“If I Were a Rich Man” is one of the most iconic songs from “Fiddler on the Roof.” In it, Tevye, borrowing from niggunim, a wordless Jewish meditative tune, dreams of a better life outside the shtetl.
Unfortunately, the beloved song has been turned into a flourishing antisemitic trend on TikTok, spawning more than 25,000 videos. The song plays under a video using TikTok’s “Expressions” filter, which turns any facial expression into either an exaggerated frown or smile that closely resembles antisemitic propaganda images such as “the happy merchant,” classified by the ADL as a hate symbol.
Trends on TikTok are structured around songs and sounds, which are used over and over. Often, a song will have an associated meme, such as a dance or joke. The most popular videos rise to the top of the song’s page, and are the first thing you see when you search for it or click through a video to view the sound used.
Jewish creators on TikTok have been trying to “reclaim” the sound, hoping to populate the song’s page with their own videos using the same clip, explaining why the trend is antisemitic and hurtful. But they’ve faced pushback, both from other users and from the app itself.
While some users are openly malicious, others are unaware that the song has a Jewish association — they think the version circulating on TikTok is a cover of Gwen Stefani’s version of the song, “Rich Girl.” Other commenters are confused how a song from a Jewish musical could be antisemitic, and some Jewish creators have faced accusations of being “snowflakes” when they explain the nuance.
But worse than the naive commenters is the app’s own censoring of Jewish creators’ attempts to educate the trend via stitching and duetting problematic videos to offer their commentary and perspective. Amadi, who goes by the handle @amaditalks, told me TikTok kept one video on the topic under review for over 30 hours, meaning it was unavailable immediately after being posted for more than a day. @amaditalks tried reposting it twice thereafter, and had eventually given up when it finally reappeared.
The Jewish creators I spoke with find the app’s community guidelines confounding. Rachel SJ, a Jewish creator who uses the handle @sj_rachel on TikTok, has had numerous videos flagged as bullying for calling out antisemitism. “If there’s a video that has hate speech in it, or it has antisemitism in it — if you duet that video or you stitch that video and you explain about why it’s antisemitism, you can be as calm, polite, nice as you want in that video,” the creator said. “If it gets reported for harassment and bullying, your video goes down immediately, and the hate speech one stays up. And that’s consistent across racism, ableism, fatphobia, you name it.”
Hate speech itself is occasionally blocked, but it “has to be really extreme, really violent for it to count,” said Rachel.
When I spoke with Rachel on Friday, 10,000 videos had been made with the song; since then, the number has more than doubled. In this particular case, however, the Jewish creators seem to be successfully reclaiming the sound. Many Jewish creators have made it near the top of the song’s page, including one who is in the second row of videos as of publication — the highest of any video from a Jewish creator thus far.
Some of the successful Jewish videos explain why the trend is antisemitic or simply dance to the song as though they were in “Fiddler on the Roof.” A few of the most successful simply ask users to boost their video for the sake of getting a Jewish creator to the top of the sound, and are filled with commenters talking about inane things or asking commenters for favorite colors to boost the video in the algorithm.
But even though the Jewish creators have managed to change the trend themselves, they feel TikTok should be doing more to help. “It makes me feel like the app doesn’t value protecting and amplifying marginalized voices,” Rachel said.