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How an antisemitic attack gave rise to a pro-IDF social media movement

After two Brooklyn 21-year-olds wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the logo for the Israel Defense Forces were allegedly attacked by two men who called them “dirty Jews,” a social media movement is striking back.

The #IDFshirtchallenge asks users to post pictures of themselves proudly sporting their IDF apparel on both Twitter and Instagram, and figures such as influencers Moti Ankari and Jordyn Tilchen as well as Arizona State Rep. Alma Hernandez have already jumped on board, posting photos of themselves repping IDF gear.

Blake Zavadsky and his friend Ilan Kaganovich were in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood when the 21-year-olds say they were harassed by two attackers, who called them “dirty Jews” and punched Zavadsky in the face twice before pouring iced coffee on him.

“I can’t believe this happened,” Kaganovich told the New York Post. “We should be able to wear whatever we want to wear.”

The hashtag was created on Tuesday by David Draiman, lead singer of heavy metal band Disturbed. Draiman posted a photo of himself performing while wearing an IDF tank top. “I stand in solidarity with the two young Jewish men who were attacked in Brooklyn, NY yesterday,” he wrote in the caption. “We will not be intimidated. #IDFShirtChallenge #amyisraelchai.”

On Thursday morning, there were fewer than 50 posts with the hashtag on Instagram, but the movement is noticeably growing, adding some dozen tagged Instagram posts during the writing of this article.

“​​We’ve seen a big rise in antisemitism and antisemitic attacks in the name of anti-Zionism,” said Emily Schrader, who used to run social media for pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and posted a photograph with her own IDF sweatshirt. “This was just another example of that.”

“This person wasn’t targeted simply because he was wearing an IDF T-shirt,” Schrader, who now runs a social media consultancy, added.

Schrader isn’t alone in that analysis. Some proponents of the challenge have begun to urge supporters to participate by posting any visibly Jewish article of clothing. “Join this challenge and post yourself with an IDF shirt — if you don’t have one, wear a yarmulke, star of David or anything else recognizably Jewish,” wrote the Maryland Russian American Jewish Experience on its Instagram account.

Yet many of the posts labeled with the hashtag to date focus on more support for the IDF than the original antisemitic attack that was the genesis for the movement. In turn, some observers have criticized the challenge for conflating Judaism with support for Israel, a particular concern of progressive Jewish activists. Their argument: encouraging users to post religious ritual clothing in a social media challenge about IDF garb explicitly links support for the IDF with religiosity.

“All the Zionists who complain about people ‘holding individual Jews accountable for the actions of Israel’ are now posting selfies of themself proudly wearing IDF merchandise,” tweeted Jewish writer Em Cohen.

And many of the IDF shirt posts have comments and replies posting criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, or referring to the IDF as terrorists or participants in apartheid.

But to Yoseph Haddad, an Israeli Arab who fought in the IDF’s Golani unit in the Second Lebanon War and Schrader’s fiance, that criticism represents a deep misunderstanding of what the Israeli army does.

Haddad contrasted the IDF’s humanitarian and medical aid to Israel’s Arab neighbors, such as Syria, to stereotypes about, he said, its alleged “baby killing.” He did not address Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank.

“It’s the IDF, it’s not the JDF. It’s not a Jewish defense force, it’s an Israeli defense force, and in Israel, 20% of the population is Israeli Arabs,” Haddad said, pointing out that many Arabs citizens of Israel serve in the country’s military and benefit from its protection — a point he also made in his own video supporting the #IDFshirtchallenge.

“When Hamas or Hezbollah launches missiles at Israel, they don’t distinguish between Arabs and Jews.”

Though the social media movement is still relatively small, it’s moving from the virtual world into the real one. New York City councilwoman Inna Vernikov, who is Jewish and represents the area of Brooklyn where Zavadsky and Kaganovich were attacked, is hosting a rally on Sunday in the area of Bay Ridge where the original attack occurred.

“March against anti-semitic attacks!” reads the poster for the event. “Bring your own IDF hoodie!”

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