave the platform because of the antisemitism they have been receiving,” Forman said.
Forman says he and his great-grandmother have received rape and death threats and messages denying the Holocaust on TikTok and Instagram.
“People across the world have not only been remaining silent but there have been individuals who have gone out on the streets and called for violence, called for genocide against the Jews. And they have put it on social media and made it a toxic place for Jewish people and Jewish creators to be,” Forman said. “They flood our comments with antisemitic messages, with political messages, when we’ve got nothing to do with politics when all Holocaust survivors on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter want to do is to spread love, to spread messages of peace, messages of tolerance.”
Antisemitism spreads after Hamas attacks, Gaza fighting
Earlier this month, Jewish social media influencers called on TikTok to combat an alarming surge in antisemitism that they say is making the popular short-form video platform unsafe for the Jewish community.
In an open letter, they said the hate intensified after Hamas fighters stormed into Israeli border communities last month, killing more than 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking more than 240 people hostage.
Social media used to be a place where Palestinians and Jews could share positive messages about their identity, culture and history. But increasingly it has become an extension of the fighting in Gaza with already heated tensions escalating after Israeli forces raided Gaza’s largest hospital this week.
When 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, therapist and social worker Tova Friedman was asked about hateful comments on TikTok, she turned to her grandson Aron Goodman who started the account which has drawn more than a half million followers and millions of likes.
“I don’t know what percentage is negative, I’m just going to make it up, maybe 20%. Aron, do you think there is more than 20% negative remarks?”
“Oh boy,” he responded.
“Really?” Friedman said. “More than 50%?”
Goodman says he spares his grandmother by screening the daily deluge of hate-filled screeds. Friedman was 5 when Nazis took her to Auschwitz and tattooed the number 27-6-33 on her arm. Of the 5,000 children from her hometown in Poland, she was one of only five who survived.
“Well, you know how I feel? If only one person would learn something they don’t know, I am going to do it,” Friedman said. “We cannot give up educating people. We just cannot give up no matter what happens. Because if we give up educating, then we are done. We are really lost. No matter what they say, we have to be there to try to educate those who are listening and even those who are trying not to listen.”
Holocaust survivor and partner say they’re fed up with TikTok
That has been Lev’s philosophy on TikTok since 2020 when he and Gray joined to promote his self-published memoir “The True Adventures of Gidon Lev.”
Taken with his family to the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic when he was 6, Lev is the subject of an upcoming documentary. Lev is also working with Gray on a book of life lessons due out next year “Let’s Make Things Better.”
But Gray says she’s given up trying to make things better on TikTok.
Lev and Gray live in an active war zone with sirens sounding at all hours as Israeli forces target Hamas in Gaza. But they’ve also been living in a war zone online, Gray said.
For years, she says she has documented the hate targeting Jewish creators in hopes of improving moderation on TikTok to no avail.
TikTok’s reporting system does not recognize antisemitic content, Jewish creators are “shadowbanned” and antisemitic trolls weaponize TikTok by mass reporting Jewish content, according to Gray.
“A lot of people on TikTok are saying to us: Don’t be driven off TikTok by hate. Don’t let the haters win. You’re running away. But it’s not the hate. It’s TikTok,” Gray told USA TODAY. “I have done the emotional work of providing TikTok with three years worth of Holocaust education. We have taught millions of young people. It’s been wonderful. But the price of admission for us is constant hate and harassment for which TikTok says they have tools to protect us but they don’t.”
Gray says she doesn’t want to deprive young people on TikTok of learning about the Holocaust, but she can’t allow a survivor of the Nazi camps to be retraumatized by the indifference of a social media platform.
“I’m sad about it. A lot of people really love Gidon,” Gray said. “They are just going to have to love him somewhere else.”