President Peres in the Lion’s Den

Originally published: Andre Oboler and David Matas, President Peres in the Lion’s Den, Jerusalem Post, 6 March 2012 page 14. Also reprinted in The Cutting Edge News.

On Tuesday March 6th, President Shimon Peres will visit Facebook, a company which refuses to recognize Holocaust denial as a form of incitement to hatred. While there, he will launch two Facebook pages for the President of Israel and meet with Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Dare he raise the issue of Holocaust denial?

Facebook’s position on Holocaust denial is arbitrary and confused. It does not regard Holocaust denial as hateful in its own right, but recognizes many of the comments posted in denial groups, such as calls for a new genocide of the Jews, as hateful. Facebook defends its current policy by arguing they regularly shut down Holocaust denial groups because of these comments. The antisemitic groups, however, persist.

A quick search conducted while writing this article uncovered, as usual, a number of Holocaust denial groups and pages on Facebook. The first was an Arabic language group “happy Holocaust day” that called on members to celebrate the Holocaust to morally support Hamas.

The second was titled “Holocaust Lies Exposed”, dedicated to showing that “the holocaust, as described by the jews [sic], is full of lies, myths and misconceptions, used to instil white guilt upon the world”. This group blatantly stated: “We don’t believe that 6 million jews [sic] died, nor that there ever was an organised plan effected to collectively ‘exterminate’ Jews.”

Then there were the pages based on the theme, “Everybody draw Holocaust day”.  These pages use the Facebook platform to keep the cartoons from the Iranian Holocaust denial competition in circulation and to add new antisemitic cartoons that present Jews as evil, call for Israel’s destruction, promote Holocaust denial and defend Holocaust deniers.

Simon Peres has long been a fan of Facebook. Four years ago, after meeting Mark Zuckerberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President Peres urged young people to fight antisemitism using Facebook. At the time Andre Oboler warned that, “Facebook is not only a potentially effective tool for combating anti-Semitism, it is also a dangerously potent tool for promoting the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”

In those four years, Facebook has grown from a community of 50 million users, mostly students, to a community of 850 million users from all walks of life. Both the threat and opportunity remain, and the stakes continue to grow exponentially.

The Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism, a global network under the leadership of the State of Israel, has met with Facebook staff and exchanged letters with the company over the problem of Holocaust denial. This followed failed efforts by many leading organisations that fight antisemitism, as well as efforts by many academic experts to convince Facebook that their position is sadly mistaken.

Facebook has drawn an artificial distinction between generic forms of expression of hatred, which they ban, and Holocaust Denial, a specific form of incitement to hatred, which they should ban, but do not.

In the US, Holocaust denial is recognised as a form of hate.  Because incitement to hatred is protected under the First Amendment, Congress cannot pass laws to prevent it. Facebook, on the other hand can and does prohibits the use of their service to promote hate. As a private company it has that right.

By refusing to accept that Holocaust denial is a form of hate, Facebook lends legitimacy to the deniers and strikes against a human rights consensus. Holocaust denial attempts to murder the victims a second time by killing their memory. Facebook must change its policy so the software platform does not facilitate this.

We strongly feel such a policy change would be more than symbolic. A new policy for Facebook would not only be morally correct, it would make life much easier for Facebook staff, as it is easier to recognise a page or group dedicated to Holocaust denial than it is to trawl through it to find references calling for the murder of Jews. Facebook, which bans pictures of breast feeding mothers, does not need to make the hurdles so high when it comes to the hatred of Jews.

If Facebook insists that they are doing everything they can, and a policy change would be symbolic only, perhaps a symbolic request from the President of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, would be enough prompting to make that change. If not, President Peres, statesman, visionary and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, needs to have a frank heart to heart with Mark Zuckerberg. It would be a heart to heart under the watchful gaze of six million souls who no Jew ought to ignore. These are the missing generations whose memory the State of Israel has a sacred duty to protect. Mr President, as you stand in the halls of this powerful company who denies the hateful nature of Holocaust denial, what will you say?

Dr Andre Oboler and Adv David Matas are co-chair of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism.