Wikipedia has a Jewish problem.
The Israel-Hamas war and parts of the Holocaust are bizarrely portrayed on the internet's sixth-most visited website, to put it kindly.
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
This past December, the Arabic-language Wikipedia website changed its logo to appear in the colors of a Palestinian flag.
A black announcement, which headed the page, said: “In solidarity with the right of the Palestinian People – no to genocide in Gaza. No to the murder of civilians. No to the targeting of hospitals and schools. No to misinformation and double standards. Stop the war. Spread peace and justice for all.”
Naturally, the Arabic Wikipedia page about the current Israel-Hamas war is overflowing with misinformation.
It starts with describing the Palestinian terror attacks on October 7th as “an extended military operation launched by the Palestinian resistance factions in the Gaza Strip, led by the Hamas movement.”
Then, it says that Hamas’ commander-in-chief, Muhammad al-Deif, “announced the start of the operation in response to ‘the Israeli violations in the courtyards of the Blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Israeli settlers’ assault on Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the occupied interior.’”
The Arabic page adds that “the Battle of Al-Aqsa Flood is a response to the crimes of the occupation” and “a wide operation with the aim of defense” regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque “and the liberation of prisoners.”
On October 7th, the site says that the Palestinian resistance factions “took control of a number of military sites” and “captured a number of soldiers and took them to Gaza, in addition to seizing a group of Israeli military vehicles.” The English version claims that the Palestinians took control of one Israeli military base and another police station.
The Arabic page emphasizes that “the priority of this operation is to protect Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and stop the occupation’s plans aimed at Judaizing them and building their alleged temple on the ruins of the first qibla (the direction that should be faced during prayer) of Muslims, in addition to liberating prisoners from prisons” who are “considered one of the most important national, political, and humanitarian issues.”
In response to the “heavy Israeli raids” on various areas across the Gaza Strip, the Arabic page says, Hamas’ military unit resumed firing rocket salvoes at a number of Israeli cities, especially the city of Ashkelon, where 60 sites were bombed. (In reality, only a few Hamas rockets have hit targets in Israel; most have been intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, or landed in open areas.)
The Arabic page also includes a section entitled “Jabalia massacre” in which “no less than 50 dead, most of whom were civilians. The Israeli Air Force was not satisfied with the indiscriminate raids that targeted five mosques in two days and a bank, in addition to dozens of homes.” (In reality, no such massacre occurred.) In total, there are eight different sections alleging various Israeli massacres in Gaza.
Another section, “assassination of journalists,” describes “a number of Palestinian journalists” who were killed while “reporting on what was happening in the city and photographing Israeli raids, the reactions of resistance factions, and other events.”
There is also the “American support for Israel” section, which mentions U.S. security aid to Israel. Meanwhile, the section says, Hamas “did not receive any Arab, Islamic, or even international military support” (even though it’s been well-documented that the terror group received military support from Iran, North Korea, and even China).
In a similar section, “Western support for Israel,” it says U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a speech he gave in Israel, sought to “intimidate” the Islamic nation’s people and “gives Israel cover to commit massacres and war crimes.”
The United Nations also has its 15 minutes of fame on the Arabic page. A quote from Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the notorious UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, reads: “There are no words that can describe the level of condemnation for all the atrocities and violations in Gaza.” Of course, this quote does not appear on the English version.
The Arabic version also states that the UN confirmed the killing of 11 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees employees “since the beginning of the battle on October 7th.” Now we know that as many as 10 percent of this agency’s employees have ties to Palestinian terror groups.1
And the English version says that the UN “faced criticism for failing to condemn Hamas’s actions against women and failing to voice disapproval of the mass rape of Israeli women and girls.” Of course, the Arabic iteration makes no mention of this.
However, there is a section entitled “Israeli propaganda” which says: “Since the first hours of the battle, Tel Aviv tried to publish a lot of false and misleading news or other news without real evidence in an attempt to link Palestinian resistance factions to terrorism and gain international sympathy.”
It goes on to say that “Israeli propaganda tried to promote allegations that Hamas fighters raped Israeli women shortly after their invasion of the settlements without providing evidence to support these allegations, which were quickly denied.” This is the only mention of rape on the entire Arabic page, whereas the English version mentions rape 11 times.
Wikipedia has dominated the global internet ecosystem ever since Google began putting it at the top of search engine results. The largest and most-read reference work in history, it consistently ranks as one of the 10 most popular websites in the world. And as of 2023, it is ranked the sixth-most visited website on the internet.2
The structural openness of Wikipedia is one of its greatest strengths. U.S. legal scholar Lawrence Lessig even described the online encyclopedia as “a technology to equalize the opportunity that people have to access and participate in the construction of knowledge and culture, regardless of their geographic placing.”3
Martin Korner and Tatiana Sennikova, from the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, made a tool to compare how Wikipedia pages about the same topic but in a different language might be influenced by different sources.
In the English version of a Wikipedia page on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, they found that 24 percent of linked references came from Ukrainian news sources while nearly 20 percent came from Russian sources. In the German version of the same page, however, the balance tipped, with Russian sources making up 10 percent of the total citations and Ukrainian sources only representing three percent.
These differences mean that people reading about the same topic in different languages may be confronted with very different versions of the truth. Wikipedia uses bots to undo malicious edits and flag potential hate speech, but volunteer editors are free to source their material from anywhere.4
Wikipedia, which has more than 120,000 editors worldwide for its English version, is considered by many researchers to be almost, but still not quite, as accurate as traditional encyclopedias. In total, Wikipedia exists in some 300 languages, half of which have fewer than 10 active contributors. These non-English versions of Wikipedia can be especially vulnerable to being manipulated by ideologically motivated actors.
In 2018, associate professor of history Shira Klein discovered that there was a whole group of editors advancing a distorted narrative of Polish history in multiple Wikipedia pages. Together with Jan Grabowski, an expert on Polish Jewish history, their study published in early 2023 exposed a persistent Holocaust disinformation campaign on Wikipedia.
They found dozens of examples of Holocaust distortion which, taken together, advanced a Polish nationalist narrative, whitewashed the role of Polish society in the Holocaust, and bolstered harmful stereotypes about Jews.
People who read these Wikipedia pages learned about Jews’ supposed complicity in their own catastrophe, gangs of Jewish collaborators aiding the Gestapo, and Jews supporting the communists to betray Poles. A handful of distortions have been corrected since their publication, but many remain.
Wikipedia’s weakness has already been picked up on by the Polish government, as shown by a leaked email exchange between the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s advisors concerning the Hebrew-language Wikipedia.
In 2018, at the height of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland over the Holocaust Law — which imposed prison terms of up to three years of anyone who claimed Poles had any responsibility for or complicity in crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust — the prime minister’s advisor wrote to the chief of staff:
“Ms. Joanna Hofman (our former ambassador in Helsinki) is a very sensible person and she understands the situation. I asked her to find someone who could start to position the Israeli sites in Google and to correct the Hebrew entries in Wikipedia. We need to be super discreet on this score, and she (Hofman) is aware of that. She will need a larger budget to cover this expense. It can be arranged if the Foreign Office allocates more money.”5
The vast majority of controversies between Wikipedia editors are handled locally by the contributors working on those pages, without a formal dispute-resolution process. Only a handful of controversies rise to the level where the Arbitration Committee — essentially Wikipedia’s Supreme Court — agrees to get involved.
But Shira Klein and Jan Grabowski’s explosive academic essay spurred the Arbitration Committee to review the matter, opening a new case after finding the topic’s pages to be “broken” and its editorial culture “toxic.”
“There is a systemic problem here that goes way beyond the distortion of Holocaust history,” Klein said. “This is the seventh-most viewed site in the world, yet the safeguards Wikipedia has in place for battling disinformation are scarily ineffective. If it’s true for the history of the Holocaust, it is probably true for other cases we have yet to discover. With ChatGPT amplifying Wikipedia on an unprecedented scale, this new failure is all the more worrying.”6
Wikipedia ended up banning three editors from working on pages related to Jewish history in Poland during World War II, in a bid to resolve editing disputes and safeguard its credibility. But the online encyclopedia stopped short of taking more aggressive action in response to allegations of widespread Holocaust distortion on the platform.
The Arbitration Committee’s conclusion “entirely missed the mark,” said Klein. By avoiding the issue of historical truth and focusing on civility, Wikipedia sent a clear message: “There’s no problem with falsifying the past; just be nice about it.”
“Israeli intel shows 10% of UNRWA workers in Gaza have ties to terror groups — report.” The Times of Israel.
“Top Websites ranking – Most Visited Websites in the world [December 2023].” Semrush.
“Democratising online content moderation: A constitutional framework.” Computer Law & Security Review.
“Wikipedia ‘facts’ depend on which language you read them in.” New Scientist.
“Wikipedia’s Intentional Distortion of the History of the Holocaust.” Journal of Holocaust Research.
“Wikipedia bans editors but sidesteps broader action in Holocaust distortion row.” The Times of Israel.