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In a major shift, Facebook bans Holocaust denial

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(JTA) Facebook has announced that it will now ban any posts that deny or distort the Holocaust, a landmark change from its previous policy.

For years, Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, defended Holocaust denial as a misguided but legitimate form of expression. In 2018, regarding Holocaust denial, he said, “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”

That approach garnered a widespread outcry from scholars and antisemitism watchdogs.

On Monday, Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that he now believes banning Holocaust denial “is the right balance”.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” he wrote. “My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech.”

The change comes after months of activism by anti-discrimination groups pushing Facebook to change its policies on hate speech in general, and Holocaust denial in particular. It also comes amid rising antisemitism in the United States and Europe, and weeks ahead of a presidential election that analysts and government agencies fear will spark violence from white supremacist groups.

This summer, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other civil-rights groups organised a boycott of Facebook in which 1 000 companies, including major corporations, paused advertising on the site for at least one month in protest against its lack of action against hate speech, including Holocaust denial. The Claims Conference, which co-ordinates restitution and reparations payments for Holocaust survivors, organised a campaign called #NoDenyingIt, in which Holocaust survivors appealed directly to Zuckerberg via video to take action against Holocaust denial.

Other Jewish organisations worked in consultation with Facebook to persuade the site to ban Holocaust denial. Facebook’s statement credited the World Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee with advice on the new policy.

It also cited a recent poll showing a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among Americans younger than 40. The poll found that more than 10% of respondents believed Jews caused the Holocaust, while half of respondents said they had seen Holocaust denial online.

The World Jewish Congress has been speaking to Facebook about how to combat antisemitism since 2016, and has held daily meetings leading up to this policy change, said Yfat Barak-Cheney, the group’s director of international affairs.

She said her organisation preferred engagement with Facebook rather than external activism because, through her meetings, she had witnessed the social media giant gradually move toward banning Holocaust denial.

“We have flagged to them Holocaust denial, over and over, as an issue on the platform, as an issue in principle that needs to be recognised as antisemitism and hate speech,” Barak-Cheney said. “Holocaust denial isn’t studying and discussion about historical facts. It’s a tool to spread hatred against Jews.

“They’ve adapted, and they’ve come to understand that by allowing Holocaust denial on their platform and Holocaust distortion, they’re actually allowing the spread of hatred.”

In a statement, the ADL said it was “relieved” to see the ban on Holocaust denial, and called for the company to issue public reports about enforcing the policy.

“While we are relieved to learn this news, we also would note that platform decisions of this nature are only as good as the companies’ enforcement,” read the statement by ADL Chief Executive Jonathan Greenblatt. “Facebook now needs to reassure the global community that it’s taking meaningful and comprehensive steps to ensure that Holocaust deniers are no longer able to take advantage of Facebook’s various platforms to spread antisemitism and hate.”

Facebook’s announcement of the new policy didn’t define what constitutes “content that denies or distorts the Holocaust”. And the company said it would “take some time to train our reviewers and systems on enforcement”, and that deletion of Holocaust denial “cannot happen overnight”. It told Bloomberg News that the policy applied only to Holocaust denial, not to denial of other genocides like the Armenian or Rwandan genocides.

“Normally this process would be the other way around,” with Facebook spelling out rules before announcing a new policy, Barak-Cheney said. “Here, because of the importance of the issue and how prevalent it has been, it decided to make the announcement, but it has a lot of hard work ahead of it on making those boundaries.”

The new policy comes after Facebook tightened its restrictions on other forms of antisemitism and hate speech. Last week, Facebook announced it was banning all groups and pages promoting QAnon, the antisemitic conspiracy theory. In August, Facebook banned posts about Jews controlling the world as well as other forms of hate speech.

The changes on Holocaust denial and other forms of discrimination reflect a larger shift in Facebook regarding how it deals with freedom of expression and the combating of hate speech. Zuckerberg, invoking the First Amendment, has consistently said that he favours allowing a broad array of speech regarding politics and other issues, even as a chorus of voices has asked him to do more to prohibit bigotry and disinformation.

In a speech last year at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg said, “I’m proud that our values at Facebook are inspired by the American tradition, which is more supportive of free expression than anywhere else.” During the George Floyd protests this year, Facebook allowed a post by President Donald Trump, who has personally courted Zuckerberg, that said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter flagged the post as glorifying violence.

“I know many people are upset that we’ve left the president’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post defending the decision.

Reacting to the new policy, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum addressed the issue of freedom of expression, saying in a statement, “Freedom of speech is vital to our democracy, but it doesn’t require any organisation to host antisemitic speech that can potentially foment violence.”

Facebook has also been criticised for its perceived lack of action regarding political disinformation campaigns during the 2016 election. It has taken more action this year to combat such activity.

“There’s a company ethos for Facebook about the issue of information and not removing information from the platform,” Barak-Cheney said. But regarding Holocaust denial, she said, “I think they realised it’s just been too much, and they needed to do something about it.”

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World news in brief

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Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism

The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.

“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”

His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.

Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.

Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians

Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.

A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.

Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.

Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.

Leifer finally extradited to Australia

Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions

A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.

The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

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Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public

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(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

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Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever

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(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.

Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.

Many employed Jewish humour along the way.

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.

The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”

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