Wikipedia’s operator rebuffs Jewish groups’ call to override editors on ADL trustworthiness
A screenshot of Wikipedia’s homepage

By Asaf Elia-Shalev
June 25, 2024

(JTA) —

The charitable foundation that owns Wikipedia said it respects the decisions of its volunteer editors after receiving a letter from a broad coalition of Jewish groups calling on the foundation to override a move by editors to declare the Anti-Defamation League an untrustworthy source on Israel and Zionism.

More than 40 Jewish groups signed a letter addressed to the board of the Wikimedia Foundation, saying the decision serves to make the Jewish community more vulnerable to antisemitism.

“Fundamentally, Wikipedia is stripping the Jewish community of the right to defend itself from the hatred that targets our community,” the groups wrote on Monday under the letterhead of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of which the ADL is a member. “We urge you to immediately launch an investigation into this decision and the motivations behind it, and to start the process for administrative reconsideration.”

In a response to an inquiry from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the foundation did not address the content of the letter but appeared to reject its very premise.

“Unfortunately, this letter represents a misunderstanding of the situation and how Wikipedia works,” Maggie Dennis, vice president of community resilience and sustainability at the Wikimedia Foundation, said in an email. ”Firstly, it’s important to note that the letter was addressed to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees; neither the Board or the Foundation make content decisions on Wikipedia. A community of volunteers makes these decisions subject to Wikipedia’s terms of use.”

After publication, the foundation told JTA it was still considering how it would reply to the letter and that it wants to educate its senders about how Wikipedia works. 

“We’re in the process now of considering our response to the signatories, including learning more about their needs before we reply,” the foundation said. “We hope to raise more understanding with these groups about how Wikipedia works.”

With a track record dating back more than a century and a $100 million budget, the ADL is widely regarded as the world’s leading source of research and information on antisemitism, particularly in the United States, and as a prominent advocate for Jewish causes. But it has also been under intensifying scrutiny by critics who decry the organization’s pro-Israel advocacy and equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, particularly after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7.

The move by Wikipedia, one of the world’s most visited websites and most popular sources of information, to declare that the ADL cannot be trusted on some topics represents a staggering blow to the organization.

If the Wikimedia Foundation were to order a reversal of the ADL’s downgrading, it would be equally staggering. The foundation does not intervene in editorial decisions by its community of editors, opting to trust the elaborate processes it has developed to seek consensus and resolve disputes. A reversal would in all likelihood garner a backlash from among the thousands of veteran editors, who are accustomed to autonomy and who have volunteered countless hours of their lives to run the online encyclopedia.

Defenders of the ADL, however, say that in this case the decision is tainted by alleged irregularities in the process and that some of the editors involved in the debate appear to harbor bias against Israel.

One group that has come to ADL’s defense is WhiteHatWiki, a company that offers Wikipedia-related crisis response services. WhiteHatWiki is not being paid by the ADL, according to both parties.

“It is understandable that during this time of highly inflamed passions that people are drawn to ideological debates,” someone from WhiteHatWiki wrote in a Wikipedia discussion thread. “But unfortunately, too much of this has carried over to this Wikipedia discussion, with many editors relying on inflammatory, misleading rhetoric posted by other editors.”

In its own response to the decision, the ADL initially blamed a ”campaign to delegitimize the ADL.”

On Friday, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke at length about the controversy, saying in a TV interview that Wikipedia is “an organization that we deeply respect” but that it was “flat-out wrong” in this case.

“We should listen to Black people when they tell us what racism is, and listen to LGBTQ groups when they tell us what homophobia is, and we should listen to Jewish people when they tell us what antisemitism is,” Greenblatt said.

A monthslong debate among Wikipedia editors over the ADL’s reliability went unnoticed in the media until JTA reported last week that the debate was concluding and that Wikipedia had labeled the ADL “generally unreliable” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Editors had also debated whether the ADL was reliable on antisemitism, and the vast majority said the group could not be trusted because of how it conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. An uninvolved editor tasked with evaluating the community’s will ultimately opted for a nuanced decision, declaring that the ADL “can roughly be taken as reliable on the topic of antisemitism when Israel and Zionism are not concerned.”

Among the matters unsettled in the debate among Wikipedia editors was the validity of the ADL’s definition of antisemitism, which comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. More than 1,000 government bodies and institutions have adopted the IHRA definition but critics say that its clauses concerning criticism of Israel can be used to silence pro-Palestinian voices.

The letter from Jewish groups to the Wikimedia Foundation also defended the IHRA definition.

“We are firmly united in the belief that an attack on ADL’s reliability over its use of the IHRA definition and advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people weakens us all,” the letter said.

The story has been revised following additional comment from the Wikimedia Foundation. 

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