Israel-Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook to Label Criticism of Israel as Hate Speech

Israel-Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook to Label Criticism of Israel as Hate Speech

Adam Milstein, who served in the IDF from 1971-1974, is the multi-millionaire behind an initiative pressuring Facebook to censor information critical of Israel. (Photo:Milstein Foundation)

145 groups pressure Facebook to adopt an Israel-centric definition of ‘hate speech.’ The initiative is largely funded by Israeli-American multi-millionaire Adam Milstein and is backed by the Israeli government…

Whether Facebook will buckle under the pressure will depend in large part on whether the public—Jewish and non-Jewish—finally recognizes that concerns about antisemitism are being exploited to serve a narrow political and ideological agenda, putting at risk free speech on Israel/Palestine and, by extension, political speech writ large.

By Lara Friedman, text reposted from Jewish Currents

On August 7th, amid broad efforts to get Facebook to clamp down on extremist activity and hate speech, more than 120 organizations sent a letter to the social media giant, urging it to “fully adopt” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as the “cornerstone of Facebook’s hate speech policy regarding antisemitism.”

This definition, which was adopted by the IHRA in 2016 and has been promoted to governments worldwide, includes several examples of what it describes as “contemporary” antisemitism—including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards” to Israel—that can be interpreted to define much criticism of Israel, Israeli policies, or Zionism as antisemitism.

[Editor’s note: for a detailed report on the effort to spread this definition internationally see this.]

This letter represents the latest front in the battle to use the IHRA definition to officially exclude criticism of Israel from the bounds of acceptable discourse. It was spearheaded by pro-Israel attack dog StopAntisemitism.org, which is funded by hardline pro-Israel philanthropists Adam and Gila Milstein. The group is perhaps best known for publicly labeling critics of Israel, including some Jews, as antisemites.

[Editor’s note: Adam Milstein has dual citizenship with Israel and served in the Israeli military. In 2009 he was convicted for tax fraud. He has also funded propaganda against Congress member Ilhan Omar.]

So far, the list of signatories to the Facebook letter is a “who’s who” of right-wing groups dedicated to defending Israel from criticism [see list below], many of which are also funded by or associated with the Milsteins; in The Jerusalem Post, a former Israeli Knesset member who is associated with one of the signatories credited the Milsteins’ foundation with initiating the campaign.

Their effort enjoys the public backing of the Israeli government: Israel’s new Minister of Strategic Affairs, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, told the Post, “I welcome the initiative and call on more bodies and organizations to join the clear demand for change.”

Yet, as attorney Kenneth Stern—an expert on antisemitism who was the lead drafter on the text that became the IHRA definition—has repeatedly expressed, this definition and its examples were never intended to be used as a formalized, enforceable definition of antisemitism, and turning them into one has raised serious free speech concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union described early efforts to codify the IHRA into law as “part of a disturbing surge of government-led attempts to suppress the speech of people on only one side of the Israel-Palestine debate . . . on college campuses, in state contracts, and even in bills to change the federal law.”

If social media networks like Facebook adopt the Israel-related examples in the IHRA definition and allow these to guide their hate speech policies, it will likely lead to similar efforts to suppress free speech, this time in the online sphere.

So far, Facebook has responded to the letter by changing its policy regarding hate speech in ways it says take the IHRA definition into account, but it has resisted adopting the IHRA definition in its entirety. On August 11th, Facebook announced that it had updated its hate speech policy “to more specifically account for certain kinds of implicit hate speech, such as . . . stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world.”

In a response sent to to the letter’s signatories, Monika Bickert—Facebook’s vice president of content policy—noted that the company had used the IHRA definition “in informing [its] own approach and definitions,” that its new policy “draws on the spirit—and the text—of the IHRA,” and that under Facebook’s policy, “Jews and Israelis are treated as ‘protected characteristics.’”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operations officer, also wrote to Adam Milstein personally, assuring him that the IHRA definition has been “invaluable” to Facebook.

Though Israel was not mentioned in Facebook’s response to the letter, the company has previously expressed reluctance to adopt the parts of the definition that relate to Israel.

In a May 7th webinar hosted by the American Jewish Committee, senior Facebook official Peter Stern said that Facebook had “mapped” the IHRA definition onto its own policies and found it to be “valuable,” but added that “the areas where we would depart to some degree from that definition . . . comes in relation to statements about, particularly, nations.”

He added, “We don’t allow people to make certain types of hateful statements against individuals. If the focus turns to a country, an institution, a philosophy, then we allow people to express themselves more freely, because we think that’s an important part of political dialogue . . . and that there’s an important legitimate component to that. So we allow people to criticize the state of Israel, as well as the United States and other countries.” The August 7th letter called out Stern’s comments, claiming that he “admitted that Facebook does not embrace the full adoption of the IHRA working definition because the definition recognizes that modern manifestations of antisemitism relate to Israel.“

Zachor Legal Institute

The campaign to pressure Facebook to adopt the full IHRA definition has been a long time in the making. In December 2019—less than a week after President Trump signed an executive order embracing the IHRA definition—StopAntisemitism.org joined forces with another hardline Israel advocacy group, Zachor Legal Institute, to issue a report entitled “The New Anti-Semites.” (Zachor, also a signatory of the August 7th letter, is the same group that recently called on the Department of Justice “to fully investigate the ties among Black Lives Matter, their BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] partners and foreign terror groups that are promoting violence and unrest in the United States.”)

[Editor’s note: Zachor, registered in Alabama as a tax-exempt organization, is headed by attorney Marc Greendorfer and Israeli Ron Machol.]

That report, which is cited in the letter to Facebook, argues that most criticism and pressure related to Israel or its policies—but especially the BDS movement and the tactics it endorses—is antisemitic. It offers specific recommendations for vanquishing this antisemitism, including enshrining the IHRA definition into law and expanding the application of the IHRA definition to social media, as well as to “online platforms such as financial service providers and internet site hosts of social media platforms.”

Six months later, on June 4th, Zachor began its efforts to turn this recommendation into a reality, announcing that it had sent letters to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter “updating them about antisemitic postings that are present on their popular social media platforms.” The sole posting cited in Zachor’s letter to Facebook is a Nakba commemoration post from a page called “Palestine Writes,” sharing a video from the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network that mentions “confronting the racist ideology of Zionism.”

All of the examples Zachor cited in these letters relate to Palestinian criticism of Israel; none mention anything about Judaism or Jews. Using the IHRA definition as its basis, Zachor argued that the posts violated the social media platforms’ “own hate speech regulations” and demanded their removal.

Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs

Diaspora Israel-advocacy groups’ strategy of targeting criticism of Israel on social media is mirrored by similar efforts within the Israeli government. In July, Farkash-Hacohen, the Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, published an op-ed in Newsweek urging social media companies to adopt the IHRA definition.

The following week, The Jerusalem Post reported that under the new Israeli government, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was “shifting” its focus from fighting BDS to challenging “delegitimization of Israel more broadly,” and that it has “plans to increase its focus on social media,” where it hopes to—in the words of the ministry’s director general, Ronen Manelis—“balance the antisemitic and anti-Israel discourse.”

According to the Post, Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog “said he has sought to have the companies adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism” and that he had “met with Facebook executives . . . to discuss the matter.”

The efforts targeting social media are yet another reminder that concerns about the free speech implications of the IHRA definition are not hypothetical.

Earlier this year, legislators in several states sought to codify the IHRA definition, including its Israel-related examples, into hate crimes legislation and anti-discrimination laws. Trump’s 2019 executive order adopting the IHRA definition into US policy has, as predicted, spawned a growing list of attacks targeting Israel-related speech on college campuses, as well as an effort targeting a US foundation for its support for a group that criticizes Israel.

The IHRA-based conflation of antisemitism and criticism of Israel was also the foundation of a recent report by the Milstein-supported AMCHA initiative purporting to document rising antisemitism on college campuses. While admitting there has been a significant decrease “in the number of incidents of anti-Jewish harassment identified as expressing classic antisemitism,” the report highlighted a “significant increase in the number of Israel-related incidents,” as defined under the IHRA definition.

Notably, under the criteria established by AMCHA report, merely challenging the legitimacy of the IHRA definition was treated as an indicator of antisemitism.

(L-R) Joe Leiberman (former Democratic Senator and VP candidate under Al Gore), Senator Mitt Romney (former Republican presidential candidate), and Adam Milstein at Israeli American Council event. (Adam Milstein Foundation)

The Israel advocacy network’s push on social media comes at a time when Facebook and other social networks are under significant pressure regarding how they deal with controversial content. Conservatives claim to be victims of a politically motivated crackdown on right-wing voices. Progressives decry the proliferation of extremist hate speech and call on social media platforms to remove and ban misinformation and hate speech.

In this context, the demand that social media adopt and enforce the full IHRA definition represents a cynical strategy to co-opt progressive concerns about antisemitism in order to promote a hardline, reactionary political agenda that seeks to quash constitutionally protected free speech critical of Israel.

ADL, NAACP, etc also push for censorship

One prominent progressive effort to push Facebook comes from the “Stop Hate for Profit” coalition. Made up of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as well as the NAACP, Color of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), and several other groups, the coalition formed in June to demand that Facebook, among other things, “find and remove” groups focused on antisemitism.

The coalition doesn’t offer its own definition of antisemitism, but its sole Jewish member, the ADL, has long championed the IHRA definition—a position that aligns neatly with the ADL’s evolution into an organization that prioritizes defending Israel from criticism over defending free speech.

Facebook’s updates to its hate speech policy haven’t satisfied its IHRA-focused critics, whose goal isn’t to get Facebook to deplatform antisemitism, but to get Facebook to deplatform criticism of Israel. In a response to Sandberg’s letter to him, Milstein made it clear that the campaign to pressure the social network to accept the IHRA definition will continue: “We look forward to working with @Facebook to ensure #antisemitism is eradicated from the platform and the #IHRA working definition of antisemitism is fully adopted by your organization.”

Whether Facebook will buckle under the pressure will depend in large part on whether the public—Jewish and non-Jewish—finally recognizes that concerns about antisemitism are being exploited to serve a narrow political and ideological agenda, putting at risk free speech on Israel/Palestine and, by extension, political speech writ large.

Lara Friedman is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) and a contributing writer at Jewish Currents

Below are the signatories of the letter to Facebook:

Academic Engagement Network, United States
Acción y Comunicacion sobre Oriente Medio, Spain
ACT.IL, Worldwide
ACT Zionist Council, Australia
Alleanza Per Israele, Italy
Alpha Epsilon Pi, United States
Alums for Campus Fairness, United States
Am Yisrael Foundation, United States
American-Israeli Collaboration Enterprise, United States
Americans for Peace & Tolerance, United States
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Australia
Beligan Federation of Jewish Organizations, Belgium
B’nai B’rith Canada, Canada
Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, United Kingdom
Campaign Against Antisemitism, United Kingdom
Center for Information & Documentation Israel, The Netherlands
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Canada
Christians and Jews United for Israel, United States
Club Z, United States
Conference On Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Germany
Coalition for Jewish Values, United States
Comunidad Chilena De Israel, Israel
Con Israel Y Por La Paz, Argentina
Conexión Israel, Latin America
Creative Community for Peace, United States
Dutch Support for Israel, The Netherlands
Eagles Wings, United States
Education Without Indoctrination, United States
European Young Students Countering Antisemitism, Europe
Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Australia
Eye On Antisemitism, United Kingdom
Feldman Foundation California & Texas, United States
Foundation for Defense of Democracies, United States
Freedom Center, United States
Friends of Israel Initiative, Spain
Fuel for Truth, United States
Fuente Latina, Worldwide
Hasbara Fellowships, United States
Hatikwa, Italy
Hatzad Hasheni, Latin America
Haym Salomon Center, United States
Hebraica, Brazil
Hochberg Family Foundation, United States
Honest Reporting, Worldwide
Honestly Concerned, Germany
I Like Israel, Germany
Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, Brazil
InfoEquitable, France
Initiative 27. Januar, Germany
Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education
Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy
International Movement for Peace and Coexistence, Belgium
Ireland Israel Alliance, Ireland
Israel Advocacy Movement, United Kingdom
Israel Always
Israli American Council, United States
Israel Britain Alliance, United Kingdom
Israel Christian Nexus, United States
Israel on Campus Coalition, United States
Israel Sin Fronteras, Ecuador
Israellycool Israel Advocacy, Israel
Inter Provincial Chief Rabbinate for The Netherlands, The Netherlands
Istituto Milton Friedman, Italy
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel
Jerusalem Institute of Justice, Israel
Jewish Community Council of South Australia, Australia
Jewish Community Council of Victoria, Australia
Jewish Community Council of Western Australia, Australia
Jewish Student Union Germany, Germany
Jewish Policy Center, United States
Jewish War Veterans of the USA, United States
Jews Inigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, United States
Licra Paris, France
Maccabee Task Force, United States
Maccabi World Union, Worldwide
Makkabi Deutschland, Germany
Mad Israel for Fred, Norway, Denmark & Iceland
Michael and Andrea Levon Family Foundation
Middle East Forum, United States
Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin, Germany
MyTruth, Israel
Nahost Friedens Forum, Germany
National Council of Young Israel, United States
National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, United States
NC Coalition for Israel, United States
New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, Australia
NC Coalition for Israel, United States
Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust, United States
NGO Monitor, Israel
North West Friends of Israel, United Kingdom
Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, United Kingdom
Online Antisemitism Taskforce
Online Hate Prevention Institute, United States
Organisation Juive Europeenne, France
Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, United States
Osservatorio Antismeitismo of the CDEC Foundation, Italy
Palestinian Media Watch, Israel
Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies, Australia
Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Canada
Reservists on Duty, Israel
RI Coalition for Israel, United States
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, United States
Simon Wiesenthal Center, Worldwide
solomon – osservatorio sulle discriminazioni, Italy
StandWithUs, Worldwide
State Zionist Council of Queensland, Australia
State Zionist Council of Western Austalia, Australia
StopAntisemitism.org, United States
Students Supporting Israel, United States & Canada
Sussex Friends of Israel, United Kingdom,
Sweden Israel Alliance, Sweden
Swedish Zionist Federation, Sweden
The Gemunder Family Foundation, United States
The International Legal Forum, Worldwide
The Israeli Jewish Congress, Israel
THEJ.CA, United States
The Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, United States
The Lawfare Project, United States
The Milstein Family Foundation, United States
The Philos Project,  United States
The Pinsker Centre, United Kingdom
The Reut Group, Israel
Thirty (30) Years After, United States
Together We Vouch for Each Other, Israel
UK Lawyers for Israel, United Kingdom
Unione Giovani Ebrel D’Italia, Italy
United Nations Watch
United with Israel
Werte Initiative-Judish-deutsche Positionen, Germany
World Values Network, United States
Zachor Legal Institute, United States
Zionism Victoria, Australia
Zionist Federation of Australia, Australia
Zionist Organization of America, United States


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