Facebook COO ignores Palestinian complaints of censorship, pledges $2.5 mill to Israel advocacy group 

Facebook COO ignores Palestinian complaints of censorship, pledges $2.5 mill to Israel advocacy group 

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s second in command, is considered one of the most powerful figures in the tech world.

The Israeli government & the ADL, which advocates for Israel, help Facebook executives decide which content to censor. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Palestinians’ Facebook pages are increasingly being removed. At a time when social media have become the new ‘public square,’ Palestinians are being denied equal access…

By Alison Weir

While Facebook is in the midst of a controversy in which Palestinian journalists are complaining that the company has a different standard for Palestinians than for Israelis, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, publicly pledged $2.5 million to an organization that advocates for Israel.

This action was in line with Sandberg’s life history of connection to Israel. And it coincided with Facebook’s pattern of a double standard for Palestinians vs. Israelis. 

While some American organizations that work on the Palestinian issue have largely been able to function on Facebook with relatively small difficulties (including the one I work for), the story for Palestinians living in the occupied Territories has been markedly different.

As we will see, for years there has been evidence that the company discriminates against Palestinian users, arbitrarily closing their pages, taking down their content, and suppressing their information.

This is particularly significant because in today’s world, mega social media companies like Facebook have taken on profound importance. 

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described social media sites as a “modern public square.” He stated: “These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.” 

For Palestinians, who have little access to the outside world, access to this virtual public square is particularly crucial.

And yet, they’re often being denied it. 

‘Censorship rampage’

In 2016 the Intercept reported that Facebook had begun “collaborating with the Israeli government to determine what should be censored.”

In 2017 The Intercept reported: “Facebook has been on a censorship rampage against Palestinian activists who protest the decades-long, illegal Israeli occupation, all directed and determined by Israeli officials. Indeed, Israeli officials have been publicly boasting about how obedient Facebook is when it comes to Israeli censorship orders.”

In 2018 there were reports that Facebook had closed 500 Facebook pages of Palestinian activists, journalists and bloggers in just the first three months of the year.

Currently, Palestinian journalists and activists say Facebook restrictions against Palestinian pages have “dramatically increased.” 

Graphic on #FBblocksPalestine
Quds News: “Anti-Facebook Bias Campaign Trends on Social Media

The problem has become so significant that on October 7 they launched a campaign called “Facebook Blocks Palestine.” The goal was to reveal the “double standard policy of Facebook management” and end the suppression of Palestinian information.

Yet, despite the campaign, a short while later Facebook deleted yet another Palestinian page: this time of a news organization founded in 1997 that had almost five million followers.

As often seems to be the case for Palestinians–and in violation of Facebook’s own stated process–Facebook provided no prior warning or explanation for its action.

Deciding what stays and what goes

Over the years it appears that Facebook has tried to develop strategies to make fair, rational decisions about which content to remove because it constitutes “hate speech” or “incitement.” Facebook strategies have included instituting a review process and, increasingly, creating algorithms to automate the process.

Despite Facebook’s attempt to apply technical solutions, however, underlying all the strategies are human beings who may harbor biases. Individuals review the appeals, write the algorithms, determine the “community standards,” and direct the process. 

As Sandberg herself once said, “When you’re running companies, particularly companies like Facebook … you set policies that affect millions, tens of millions of people.” 

It is, therefore, problematic for fair policies on Israel-Palestine when Facebook personnel demonstrate bias toward one side of this ethnic conflict: It’s problematic when they collaborate with an Israel advocacy organization to allegedly “combat cyberhate,” when Facebook’s head is connected to the top rung of the Israeli government, when its second in command is also close to Israeli leaders and makes a large, very public donation to an organization devoted to advocating for Israel, and when Facebook executives decide to work with the Israeli government to determine which content to remove and which accounts to take down.

The ADL, Israel advocacy, and Sandberg

On Oct. 16th Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced on Facebook that she was making “a personal gift” to the ADL. 

While many people consider the ADL almost an official organization that fights bias–and news media virtually always repeat ADL claims without scrutiny–in reality it  is a highly political, private organization with no public accountability, and with its own biases and agendas.

One of its most explicit agendas and a large focus of its work is to be a “a strong voice for Israel.”

Photo of hearts inscribed with "We love Israel"
Screen shot of ADL “Stand Up for Israel” page

Originally formed to prevent defamation and discrimination against Jews, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) has now expanded its official focus to also protect other minority populations (some more than others; the ADL has frequently opposed Muslim American and Arab American individuals and organizations, and diverse others).

However, at the same time that the ADL opposes discrimination in the U.S. (or claims to), it supports it in Israel, a country that was founded on ethno-religious discrimination and established through the forcible dispossession of unwanted groups. 

The ADL has supported Israel from its earliest days, despite the fact that Israel was established in 1948 through a war ofethnic cleansing” against the non-Jewish inhabitants, and has continued this forced dispossession based on ethnicity/religion through today. 

Ben Gurion with ADL officials
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion with ADL officials in 1951.

Numerous groups and individuals have documented Israel’s systemic discrimination, its long record of human rights violations, its violations of U.S. laws, as well as damaging actions against the U.S.

Nevertheless, the ADL devotes much of its effort to Israel. It advocates on its behalf with U.S. elected officials, American media and on U.S. campuses, including producing a guide about how to block campus events aimed at informing students about the Palestinian situation.

In a section of its website called “ADL Celebrates Israel,” it states: “ADL looks back with pride on our long time support for the Jewish state.” The section exhibits photos of ADL leaders meeting with the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, in the 1950s. 

The ADL’s highly filtered history leaves out the fact that before the advent of political Zionism, the population of the land was 95 percent non-Jewish, that Israel was established through the forcible expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and that for decades most Jewish people around the world had opposed Zionism, and that many still do.

Screen shot of ADL page.

Although the ADL claims to oppose defamation, it often attacks groups and individuals its dislikes, particularly those who provide information on Israel-Palestine that the ADL doesn’t wish Americans to know.

While the ADL’s own statements attacking disfavored groups may at times ironically amount to outright defamation, almost no one is able to take on the organization, given its assets of $145 million+. Rare exceptions were 1993 lawsuits over the ADL’s vast spying operation on Americans, which had gone on for decades. Eventually, the ADL was forced to settle the suits, paying out unknown sums of money. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m among the ADL’s more recent targets, the organization having published false statements about me that it has refused to retract.)

In 2017 the ADL collaborated with an Israeli think tank to produce a 2017 strategy paper on how to counter the growing public awareness of Israeli human rights violations. The Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, Brigadier General Sima Vaknin-Gil, praised the ADL-coauthored paper: “The correlation between the Ministry’s mode of operation and what comes out of this document is very high, and has already proven effective … ”

Among its recommendations, the 32-page document called for “industry engagement with corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter” to burnish Israel’s reputation.

That same year the ADL launched the “Center for Technology and Society,” whose advisory board contains a number of tech executives. 

One is Facebook Vice President Guy Rosen, who studied in Israel and is a member of the TechAviv Community LinkedIn Group, whose objective is “to help Israeli startup founders and their companies succeed by harnessing the collective energy, knowledge, and networks of the global Israeli startup community.”

Photo of Rosen & Lyons at the Facebook presentation
Guy Rosen, Facebook VP of Integrity, and Tessa Lyons, Head of News Feed Integrity, explain how Facebook manages “problematic content.” Menlo, Park, CA, April 10, 2019.

Within a few months of announcing its new tech center, the ADL began partnering with Facebook and the other social media giants to “fight cyberhate.” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “We look forward to tackling this pressing challenge together.”

Greenblatt calls himself a “proud Zionist.”  His wife was previously Acting Director of Israel on Campus (for information on IOC see this).

ADL’s “educational materials”

The ADL’s program includes pushing its materials within schools.

The ADL considers many criticisms of Israel to be “anti-Semitic,” using a definition formulated by an Israeli minister. The materials it provides for schools are highly selective, often have clear agendas, and are glaring in the ADL’s “PEP” stance (Progressive Except Palestine). For example:

  • There is a high school unit on the Rohingya people but nothing on the Palestinian people.
  • The ADL provides a lesson plan on “Refugee Crisis in Europe” that makes no mention of Palestinian refugees, a major refugee group and one that began long before the current crisis.
  • There is a teaching unit on nonviolent resistance that includes materials on the Holocaust, civil rights, sanctuary cities, opposition to the U.S. wall on the southern border, etc, but completely ignores the longtime Palestinian nonviolence movement, the Israeli wall confiscating Palestinian land and imprisoning Palestinians, the killing of nonviolence movement participants Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, and the 50,000-strong nonviolent demonstration launched in Gaza a year and a half ago that has continued every week since.
  • A unit on “Challenging AntiSemitism: Debunking the Myths and Responding with Facts” includes a number of references to Israel and uses as a reference the Jewish Virtual Library, a website managed by the American-Israeli Cooperative Project in order to “to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.” (The unit includes derogatory references to Christianity, Islam, and Arabs.)

The ADL’s facebook posts periodically focus on Israel. For example, it “welcomed” the decision to remove Palestinian Zahra Biloo from the Women’s March over her criticism of Israel, announced that it would discuss “bias against Israel” with UN officials, and alerted its Facebook followers to a discussion about “how to fight” anti-Zionism, i.e. the movement in support of Palestinian rights.

The ADL acknowledges:

“The Internet is the largest marketplace of ideas the world has ever known. It enables communications, education, entertainment and commerce on an incredible scale. The Internet has helped to empower the powerless, reunite the separated, connect the isolated and provide new lifelines for the disabled. By facilitating communication around the globe, the Internet has been a transformative tool for information-sharing, education, human interaction and social change.”

But then it focuses on how to police this marketplace of ideas, allegedly against hate in the form of “antisemitism.” The problem is that to the ADL, support for Palestinian rights and negative information about Israel all too often constitute “antisemitism.” According to the ADL, the many principled, nonviolent actions taken by the world community on behalf of Palestinian rights have supposedly been “antisemitic,” even though their participants have included a wide array of respected leaders of all races and religions.

Sheryl Sandberg and Israel

Sandberg has visited Israel periodically throughout her life and says she feels very close to it. A 2012 video shows her in a gushing Facebook event with former Israeli Prime Minister Peres in which he is called “one of the great leaders of our times.” 

An Israeli author reports that Peres was one of those responsible “for the harsh and often arbitrary restrictions that the military imposed on the county’s Arab citizens, including extensive land confiscations.” He writes: “Mr. Peres participated in the oppression of the Palestinians who have been living for nearly half a century under Israeli occupation.”

Photo of Sandberg & Rivlin
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with Israeli President President Reuven Rivlin, August 12, 2019.

In August of this year, Sandberg went on another of her many family visits to Israel, met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and others, and inaugurated a new Facebook venture in Tel Aviv. At the event, Sandberg announced: 

“I am so excited to be in Israel today. This is a country that is deeply meaningful to me personally. But this country is also deeply meaningful for Facebook because … this is a country of startups and entrepreneurs.”

Sandberg’s Facebook post announcing her gift to the ADL is startling in its timing – being announced right in the midst of a campaign about pro-Israel bias at Facebook – but not entirely out of character. Sandberg often emphasizes her connection to her Jewish identity and seems somewhat oblivious to the Palestinian situation.

In the post, Sandberg described the importance to her of her Jewish identity. She said that her horror at the tragic “mass murder” of Jews in Pittsburgh (11 were killed) and Germany (2 were killed) inspired her to make the donation. 

There is little to suggest she has a similar (or even any) concern for the tens of thousands of Palestinians murdered and maimed by the military forces of the Jewish state, or the current lethal assaults on Palestinian men, women, and children during the weekly mass demonstrations in Gaza that had been intended to be a nonviolent Gandhian march; Israel responded to the organizing announcements by deploying Israeli troops and 100 snipers. Israeli soldiers have killed hundreds and injured close to 29,000 of the marchers, including medics, journalists, and children.

Photo of Abdullah al-Angar
Abdullah al-Anqar, 13, receives post-operative care at the MSF clinic in Gaza City on 10 June 2018. He was shot by an Israeli sniper during a demonstration along the Gaza-Israel border in May.

A search for donations that Sandberg may have dedicated on behalf of these victims turns up only an ambulance – that she presented to Israel, which has massively less need for it than Palestinians.

Chart of Israeli & Palestinian children killed

Opposing hate and bias everywhere

Sandberg and the ADL both espouse opposition to “hate” and “bias.” In Sandberg’s announcement about her donation, she said her money would be “supporting anti-hate programs in Europe and the U.S.”

Perhaps she could ask the ADL to expand this to address the extensive and growing hatred in Israel.

Sandberg’s post also said that her money would help pay for “anti-bias education and programs, research and advocacy.”

She may wish to request that the ADL give some of this money to Israeli academic and author Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who has spent years documenting the embedded anti-Palestinian bias in Israeli textbooks.

“One question that bothers many people,” Professor Peled-Elhanan says, “is how do you explain the cruel behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, an indifference to human suffering, the inflicting of suffering. People ask how can these nice Jewish boys and girls become monsters once they put on a uniform.”

Peled-Elhanan said: “I think the major reason for that is education. So I wanted to see how school books represent Palestinians.” In studying hundreds of Israeli textbooks she found deeply embedded anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab bias. Among other things, she did not find a single photograph that depicted an Arab as a “normal person.”

Peled-Elhanan says that as a result of the Israeli school system, Israeli children grow up to serve in the army and internalize the message that Palestinians are “people whose life is dispensable with impunity. And not only that, but people whose number has to be diminished.”

Perhaps a future anti-hate, anti-bias donation by Facebook’s COO could go to Peled-Elhanan’s potentially life-saving scholarship.

And perhaps instead of working with the Israeli government to remove Palestinian posts that document the results of this hatred and bias, Facebook executives could meet with the Palestinian journalists and activists they’re censoring and listen to what they have to say.

Facebook executives have frequently spoken in favor of free speech. It’s time to apply that principle to Palestinians.


Facebook can be reached at press@fb.com. Comments describing the Palestinian situation and urging fairness to all can also be posted on executives’ Facebook pages (Sheryl Sandberg’s page, Mark Zuckerberg’s page) – and to its Twitter account: @facebook.

Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel

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