Girls Night Out is a secret Facebook group for women in Los Angeles. “Secret” because if you search for it online, you won’t find it. “Secret” because if you want to be a member, you must be invited. Created by a USC communications grad as a virtual sorority house and networking node for the sprawling megapolis in 2011, it has grown to more than 30,000 members.
GNO is a place to share social news (recommendations about restaurants and nail salons) and also to talk—about politics or relationships or show business. “It’s a place to feel safe with no men around,” said one GNO member. It also offers valuable work opportunities for LA’s large freelance population. By commenting on threads, fitness trainers, chefs, makeup artists, and the like can prove their bona fides and, if they are lucky, get new clients. Artists can sell their wares and PR pros can announce hot new openings and popup stores.
“I was told this is the spot where everything happens,” said a 28-year-old actress. “Everyone’s in it, and they have a subgroup called GNO Casting,” on which she learns about auditions. It’s also the perfect gateway drug to the dream of going viral. “I’ve seen a girl make a random post about macrame—and suddenly she has like 30,000 posts and her business is popping.”
GNO’s commercial promise is so great that a nutritionist who, in three years of membership had not gotten a single client from the site, still holds out hope. “All you need is one person and they can then tell their friends,” she told me. “All you need is one.”
GNO’s numbers grew and the reach of its network multiplied—until 2020. After hundreds of Black Lives Matter protests erupted statewide following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, GNO decided to increase its commitment to the BLM movement. “Once the protests started happening, people posted about how to get involved—organizations to support, where the protests would be,” said one member.
The group also tried to add administrators and moderators who were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). Moderators help decide if posts comply with the rules of the group and Facebook’s community standards, and they have the power to admit and boot members; admins do the same, but have the additional power of adding or booting admins and moderators.
On Aug. 22, a young Jewish group member saw a sign hanging over the heavily trafficked 405 freeway in LA that read, “The Jews want a Race War.” It upset her, and she asked in a GNO post what others thought about it. A member suggested some Jewish representation was also needed in the group, after noticing some “fishy anti-Semitic stuff.” At first, the comments responding to this suggestion were positive.
Then, on Aug. 29, a member posted: “I feel that the Jewish admin who is appointed must also acknowledge the occupation of Palestine.”
And all hell broke loose.
Within hours, every Jewish member who had tried to explain why a litmus test for a “good Jew” was anti-Semitic was thrown out. Every Jewish member who asked why an American Jew should have an opinion on a foreign matter (however incoherently phrased) was expelled. Anyone who made a comment supporting Israel, explaining the history of Israel, or who “liked” such a comment, disappeared. Said one Jewish member who was not expelled, “It was all over so fast that if I hadn’t personally known one of the girls who was thrown out, I wouldn’t have known anything had happened. And the 29,990 other people have no idea those women have been kicked out.”
One of the members who was severed from the group, a Korean American Jewish woman named Skylar Cutler, was so incensed that she contacted Tablet with her story. “The swiftness with which the Jewish women were kicked out without any explanation,” she wrote, “was shocking and a moment of realization that anti-Semitism is now mainstream. Even though the Jewish women who spoke out were ethnic Korean (not white), Mizrahi (not white), Sephardi (not white), and Ashkenazi (not white), we were collectively dismissed and branded as ‘white racist bad Jews’ who were in support of oppressing the ‘brown and Black’ Palestinians.”
A small but loud cohort of women on the site espoused a simple but false syllogism: “Israeli=white and Palestinians=Black.”
Tablet has chosen not to publish the names of any members of GNO who have not explicitly agreed to have their names revealed, as they have indicated fear of the consequences for their work and personal lives. Although Tablet has interviewed and read posts written by a dozen members of GNO, only Skylar Cutler was willing to have her name published. Formerly employed in the entertainment world at a network, she has now left show business.
“What I saw and experienced in that group,” wrote Cutler, “was Jew-hatred cloaked in the veil of social justice. I had to speak out.”
After the GNO post that lit the fuse, the rumpus was over in a few short hours. Cutler had argued valiantly: “Do Arab admins here have to acknowledge the historical and ongoing slave trade of Africans and Arabs?” she asked. “Are American admins, regarding our war with Iraq, our treatment of our Natives, etc., also asked to acknowledge the ongoing conflicts of our country?”
An Israeli member added: “Of course I’m against the mistreatment of Palestinians. I’m vehemently against Netanyahu. I’m against annexation. I’m pro-two state solution. But asking all Jews to speak about Palestine is inherently anti-Semitic, whether intentional or not. Most Jews have absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli government.”
Another asked why only Israel was blamed for the lack of a peace agreement, and not the Palestinian leadership or the Arab League.
The member who originally proposed the “litmus test” statement about “the occupation,” responded with false claims: “Palestinians are being annexed from their lands … you cannot be for Black liberation and for the occupation of PALESTINE!”
A Russian Jewish woman then remarked, “Please educate yourself on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The litmus test proponent then made her intentions clear: “They should be removed from this group, because they’ve been hiding their racism and here it comes out.”
Cutler offered some history of the founding of Israel.
She was the first to be expelled from the site.
One Jewish member noted in despair: “Was Skyler [sic] just kicked out for acknowledging that we are allowed to be sympathetic to both sides? If she really was kicked out for that, I have no words.”
Finally, the woman in charge, the single administrator left standing after an internal administrative purge orchestrated by herself, the single person responsible for approving posts, admitting new members, and selecting the expelled, wrote:
“Skyler [sic] wasn’t kicked out for acknowledging we’re allowed to have sympathy for both sides. She was kicked out because her rhetoric was strongly skewed toward one side.”
The admin further wanted everyone to know that the request for a statement “acknowledging the occupation” was not “anti-Semitic.”
Perhaps she just didn’t understand. A recent poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee shows that nearly half of all Americans say they have either never heard the term “anti-Semitism” (21%) or are familiar with the word but are not sure what it means (25%).
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism includes illustrative examples. One is: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” Also: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
The admin believes she, in fact, does understand anti-Semitism. She wrote: “Does anti-Semitism exist? Absolutely. Do people commit heinous crimes against Jewish people? Absolutely. Is it wrong, inhumane and evil to desire to hurt one group of people because they are of a different race, religion, ethnic background, gender, etc.? Of course.”
But she promptly turned to another anti-Semitic trope, suggesting that Jews have been warped by their long history of persecution to become persecutors themselves. “Being a member of one oppressed group does not absolve you from accountability. The oppressed can absolutely become oppressors. There’s always a hierarchy in systems of oppression.”
Moreover, she advanced a popular but incoherent idea of the social justice movement: “It’s unethical and contradictory of anyone to align themselves with one fight against injustice and yet support, encourage, or ignore other acts of injustice.”
The admin absolved the member who asked for the pledge, because she “didn’t place blame on anyone. She simply said if there’s a Jewish admin, she hopes they will acknowledge the occupation of Palestine. In response to that one comment, all of this.”
And “all of this” meant the expulsion of several women whose income, already strained under the impact of COVID-19, was further damaged by her action, including two Black women who tried to explain to the admin that anti-Semitism was anathema to the group. She threw out both a Black Jewish woman who attempted to explain the Jewish point of view, and a Black Christian woman (and an admin) who objected to anti-Semitism on the site.
But no one who expressed anti-Semitic views was expelled.
“Definitely it was upsetting,” said one 30-something woman who was booted. “Obviously when you see anti-Semitism, it’s hard, but I’ve never had it blatantly directed against me. And when that happened and I was excised from a place just for standing up for Jews, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh’. It was eye-opening.”
With the absolute power she seized and zealously guarded (members say a group as large as GNO needs five to 10 admins and moderators to properly handle all the posts), the admin had her way. And she reveled in her accomplishment. A few weeks later, she tweeted “#PSA The only people complaining about #CancelCulture are the white people who’s [sic] bullshit is no longer being tolerated. KEEP CALLING THEM OUT.”
The rules of GNO are explained in the “About” section of the group. “Please, be kind,” directed the founder, who has since become disappointed with GNO, according to current members. “Please be respectful, open-minded, and supportive when posting. This is a safe and pro-female space.”Among other things, what is not allowed: “racial slurs or other racial remarks or actions (no matter what your race is).”
Members are also asked to keep the group’s posts private. The women who forwarded relevant posts to Tablet did so because they felt their sudden expulsion had broken the rules of the group, as well as Facebook’s own community standards: “Expression that threatens people has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others and isn’t allowed on Facebook.” Not to mention real exclusion from the virtual public spaces whose civic importance Mark Zuckerberg likes to praise.
Since the regime change, all views on GNO that conflict with those of the single admin have been silenced. Even those who were kicked out of GNO are afraid to speak because they “don’t want to be doxxed or have an army of FB and Twitter warriors sending petitions to their employers.” Others say they can’t afford the chance that the admin will use her power to “bad mouth” them to the 30,000 remaining members. Tablet has chosen not to publish the name of the admin responsible for the actions that led to this story, though her identity is known to every member of GNO.
Zuckerberg believes the future of Facebook lies in private groups. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally,” he said in a statement. But what if being themselves is hateful to others? It wasn’t until last month—October 2020—that Facebook updated its rules to ban content that “denies or distorts” the Holocaust, prompting a headline in Time magazine to read: “Critics ask what took them so long.”
The GNO story took three months to play itself out. In late August, at the beginning of the discussion about adding a Jewish admin, a young woman enthusiastically offered her services. She said she, too, had encountered anti-Semitism. “I was with friends and they said, ‘Don’t you think [anti-Semitism] is warranted and can’t you understand their feelings given what Israel does?’”
She was upset.
“Like, excuse me,” she wrote. “I turned down Birthright and have never been to Israel.”
She defined herself as a “good Jew”—one who disapproved of Israel. She made clear her views about the Jewish state in a post in the middle of the brouhaha: “Being for settlements on Palestinian land is absolute colonizer behavior and it is imperialistic.”
And so, on Sept. 9, she was chosen to be a moderator.
Another member objected to this woman’s selection, posting to the group: “95% of Jews in America support Israel’s existence and I would rather have someone who represents the Jewish majority to be an admin rather than someone on the fringe who doesn’t recognize a majority of Jewish issues. I sure don’t support the government. But I’m not comfortable with an anti-Zionist as the Jewish representative of the group.”
The objector was expelled.
By Oct. 28, the new moderator had given up her post, claiming the job was stressing her out.
On the night of Nov. 29, the GNO founder, finally responding to the many messages sent her way by members and former members warning her of trouble in the group she had founded nearly a decade earlier, reasserted her authority: She asked the single admin to step down, then cut her power by downgrading her to moderator, and began an investigation. She readmitted all the Jewish women who had been expelled, and named three Jewish, Israel-supporting women of color, including Skylar Cutler, as moderators.
The admin reacted by leaving the group with a cadre of her followers. They released a statement saying they felt their efforts “as WOC” had not been valued, even after they had invested months “trying to right GNO on our own.” They urged women who appreciated “the culture we have tried to create” to follow them to a new FB group: L.A. Femme. “If we have learned anything from 2020,” they wrote, “it’s to know your worth.” The former admin has been permanently banned from GNO.
Cutler is satisfied with the outcome. Although anti-Semitism is still present on the site, she says, “there’s now Jewish representation to help moderate healthy conversations and discussions.” And she has found new work: building coalitions between Jews and Asians for the group Democrats for Israel. “Jewish people make up just 2% of the U.S. population, and we can’t fight this fight alone,” she said. “We need allies.” Her determination to fight anti-Semitism in progressive spaces has been emboldened: “We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves. We shouldn’t be attacked and discriminated against for being Jewish.”
Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.