On Saturday evening, February 17, 2018, as I was looking with astonishment at my laptop screen at a hotel in Munich, I was still thinking this was a coincidental, scattered, unorganized outburst of populist, anti-Semitic and fascist sentiments. Terrifying and reminiscent of those dark days of Europe, people using the internet as a tool to unload their darkest primeval feelings, a stage to discredit and incite against others, but at the end of the day—something spontaneous.
It all happened mere hours after I asked the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, about the Holocaust law his country had just passed, and after he accused "Jewish perpetrators," among others, for the Holocaust.
On Sunday morning, when the attacks had only gotten worse and the few became dozens, hundreds and then thousands, and content and images began repeating themselves in very similar configurations, I realize this was something else entirely, and that whoever was making so a great effort to slander me and scare me is a much more serious foe than some neo-Nazi hooligans online.
On Monday, when they posted photos of my mother's grave online and called my father a "kapo," I realized how much such a campaign—which costs several hundreds of thousands of dollars, a negligent sum for a state—could deter journalists, or anyone who wants to speak their opinion freely.
I asked experts from an Israeli company called Cyabra, which deals with protection against covert online smear campaigns, to analyze the attacks and the thousands of tweets and comments in Polish, Hebrew and English, as well as examine my Facebook and Twitter pages, the servers and the names of the commenters. They came back with a detailed report analyzing the case and several unequivocal conclusions: "This isn't an independent or isolated thing. This is a strong and skilled PR campaign, with very generous funding. There is very high probability that whoever is behind the smear campaign is an established body with intelligence capabilities and budgets only large organizations have."
The advantage an attacker in this kind of cyber campaign on social media has is that it's very hard to catch him and prove beyond any doubt that one particular person or entity is indeed behind the creation of some fictitious user that wrote horrible things on Facebook. Therefore, it is impossible to prove one-to-one that Polish intelligence or elements with ties to the Morawiecki government or to Morawiecki himself were behind the campaign. On the other hand, the Polish premier has never apologized for his anti-Semitic Holocaust-denying comments, has been fanning the flames of nationalism in his country, and didn't even condemn the unruly anti-Semitic and Nazi behavior of his supporters online.
One of the claims made against me as part of the Polish campaign, much like any other good tale of plots and conspiracy, was that the entire incident that started the commotion was planned in advance to the last detail; that the "lying Jew"—meaning me—was not some chance guest at the conference, and that it was no coincidence I was sitting on the third row while the Polish prime minister was speaking. I was there intentionally (some of the posts claimed that I'm, of course, an operative of the Israeli Mossad)—everything to embarrass and hurt their precious prime minister.
The truth is the entire incident was the most unplanned public thing that has ever happened to me. Several days earlier, I had finished launching a new book in the United States: a busy promotional tour, lectures and interviews, which were not free of intense moments. I was exhausted.
On a short layover in Moscow I met a local journalist. He reminded me of the term "active measures," popular professional jargon in the KGB and the intelligence agencies under its command in Eastern Europe. It means "misleading the opponent, weakening his status and disrupting his ability to successfully execute hostile plans (against the Soviet Union)."
"So they're doing the same thing today, just without the ideology and with completely different technology," the journalist said, and told me off-the-record how local intelligence was using "herds and divisions" of fictitious users on social media to sow confusion and disinformation, to smear, deter and break the spirit of anyone who rises against the regime—such as journalists and human rights activists.
I looked at him with sadness, thinking how I'd feel if I were in his position.
On Friday morning, at the Munich Security Conference, I was part of a discussion with the heads of Jewish communities and organizations in Europe. Some of them reminded me—both in looks and behavior—the few relatives of mine who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. I saw the concern on their faces over the wave of anti-Semitic nationalism that has been sweeping Eastern Europe, the fear of dark days, the dread that once again the hatred towards Jews will be used to inflame passions and blame the foreigner for the illnesses of the country. Most of the time, it's hard for Israelis—who come from a nation that is always prepared to and lives by the sword—to understand these fears and respect these concerns.
On Saturday morning, I was listening to Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki as he was speaking at the conference about the economy, energy and his country's relationship with Russia. Morawiecki talked about everything, except the elephant in the room: a law according to which it will be forbidden to accuse Poland and the Poles of involvement in the Holocaust, and those who do make such accusations would risk criminal charges.
So I took advantage of the time given for questions. Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the conference who was heading the discussion, instructed to pass the microphone to me, and I got up to speak. I wanted to ask a general question about the law, but I was then flooded with memories. My entire family—my late mother and my father and their families—have all gone through the Holocaust. Few survived. Most were murdered. The Holocaust has been hovering over our heads our entire lives as one giant shadow.
And so, as I was getting up from my chair in the third row, everything came flooding back: The memories from our little apartment in the North of Israel, where we could talk about everything except for the Holocaust; missing my mother; the terrible sting of betrayal from her neighbors and friends; her vow that she will never speak another word in Polish. My soul was raging.
When I was talking, the Polish prime minister looked at me with a blood-curdling and unfeeling look. "After this law is legislated, I will be considered a criminal in your country for saying these things," I told him. "What is the purpose? What is the message that you are trying to convey the world? You are creating the opposite reaction and just attracting more attention to these atrocities."
I didn't really expect an answer. I imagined Morawiecki would express sorrow for my pain and that of my family and avoid answering with some diplomatic roundabout wording—pleasant and filled with compassion and understanding, but one that essentially doesn't really say anything.
I was wrong. Morawiecki rejected the accusations of Poland's or Polish involvement in the Jewish Holocaust and said that "We must not allow such horrible lies, because they'll hurt the memory of the victims—both Poles and Jews."
He said that six million Poles were murdered during World War II, all in order to paint the Poles as nothing but victims. He just forgot to mention that three million of them were Jews, almost Poland's entire Jewish community, and that the Nazis would've never succeeded in killing so many without the help of the local population.
His punch line was that indeed "there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian and Ukrainian perpetrators, not only German perpetrators."
Hearing these things left me astounded, my eyes filled with tears of pain and rage.
The first to realize what had happened was Tzipi Livni. She was sitting in the first row and filming what was happening on her phone. Later, she got up, walked up to me, saw how emotional I was and embraced me. She then told me something along the lines of "You'll see, this won't stay here. His comments about the Jews being perpetrators of the Holocaust will cause a big storm in the coming hours."
I was sure the harsh response from Israel, which included a condemnation by Netanyahu to Morawiecki's comments (sort of), would make the Polish premier realize he had gone one step too far, and apologize.
But I was wrong again. The first tweet coming out of an official Polish spokesperson was that Jews would have no choice but to deal with the truth. Later came softer responses, but they all repeated the same message more or less, without backing down or apologizing.
At the same time, a campaign of incitement was launched on social media.
Every post I made and every tweet immediately got hundreds and even thousands of counter comments and posts. The most central motif of these posts was presenting me as the embodiment of the Jewish man's infamous qualities—mostly chronic lying and greed. "Ronen Bergman is a smart Jew, he came to Munich to make a lot of money out of the Holocaust..." "This is what regular Jews are like—liars. The Jews are very greedy. The only see money, money, money," "Hello, spreader of fake news. How much money were you paid to spread lies about Poland?" "The time of lying is over. Now the world will see the truth; Polish truth, not Jewish lies," "...you show deep disrespect toward the victims of the Holocaust... the cowardly liar," "Shame on you, Bergman! This is the perfect Jewish-type provocation, but lies only expose the true face of your nation. Because of that, people all over the world have hated you for thousands of years! The truth will defeat you! We'll expose it!"
And more: "I believe we could properly diagnose Mr. Ronen Bergman's illness, which is called Polonophobia. His late mother also suffered from that... it has to be deep in his DNA. All Poles celebrate the historical truth today. We're a persistent force," "...this is what dialogue with the Jews looks like: You ask them, and they'll expel you," "...we're done with the shit they've been feeding us. Now the Jews will learn what Jews did during the war, and will have to live with it..." "Because of you, Mr. Bergman, I now know why Hitler hated Jews!"
The Mossad issue became very central in the comments: "It's all a Mossad provocation," "will you do anything for money? For your career? For the Mossad?", "Do you know why Hitler was never found? Because he's circumcised, he was Jewish. The Mossad killed and hid Hitler so the world will never know he was Jewish," "…You have to admire the Jew's refusal to answer questions about his magical mother and her alternative life. That's how a real agent behaves, agent Ronen Bergman."
Many of the posts and tweets linked Nazi Party officials to the Jews; Jews in power next to Hitler: "Goebbels—Jewish; Eichmann—Jewish; Heidrich—Jewish; 150,000 Jewish soldiers serving Hitler."
A picture of me from a show a few days earlier in New York appeared on a banner that came with many of the posts. In the background was the New York Times heading, a golden image of the Third Reich's minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels sitting on a pedestal, looking like the Palme d'Or Award with the writing "Golden Goebbels Award."
The Old Protocols of the Elders of Zion were dug up to show the Jews are in charge everywhere: "50 years of one-sided views about the Holocaust, like Steven Spielberg's anti-Polish film 'Con's List,' which is directly responsible for the creation of the phrase 'Polish death camps.' Jewish Hollywood's war against Poland continues…", "A Jewish journalist from NYT is appalled when Prime Minister Morawiecki says that there are Jewish perpetrators. Those bored, ignorant primitives need to be taught!"
There were also many of those who turned the tables on history: At first, Jews cooperated with the Nazis and helped them annihilate Poles. Later, when the war ended, they were among the founders of Soviet secret police forces, or played a major role in them, and also helped these secret services against the Poles.
Other posts included illustrations of Jews in Der Sturmer style: Pictures of hanged men on the gallows and others who are being brought up to be hanged. And above the hanged—the Polish national symbol, a Star of David, and the writing: "Jewish Police in German Nazi service from Krakow Ghetto ... is hanging 7 Polish partisans in Plaszow 26.06.1942 in presence of German Nazis."
In another post, a Gestapo man stands in front of the Jewish police people, alongside the writing: "Oh, who's this? OMG, it's Mr. Bergman's father."
And in another, a photo of a poster that allegedly proves that the Jews welcomed Soviet forces into Eastern Poland with Nazi propaganda posters and swastikas.
Someone drew (quite impressively, I have to say) an illustration of an SS soldier on the left, and a Jewish police man (with a red Star of David) firing together at the head of a Polish prisoner, with the inscription "#Polish_Holocaust."
Someone else posted a horrific picture of a man in the Jewish police force with a Star of David arm band holding the body of a child, hinting at the age-old libel that Jews love the blood of Polish children.
One man, or perhaps a bot that identified as Benedict Chamilowsky, wrote: "Bergman, you and your people need to accept the truth. The Jews are also to blame for WWII: American and German Zionists collaborated with Hitler early on, funding him and bringing him to power in Germany in 1933."
Christian motifs were not absent either: Pictures of Christ on the Cross and the clear implication that he was handed over to the Romans by the Jews, with horrific captions about "The cup of the Lord's wrath" that must be given to the Jews. And in another post, a picture of Benjamin Netanyahu holding up the famous UN poster placard with the Iranian bomb, but instead of a bomb there's a picture of Christ—again an implication of the Jews turning him in.
In addition to linking me to the Nazis and the Jewish people to Nazi crimes, commenters tried to question my authenticity. They claimed, among other things, that my mother did not go through the Holocaust, that her family was not murdered, that she was not a child when the war broke out, that she did not receive a commendation for her Polish. They (wrongfully) claimed that in an article I had published several years ago in Yedioth Ahronoth I said different things to the ones I said to the Polish prime minister. I was furious to read this, of course, but I also could not help but be impressed by the research and effort. Someone had managed to find an article that is not online, and that was published only in Hebrew and only in print five years ago in Yedioth Ahronoth. If I am not mistaken, this can only be achieved if one physically arrives to the archive that holds these volumes. And who was it that went there? How did he know how to find this article, and then translate it?
Then came a new low: They posted a picture of my mother's grave and tombstone. That was really impressive, and showed that someone with a lot of money and power is behind this. And that is because none of us—the family members of the late Miriam Bergman—have ever posted that photo online (or even took it).
And that is not the last of it: Many of my Facebook friends received a message with a picture of me and of an angry Harry Potter, which implies "you are a liar!" People I have not been in touch with regularly phoned me or messaged me to ask whether I was all right.
All of a sudden, I felt like that Russian journalist I had met at the airport, and I understood his fear. Suddenly I realized how natural it is that fear and doubt creep into the heart of those who have been involved in controversial events, even when they're trained to be at the center of a public storm, and when they are convinced they have done the right thing and written the truth. Perhaps I shouldn't publish this article, or post this tweet? Maybe it's not worth it?
Eventually I decided to carry on as normal, without changing a thing, but it wasn't an easy decision.
Since it all looked too organized, I decided to check whether my suspicions were true and approached a group of ex-intelligence officials who founded Cyabra, a company that protects public figures and brands from social media shaming campaigns. The report I got from them left no room for doubt: it determined that "in light of an attack on the journalist Ronen Bergman over the affair of Polish involvement in the Holocaust, Cyabra analyzed the negative discourse against Dr. Bergman on February 19-20, 2018 on Facebook, Twitter, Israeli news sites, and Bergman's personal site RonenBergman.com, and found high involvement of fake users in the negative discourse on all platforms. The attack was mostly orchestrated by fictitious identities that posted the same texts at the same time. Furthermore, they used the services of a private or fake VPN address to conceal the countries from which the activity originated."
For instance, on Facebook: "Dozens of fake profiles were found to be involved in the negative discourse about him. The discourse was done in English, Polish and Hebrew, and included claims against Jewish activity in the Holocaust and the authenticity of Ronen's claims, as well as anti-Semitic speech, and so on. Most of this negative discourse originated from the same fake profiles who liked and commented on each other's postings. Analysis showed that many profiles used the same words and phrases, and many profiles posted comments on set and illogical times."
On Twitter, Cyabra found "extensive use of the hashtags #JewishTruth, #PolandTruth and #TruthFromPoland. Many of the profiles used in the attack were opened shortly beforehand, but still managed to publish hundreds and even thousands of tweets and hashtags. Many repeated the same phrasing and words."
The study also examined the messages that were sent to the site RonenBergman.com and found that "there was use of virtual private IP addresses, hiding the original ones with which the person logged in."