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US Army suspends officer with 3 million TikTok followers for Holocaust joke clip

Social media influencer 2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer’s account goes offline following backlash against video, in which he jokes that a Jew’s favorite Pokemon is ‘Ash’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer in a TikTok video published on August 28, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)
2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer in a TikTok video published on August 28, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

NEW YORK — The US Army announced Monday that it had suspended a field artillery officer for joking about the Holocaust in a video he posted to TikTok, where he has nearly three million followers.

“What’s a Jewish person’s favorite Pokémon?” 2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer says in the short clip, referring to the characters in a popular video game series.

“Ash,” he responds, before breaking out into a cackle.

The 23-year-old stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia acknowledged the controversial nature of the post, starting it off by saying: “Reason one million why I’ll never be verified — dark jokes,” before appearing to raise his arm in a Nazi salute.

After making the crack, he ends the clip warning, “If you get offended, get the f*** out because it’s a joke. Don’t be a p***y.”

Freihofer’s 3rd Infantry Division released a statement, which did not reference him by name but called his remarks “vile.”

“The statements made in the video are not indicative of the values we live by, and there is no place for racism or bigotry in our Army or our country,” the unit said. “An investigation has been initiated into this matter and the soldier has been suspended of any and all leadership authorities effective immediately, pending the results of the investigation.”

Responding to the video on Twitter, US Army Sergeant Major Michael Grinston wrote, “this is completely unacceptable. On social media or not, racist jokes are racist. Period.”

Army regulations state that soldiers are “responsible for content they publish on all personal and public internet domains to include social media sites, blogs, and other websites.”

Freihofer posts regularly on TikTok with his videos often showing his daily life in the military, working out and making jokes in front of the bathroom mirror.

He has over 2.9 million followers on the short video platform and 220,000 followers on Instagram.

But following blowback over Friday’s post, his TikTok account had gone offline and his Instagram account turned private.

A spokesperson for TikTok said the Holocaust joke video had been removed for violating the platform’s hate speech policies.

After a reporter for the Task & Purpose military news site posted Freihofer’s video on Twitter, it elicited hundreds of angry responses, including from Jewish groups and Holocaust education organizations.

“This is why Holocaust Education remains vitally important- especially for digital influencers with an audience of millions. A 2nd LT. making light of the Holocaust, and the millions of people who were murdered – sets an unacceptable example for anyone anywhere,” tweeted the Anti-Defamation League.

“He wrote: ‘For legal reasons this is a joke’ What about moral reasons & respect? Would he look into the eyes of Survivors liberated by @USArmy and tell them this? Nathan, if you see this, take this lesson to learn why you hurt real people & their memory,” the Auschwitz Museum posted on its Twitter account.

Freihofer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TikTok has come under fire recently for failing to crack down on a trend in which users of the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform role-play Holocaust victims.

In most of the clips, young women and teens act out a fictionalized story of a victim in the afterlife, donning costumes and make-up meant to show bruises and burn marks on their faces. The videos nearly always mention Auschwitz and often use the Bruno Mars song “Locked out of Heaven” as a soundtrack.

The clips have garnered tens of thousands of views and positive reactions on the network.

Earlier this month, lawmakers on the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs tore into TikTok for failing to show up at a hearing discussing social media companies’ policies on anti-Semitic content.

“It is especially telling that representatives of TikTok are not here,” MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White) said at the beginning of the session. She went on to lament the company’s “lack of accountability and responsibility,” noting that TikTok is a platform where “millions of children are exposed to virulently anti-Semitic content” for long periods of time. “They too must be held to account.”

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