Human rights activists from around the world launched a campaign this week to prevent Facebook from amending its hate speech policy to penalize use of the word "Zionist," a move the technology giant is reportedly considering but that critics say would shield Israel from accountability for violating the rights of Palestinians.
The "Facebook, We Need to Talk" campaign "began in response to an inquiry by Facebook to assess if critical conversations that use the term 'Zionist' fall within the rubric of hate speech as per Facebook's Community Standards," Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) explained in a statement released Wednesday.
The campaign's petition urging Facebook not to crack down on use of the word "Zionist" garnered more than 14,500 signatures in its first 24 hours and surpassed 15,500 supporters on Wednesday afternoon. According to JVP, Facebook could make a decision as soon as the end of February.
@facebook, treating "Zionist" as a proxy for "Jew" would undermine efforts to dismantle real antisemitism, deprive Palestinians of a venue for expressing their viewpoints to the world, and help the Israeli government avoid accountability for violations of Palestinian rights.
— Jewish Voice for Peace (@jvplive) January 26, 2021
JVP described Zionism as "a political ideology and movement that emerged in the 19th century and led to the founding of the state of Israel on Palestinian land," adding that "it has been deeply contested since its conception, including within the Jewish community."
In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's CEO and COO, respectively, two dozen organizations wrote that disallowing use of the word "Zionist," and therefore critiques of the Israeli government—recently described by prominent Israeli human rights group B'tselem as an apartheid regime—on the social media platform would "shut down conversations about accountability for policies and actions that harm Palestinians."
"We are deeply concerned about Facebook's proposed revision of its hate speech policy to consider 'Zionist' as a proxy for 'Jew' or 'Jewish,'" wrote the coalition, which includes American Muslims for Palestine, the BDS National Committee, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, among others.
"The proposed policy would too easily mischaracterize conversations about Zionists—and by extension, Zionism—as inherently anti-Semitic, would harm Facebook users, and would undermine efforts to dismantle real antisemitism and all forms of racism, extremism, and oppression," the letter continues.
The groups added that "this is the wrong solution to a real and important problem: those who fuel antisemitism online will continue doing so, with or without the word 'Zionist.' In fact, many anti-Semites, especially among white supremacists and evangelical Christian Zionists, explicitly support Zionism and Israel, while engaging in speech and actions that dehumanize, insult, and isolate Jewish people."
Stressing that criticism of Zionist ideology and policies is not anti-Semitic, opponents of Facebook's proposed hate speech policy revision say that banning use of the word "Zionist" would fail to tackle the problem of anti-Jewish discrimination while also suppressing legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government's oppression of Palestinians.
"This move by Facebook would represent them actively siding against Palestinians and those fighting in solidarity alongside them for Palestinian liberation," said Lau Barrios, campaign manager at MPower Change, a grassroots movement of U.S. Muslims working to build social justice. "It would also set a dangerous precedent around Big Tech's ability to further target our movements and harm marginalized communities."
"Facebook must stop harming and silencing Palestinians living under apartheid," Barrios added, "and start cracking down on white supremacist groups—like the Proud Boys—that have used their platform as a recruitment site."
If Facebook restricts use of the word “Zionist,” how can Palestinians describe their daily lives under military occupation, or discuss their families’ history?@facebook, Palestinians need to talk.
— Palestine Legal (@pal_legal) January 26, 2021
The coalition added in its letter that "this move will prohibit Palestinians from sharing their daily experiences and histories with the world, be it a photo of the keys to their grandparent's house lost when attacked by Zionist militias in 1948, or a livestream of Zionist settlers attacking their olive trees in 2021."
Neve Gordon, Professor of International Law at Queen Mary University of London, explained last year that "right-wing Zionist organizations have recently begun pressuring Facebook to include criticism of Israel as part of its own definition of hate speech."
Writing in Al-Jazeera last September, Gordon noted the following:
In July, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, published an op-ed in Newsweek urging social media companies to root out the anti-Semitic "virus" by fully adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
A few weeks later, on August 7, 120 organizations representing the "who's who" of Zionist right-wing groups sent a letter to Facebook's Board of Directors, calling upon them to fully adopt the IHRA definition as the "cornerstone of Facebook's hate speech policy regarding antisemitism."
This definition, which has been endorsed or adopted in some official capacity by more than 30 countries, includes 11 examples of anti-Semitism, several of which involve criticism of Israel. This is just the latest concrete manifestation of how any critique of the Israeli government and its politics now assumes the taint of antisemitism.
"There is, to be sure, some irony here," Gordon continued. "Historically, the fight against antisemitism has sought to advance the equal rights and emancipation of Jews. Yet, in the IHRA definition those who speak out against the subjugation of Palestinians are called anti-Semites."
Gordon added that "if Facebook does eventually bow down and include the full IHRA definition in its algorithms, free speech on Israel/Palestine, which is already under immense pressure, will receive a lethal blow."
In its letter, the coalition noted that if Facebook penalizes use of the word "Zionist" under its hate speech policy, not only would pro-Palestinian perspectives be silenced, but Jewish social media users would be prevented from even "discussing their relationships to Zionist political ideology."
"We cannot dismantle antisemitism if we are blocked from voicing our opinions and sharing our experiences with each other," the groups concluded. "We can discuss, debate, and even disagree, as long as we share the belief that all of us deserve safety, freedom, and dignity. We ask Facebook to not erect barriers impeding users from connecting with each other as we engage in this work."