Wikipedia Editors Label ADL Only Reliable for Antisemitism When “Israel and Zionism Are Not Concerned”

Decision was the result of a contentious debate.
June 21, 2024
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Wikipedia editors have designated the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as only being a reliable source “on the topic of antisemitism when Israel and Zionism are not concerned, and the reliability is a case-by-case matter.”

As I’ve previously written, Wikipedia defines reliable sources as being “independent, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy,” with how it’s used by other reliable sources being an indicator of reliability. The Reliable Sources Noticeboard (RSN) forum is where Wikipedians can determine a source’s reliability and if it falls under the categories of “generally reliable,” “marginally reliable” (can be used only in “certain circumstances”), “generally unreliable” (“should normally not be used”) and “deprecated,” (“generally prohibited). Sometimes a Request for Comment (RfC) is held, in which editors put in their “!votes” and argue over whether or not a source complies with Wikipedia’s reliable sources guideline. A bot automatically removes the RfC tag after 30 days, but the RfC could be ended sooner or later depending on if the Wikipedians involved believe that more input is needed. The RfC policy page states that “editors are expected to be able to evaluate and agree upon the results of most RfCs without outside assistance” but does say that a closer (an uninvolved Wikipedian, oftentimes an administrator or editor in good standing) can render a verdict on the consensus of the discussion based on the numbers and strength of the arguments presented if the discussion is “contentious” and the consensus isn’t “obvious” to editors. The importance of reliable sources is that under Wikipedia policy,  they are the only sources that can be summarized by editors, except on rare occasions.

Prior to June, the ADL was considered generally reliable, with a note that some editors considered it biased on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “should be used with caution, if at all” on the matter. An RfC with three separate parts on the ADL’s reliability was launched in April: one on its reliability on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another on antisemitism more broadly and the third part on the advocacy group’s hate symbols database. The first part, on the ADL’s reliability on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was initially closed on June 12, as the closer found there was consensus of 3:1 in terms of editors who believe the ADL’s reliability should be downgraded on this matter. The remaining two parts were closed all at once on June 21 with the conclusion that “the ADL can roughly be taken as reliable on the topic of antisemitism when Israel and Zionism are not concerned.” Regarding the ADL’s hate symbol database, the verdict was that “the rough consensus here is that the database is reliable for the existence of a symbol and for straightforward facts about it, but not reliable for more complex details, such as symbols’ history. In-text attribution to the ADL may be advisable when it is cited in such cases.” However, that could change “if the ADL invests more effort in editorial review of its hate crime database entries.”

“This discussion contained a range of perspectives, ranging from those who enthusiastically defended the ADL in all contexts, to those who viewed it as categorically unreliable,” the three Wikipedians who closed the discussion wrote. “Most editors, however, favored some middle ground between those extremes.”

Among the arguments presented by editors in favor of downgrading the ADL included that the ADL considers all criticism of Israel to be antisemitic and criticized the group’s view that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. They also opined that the ADL’s numbers documenting antisemitic incidents shouldn’t be trusted because after Oct. 7, they expanded their definition of antisemitism to include “expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism,” resulting in outlets like CNN to issue an update with this clarification. Among the sources cited by these editors included an article in The Nation, which is considered generally reliable on Wikipedia, calling the ADL “Israel’s attack dog in the U.S.” as well as an article in The Guardian (also considered generally reliable) quoting ADL employees criticizing the organization for putting “anti-Israel rhetoric” on par with white supremacists as well as two ADL employees who resigned over the organization’s criticism of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). A piece from Jewish Currents accusing the ADL of “spreading misleading information about contemporary antisemitism” was also cited.

The editors in favor of downgrading ADL accused the Jewish group of smearing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in a letter where the ADL called for universities to investigate SJP on if the student group provided material support for Hamas. They also criticized ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt for comparing keffiyehs to swastikas and referring to SJP and JVP as “Iranian proxies.”

Editors opposed to downgrading the ADL to the “generally unreliable” or “deprecated” label argued that the ADL is widely cited by reliable sources and that editors in favor of downgrading the ADL didn’t specifically show that the group has a reputation for factual inaccuracies, just that the ADL is biased. These editors did not take issue with the fact that the ADL publicly admitted their change in how they count incidents of antisemitism. It was also noted that the ADL says on their website that “anti-Zionism is distinct from criticism of the policies or actions of the government of Israel, or critiques of specific policies of the pre-state Zionist movement, in that it attacks the foundational legitimacy of Jewish self-determination and statehood.”

Once consensus was found for downgrading the ADL’s reliability on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the consensus was subsequently extended “to the intersection of antisemitism and the conflict, such as labeling pro-Palestinian activists as antisemitic,” the closers wrote. “While the second part in theory encompassed all ADL coverage of antisemitism, much of the discussion focused, explicitly or implicitly, on that intersection. There was insufficient argumentation against the ADL’s reliability regarding antisemitism in other contexts; much of the opposition in that regard focused on subjective disagreements as to how far the taint of the Israel-related general unreliability should spread.” The closers reminded “editors that source reliability is always a case-by-case matter.”

Wikipedia’s “Perennial Sources” list currently states “that outside of the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the ADL is a generally reliable source, including for topics related to hate groups and extremism in the U.S.”

Greenblatt slammed the RfC result in a June 21 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This happening today, at a moment when Jewish people around the world are facing incredible vulnerability, suggesting that the leading Jewish organization tracking that vulnerability somehow isn’t valid, that our processes aren’t rigorous, that our data isn’t accurate, it’s flat out wrong,” he said. “I think what we’re beginning to understand is there’s just a handful of editors on Wikipedia who are basing this decision … because the fact that we do, as a Jewish organization, support the Jewish state, because we do use the standard definition of antisemitism used by governments and organizations around the world, and these are the positions we take. And frankly it’s not a basis to kick us off of Wikipedia or any other place. That would be doing an incredible disservice to the public at large.” Greenblatt added that the ADL is “going to do everything we can to explain to the leadership at Wikipedia as to why they’re getting this wrong.”

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who has been critical of his former website, posted on X that “Wikipedia’s leadership are clowns.”

“The fascinating observation is [that] the ADL politically, the fact that they are not considered in liberal circles credible enough when it comes to antisemitism,” Middle East historian Asaf Romirowsky, who heads Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and Association for the Study of Middle East and North Africa, told me in a phone interview. “ADL has had a political slant that has been more left of center. So here you have, when they actually have taken a clear stance on the issue of antisemitism — which has been their raison d’être at large — but because that does not go well within the orthodoxy of the day,” the result is the “need to discredit a group like the ADL, which is entirely built on … fighting antisemitism.”

An editor who stopped editing after getting fed up with what they saw as bias among the site’s administrators told me, “generally, I’d say that since the ADL is quoted often and extensively by the highest quality media, it certainly can be attributed for anything,” adding “I wouldn’t use it for news if it was the only source, of course.” They added that the anti-Israel editors “are trying to outlaw stuff like ‘the ADL says this is antisemitic’ precisely because the ADL has a good reputation … They’ll argue anything and everything is connected to ‘Zionism’ and thus effectively ban a serious and respected source that implicates them,” the editor said. “This was of course the goal of this RfC … when the  New York Times or Wall Street Journal or practically every single other mainstream media outlet use a source like the ADL extensively but it’s banned on Wikipedia, that should tell you something about how and by whom Wikipedia is run.”

Another editor told me: “My main feeling on the whole ADL matter is very simple: If perennial sources are not questioning their research, why would we trust anonymous editors over people whose byline is at stake?”

Controversy on Wikipedia Over Initial Decision

The initial close of the first part of the RfC regarding the ADL’s reliability on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was challenged by some editors for multiple procedural reasons. One of the reasons was that a closer is supposed to be uninvolved, and the closer, “TrangaBellam,” had a quote on the top of their talk page from the editor “Nishidani” stating that “I sympathize with the silenced underdog in so many conflicts, be they Aboriginals or Palestinians or Tibetans. This as far as I am aware does not translate into being uncomfortable with my country of origins, or antisemitic, or hostile to Chinese.” Nishidani had argued in favor of labeling the ADL as being “generally unreliable” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first part of the RfC. This meant TrangaBellam was “involved,” those challenging the close argued, as they could be seen as being too partisan to make an objective close. Other arguments challenging the close accused TrangaBellam of not adequately taking the strength of the arguments presented into account and that, given the controversial nature of the discussion, the close should have been conducted by an admin, and TrangaBellam is not an admin.

TrangaBellam and those defending her contended that the talk page quote is not enough for TrangaBellam to be considered involved, as TrangaBellam did not participate in the RfC itself outside of the close nor was she involved in any related disputes; additionally, they argued that any neutral third party would agree that the close was the correct one. It was also noted that the request to close the RfC had languished for more than a month.

Ultimately, administrator “The Wordsmith” reclosed the first part of the RfC with the same conclusion that there’s consensus for the ADL being generally unreliable for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Wordsmith acknowledged in their partial close that “while TrangaBellam probably shouldn’t have closed it, no reasonable uninvolved administrator could have closed with any result other than” downgrading the ADL to being generally unreliable on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The strength of the arguments presented is clear,” the administrator wrote. “Significant evidence has been presented that the ADL acts as a pro-Israeli advocacy group and has repeatedly published false and misleading statements as fact, un-retracted, to the point that it taints their reputation for accuracy and fact checking regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants have demonstrated a habit on the ADL’s part of conflating criticism of the Israeli government’s actions with antisemitism.” The Wordsmith wrote separately that they didn’t find the argument that TrangaBellam was “involved” to be particularly compelling and “TrangaBellam is commended for her efforts in sorting through those arguments and finding a consensus; no reasonable administrator could have done differently.”

TrangaBellam expanded upon her close in the first part of the RfC by stating: “Multiple editors presented multiple evidences [sic] of ADL’s unreliability on the topic and most of the participants were convinced by this evidence. However, a minority disagreed with the nature of this evidence, claiming that at least some of the evidence — if not all — can be, at worst, classed under ‘bias’ and hence not be perceived as grounds for unreliability; I do not find such a characterization convincing, even ignoring the lopsided numbers.”

The Wordsmith and two other Wikipedians closed the remaining two parts of the ADL RfC and then tied all three together.

In response to the reclosing of the first part of the ADL RfC, an editor told me that “I only think that specially trained and certified admins should be allowed to adjudicate in contentious topics matters.” This editor had previously told me that generally speaking, “the current administrative and oversight system does not work only with volunteer admins. It requires paid, vetted experts in each field that also have a strong grasp on the nuances of debate, mediation, and arbitration to ensure that Wikipedia policy and principles are actively enforced The system is currently overrun by political actors who are running circles around the admins and it’s very sad to see.”

The ADL vs. Other Advocacy Groups’ Reliability on Wiki

Advocacy groups like the ADL are generally considered weaker sources than quality academic literature and news reporting. But the human rights NGO Amnesty International has a “generally reliable” rating on Wikipedia. Amnesty International has been accused of having an anti-Israel bias; for example, Dr. Michael Ehrlich from Bar-Ilan University, who used to work at Amnesty, lambasted his former employer in an op-ed for The Journal, arguing that Amnesty’s much-publicized 2022 report alleging that Israel is engaging in apartheid against the Palestinians is largely based “on all one-sided sources, [and] does not bother to engage with civil society organizations that hold a different perspective, and does not turn to mainstream academics and legal experts.” The head of Amnesty International Israel also criticized the report’s depiction of Palestinians in Israel as “as perpetual, passive victims of apartheid” as “neither true nor helpful.” Amnesty International USA Executive Director Paul O’Brien was also forced to apologize for saying that Israel “shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state” in 2022.

However, one editor told me that “Amnesty probably has a more widely held good reputation” than the ADL and that a more apples-to-apples comparison to the ADL in terms of reliability is the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

Though B’Tselem does not have an official reliability designation on Wikipedia, its reliability has been defended at RSN and is cited directly in multiple Wikipedia articles. B’Tselem has its own share of controversies; in Jan. 2021, the organization issued a report accusing Israel of apartheid and being a “regime of Jewish supremacy.” CAMERA’s Gilead Ini wrote that the report is full of “distortions” in a lengthy rebuttal (although attempting to cite CAMERA [The Committee for Accuracy in Middle Eastern Reporting and Analysis] on Wikipedia will more likely than not get you laughed off the talk page). CAMERA’s Karen Bekker noted that “in 2011, a B’Tselem photographer staged a scene that was passed on to an Israeli journalist falsely as a portrayal of Israeli soldiers treating a Palestinian child harshly. And in 2014, B’Tselem was forced to admit — after initial denials — that it was employing a Holocaust denier.” B’Tselem did denounce their then-employee and fired him. Additionally, B’Tselem retracted a claim in 2021 that Israeli settlers had lit Palestinian fields ablaze in the village of Burin.

“They have shown over the years a clear bias toward Israel,” Romirowsky said regarding NGOs like Amnesty International and B’Tselem. “They’ve adopted and accepted evidence coming out of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency), they’ve worked with UNRWA, a group that has been defined as complacent 100% with Hamas.” He added that “the assumption of neutrality within these NGOs just because they say they’re NGOs is fallacious. They are based on a political agenda, they are driven by ideology, and many of the individuals within those organizations have seen and have framed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as quintessential human rights violations … Israel is accused on a daily basis of a slew of human rights violations. So all of these groups, in the name of so-called human rights, have adopted Israel as the poster child of the violations, which also feeds into the fallacious narrative that Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong. And this feeds into a larger cacophony of voices that feeds in, for example, the International Court of Justice and feeds into the U.N. Human Rights Council. These are the tentacles that continue to perpetuate this fallacious narrative with the idea of isolating Israel to a point of suffocation. That is the ultimate goal.” Romirowsky further contended that the data coming from these groups is “skewed.”

“So when you contrast that to a group like the ADL, that has been I would say a left-of-center organization historically but one that has been committed to combating antisemitism, even their viewpoints are not left enough, progressive enough for groups that are extremely hard left because they decree and they decry the violation of antisemitism,” said Romirowsky.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is an advocacy group Wikipedia considers “generally reliable on topics related to hate groups and extremism in the United States,” but warns that it is  “biased” and should always be attributed. Tyler O’Neil, managing editor at The Daily Signal and author of a book alleging that the SPLC is “corrupt,” argued in a 2023 op-ed that “the SPLC took the program it used to bankrupt organizations associated with the Ku Klux Klan and weaponized it against conservative groups, partially to scare donors into ponying up cash and partially to silence ideological opponents.” O’Neil also wrote that “after the SPLC fired its co-founder amid a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal in 2019, a former staffer claimed that the SPLC’s accusations of ‘hate’ are a ‘cynical fundraising scam’ aimed at ‘bilking northern liberals.’” O’Neil noted that in 2012, a gunman targeted the social conservative group and wounded a security guard in the lobby; the gunman claimed that he had hoped to kill everyone at the social conservative organization FRC (Family Research Council) after seeing that the SPLC put the group on its “hate map.” The SPLC did denounce the shooting, but kept the FRC on its “hate map.” It’s also worth noting that, as I have previously written in The Daily Wire, the SPLC reportedly admitted to National Review in 2011 that “we’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left” and was forced to apologize to Dr. Ben Carson in 2015 for including him on their “Extremist Files” list. In fairness, the SPLC was mentioned in the ADL RfC as being analogous and that it too should be downgraded.

“They’re abusing their numbers, as has now become the norm,” an editor told me regarding the anti-Israel editors. “On the bright side, I think very few people take Wikipedia seriously for this kind of stuff.”

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