March 31, 2015; The Hill

It must be very difficult to set a political line for a worldwide, non-hierarchical group of cyberspace activists like Anonymous. Given the surplus of young digital experts in the world who want to use their skills to right global wrongs and plenty of wannabes who would like to operate under the moniker of Anonymous with the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks, the intra-Anonymous dialogue around setting priorities and picking targets must be challenging to structure and moderate—especially for a group that is slim on structure.

So how did Anonymous, or at least a band of people under the aegis of Anonymous, choose the language of waging an electronic “holocaust” against Israel, apparently for the fourth successive year, timed a little more than a week before Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 15th-16th)?

There is plenty to challenge in the policies of the Netanyahu government toward Palestine, including its devastating bombardment of tiny Gaza last summer, its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of international law, and Binyamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign promise to oppose an independent Palestine (and his fear-mongering among voters about Arab voters being bused to the polls by his opponents). But the appropriation of the term “holocaust” for action against a nation that was seen by many European Jews as a refuge from the actual Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis is truly disturbing.

“We will erase you from cyberspace in our electronic Holocaust,” says a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask in a video announcing the Anonymous action scheduled for April 7th. “As we did many times, we will take down your servers, government websites, Israeli military websites, and Israeli institutions.”

Facing a history including the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Nazi extermination camps that have operationalized the deadly side of anti-Semitism, Jews are understandably wary about this sort of language. The threat to “erase” Israel from cyberspace brings up the famous quote by Julius Streicher in Der Sturmer in 1941: “Now judgment has begun and it will reach its conclusion only when knowledge of the Jews has been erased from the earth.”

How would Anonymous come up with the term “holocaust” to apply to its #OpIsrael campaign, which, presumably in any dispersed collective, might have had someone, someplace suggest that the historical reference points to the term make the use of it in the context of the Anonymous action inappropriate? Is it a majority vote of some Anonymous body or a more generalized sense of participant consensus? How does one know? How would the Guy Fawkes replicas know whether the process to pick priorities and targets was legitimate and not “hacked”?

To be fair, Anonymous doesn’t just target Israel. For example, an Anonymous ally who goes by the name of Xrsone just recently released a list of 26,000 potential Twitter accounts liked with the Islamic State (ISIS). Xrsone had previously identified 9,200 other ISIS-oriented Twitter accounts, but it isn’t clear that Xrsone’s latest revelations were conducted in official partnership with Anonymous.

Actually, what is or isn’t officially Anonymous is a bit murky. Christian Science Monitor correspondent Fruzsina Eördögh wrote this month about the “Great Anonymous Divide,” suggesting that “there’s a growing divide between various partisans that claim the Anonymous moniker: The North American contingent is increasingly isolated by the rest of the community as Anonymous gains more traction in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.”

One specific split between the North American hacktivists and their European counterparts was over #OpCharlieHebdo, which was promoted by European Anonymous activists as revenge against Islamic militant websites as revenge for the Charlie Hebdo murders. Apparently, North American Anonymous adherents didn’t sign on, insinuating that #OpCharlieHebdo and another operation, #OpISIS, might have been “false flag” actions concocted and implemented by the CIA to harm the reputation of Anonymous or to cause some sort of political unrest. Despite the North American reluctance to join, Eördögh writes that these operations were viewed as popular and successful in European circles.

While the North Americans may be somewhat suspicious of the European, Asian, and Latin American Anonymous groups, the Europeans are a little suspicious of the Americans. One reason is the revelation that Hector Monsegur, who with the pseudonym of “Sabu” had been a prominent Anonymous activist, changed sides and became an FBI informant for a case against five other hacktivists.

It seems that the Anonymous movement is fraying a bit due to multiple tensions. These problems aren’t unknown in most social movements—how the old guard reacts to new participants, how decisions and priorities get established as the movement expands and becomes more geographically dispersed, and so forth. That being said, on both the North American side and the European/Asian/Latin American side, Anonymous is increasingly attentive to, as it should be, its credibility. If that’s the case, threating Israel with an “electronic holocaust” by Anonymous activists is not only in stunningly bad taste, but counterproductive for the movement’s image and reputation.—Rick Cohen