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Facebook draws ire after employee says site could police term ‘Zionists’

Social media giant said to be concerned word used as a proxy for attacks on Jews and Israelis; critics say move will stifle free speech, criticism of Israel

Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

JTA — A leaked email written by a Facebook employee hints that the social media giant may review its policy on allowing the term “Zionist,” and pro-Palestinian groups argue that such a move would endanger free speech on Israel issues.

In the email dated Nov. 10, the unidentified employee wrote to an unidentified source: “We are looking at the question of how we should interpret attacks on ‘Zionists’ to determine whether the term is used as a proxy for attacking Jewish or Israeli people. The term brings with it much history and various meanings, and we are looking to increase our understanding of how it is used by people on our platform.”

In a version of the email reported on Sunday by The Verge, the names of both the sender and recipient were redacted.

Since last week, the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice For Peace has circulated a petition opposing any change to Facebook’s policy on allowing use of the word Zionist. Its signers include an array of prominent voices such as Michael Chabon, Peter Gabriel, Wallace Shawn, Noam Chomsky and Linda Sarsour.

Illustrative — A Jewish Voice for Peace protest in New York City, July 2014. (courtesy Jewish Voice for Peace)

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, put out a statement Monday saying that it has “joined the international campaign” to keep Facebook from changing its position on the word.

“The proposed policy would too easily mischaracterize conversations about Zionists – and by extension, Zionism – as inherently antisemitic, harming Facebook users and undermining efforts to dismantle real antisemitism and all forms of racism, extremism, and oppression,” the petition states.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge that the company allows the term Zionist “in political discourse,” but not “when it’s used as a proxy for Jews or Israelis in a dehumanizing or violent way.” Although Facebook is “independently engaging with experts and stakeholders,” the spokesperson added, that does not necessitate a change in policy.

Facebook debuted a new pop-up last week aimed at combating Holocaust denial on the platform.

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