Editorial: Facebook, Holocaust Denial and a School Principal

Oct. 15, 2020

Well, Facebook has finally done the right thing.

According to a notice published over Simchat Torah, the social media behemoth is “updating our hate speech policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”

For an entity that prides itself on speed and freshness, this took a depressingly long time.

Jewish organizations from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre have been imploring Facebook for years to take action against Holocaust denial and distortion. It took an immense push from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), which produced dramatic daily videos of Holocaust survivors, including from Canada, imploring Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to rid his platform of this toxic content for him to finally take action.

And for those who still believe that Holocaust deniers are simply ignorant white supremacists, consider the story of William Latson, the principal of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla.

During an email exchange in April 2018 with a parent, Latson insisted that Spanish River students could choose not to take Holocaust studies because “not everyone believed the Holocaust happened.”

He insisted that as an educator, he had to be “politically neutral.”

The parent was naturally astounded, maintaining that everyone knows the Holocaust is a historical fact. Apparently, not Latson, who responded in another email: “I can’t say that the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

The drama continued for months, with Latson finally being fired for continuing to make these claims. Just last week, he was reinstated with back pay, but will no longer serve in a teaching capacity (the school board voted to reinstate Latson 4-3, with the board’s only Jewish member strongly urging against it. Another member blamed the media.)

Holocaust denial has clearly not abated. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the world-renowned anti-hate institution, has described it quite properly as “an essential manifestation of antisemitism.”

That educated men like William Latson can take such public positions tells us that it’s not necessarily confined to the racist margins.

So there is no doubt that Facebook did the right thing. And perhaps by doing so, fewer more vulnerable minds than Latson’s will go unpolluted by hatred.

We’ll see. It’s still one thing for Facebook to enact the policy, but quite another to enforce it. If it does, Latson’s young charges will benefit, even if he doesn’t.

Critics of Ontario’s Bill 168 Miss the Mark

By HARRIS WATKINS

Working for a member of Ontario’s provincial parliament, I have often seen coordinated email campaigns influenced by external and third-party organizations (using the same subject line usually gives it away).

Such was the case when the office of Progressive Conservative MPP Natalia Kusendova (Mississauga Centre) began to receive concerns about Bill 168, The Combating Antisemitism Act, 2020, as anti-Israel activists in Toronto ramped up their pressure campaign against the proposed legislation.

Introduced last year by Conservative MPP Will Bouma and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin, Bill 168 calls on the government to be guided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in “interpretation of acts, regulations and policies designed to protect Ontarians from discrimination and hate amounting to antisemitism.” The bill passed second reading last February and now heads to committee hearings.

The coordinated email effort against the bill lists two predominant criticisms. First, because the IHRA definition was intended to be a working definition, it is insufficient to serve as a legal standard due to its inherently broad wording. Second, the definition is susceptible to being used as a tool to curb freedom of speech (specifically, criticism of Israel).

Both arguments fail to hold water.

The most widely accepted definition of antisemitism today, the IHRA interpretation has been endorsed by Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Parliament, France, Germany, and various academic bodies as a direct response to rising rates of antisemitism. More than 128 Jewish organizations recently signed an open letter calling on Facebook to adopt the definition, as antisemitism continues to fester on its platform.

If one were to consult the stated mission of the IHRA, they would see that its foremost objectives are to identify and address the practical needs of policymakers in eradicating antisemitism. The definition was created for the benefit of policymakers globally to provide nations around the world with an important tool to combat rising hatred and discrimination within their realms. Antisemitism is a global problem and requires global language to fix. The IHRA accomplishes this.

This same language in the IHRA definition can also be found in the writing of Bill 168 itself. The bill’s preamble states that its purpose is to use the definition in a manner that allows for a consistent interpretation of all governmental action directed toward protecting Ontarians from hatred and discrimination. It goes on to say that the government will “be guided by the working definition of antisemitism and the list of it adopted by the IHRA.” 

This appears to me to be in line with both the stated purpose and wording of the definition.

The bill’s premise is that the definition will aid in enacting legislation that will itself be legally binding — not simply that the definition will be taken and made into law without any sort of democratic guidance in the policymaking process. This wording affirms the ability for policymakers to use the definition as a tool in governance.

Thus, the Ontario government is seeking to utilize the definition as it was intended.

Second, the IHRA definition clearly has no gripe with legitimate criticisms of Israel and its policies. What it does, however, is draw a valid link between antisemitism and anti-Zionist prejudices. This encompasses the noted double-standard invariably applied by antisemites to the actions of Israel but not to other democratic states. It also provides a valid condemnation of the belief that the Jewish people are not, like all other peoples, entitled to a geographical homeland. 

What sort of “legitimate” criticism of Israel could take issue with the fact that the IHRA definition reiterates the right of Israel to exist?

If the so-called legitimate criticism of Israel purported to be silenced by this legislation does not even hold that the country should exist, there clearly isn’t a point in engaging in dialogue, because criticism implies improving; we cannot work to improve what some would rather simply destroy

If a problem-solving discussion is what opponents of Bill 168 want, the IHRA definition is clearly able to facilitate it.

What the Ontario bill’s detractors really seem to want, however, is the freedom of speech to decry the legitimacy of Israel’s existence; as being null, and, as long as the state exists, as bonafide apartheid.

Supporters of Bill 168, including a plurality Canadian Jewish organizations, agree that calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state is antisemitic, hence a form of illegitimate criticism. In turn, naysayers say they are simply “cowering to Israeli interests” and promoting “Zionist propaganda.” Like the COVID conspiracy theorists, they truly have an answer for everything.

The reality is that the scope of real discourse is severely constrained if the IHRA definition is not in play, as it allows detractors to fester and solutions to legitimate problems be damned.

Look no further than the vast array of debate within Israel itself to see just how much the Jewish people are divided on the actions and policy of the government. Legitimate criticism of the government is rife — as it should be in a democratic state — yet within this discussion is an overwhelming consensus that the state is legitimate and should exist. This is absolutely no different than any other democratic country, for these diverse views on governance and policy that Israelis hold are typically borne of a personal perspective of how the country can best flourish according to their perspective. 

Detractors say that even Jewish and Israeli groups will be silenced by Bill 168. This is simply fear-mongering. 

The IHRA definition admirably attempts to help policymakers and decision makers of conscience by providing them with a definition of antisemitism conducive to decision-making to the benefit of constituents. Of course, while no itemized definition of antisemitism will be perfect and able to account for every aspect of this complex phenomenon, this definition is no doubt the most extensive and most fit to curb the alarming rise of antisemitism in our province.

This is something not only to the benefit of Ontario’s Jewish community, but all of us who value eradicating hate and prejudice wherever they may manifest. 


Harris Watkins
Harris Watkins

Harris Watkins is the Israel Advocacy Coordinator with Hasbara Fellowships Canada and a staff member in the office of MPP Natalia Kusendova.

Clamp Down on Hate Speech, Jewish Groups Urge Facebook

Aug. 31, 2020 – Canadian Jewish advocacy organizations are urging Facebook to clamp down on extremist activity and hate speech.

Some 145 Jewish and Zionist organizations around the world sent an open letter this month to the social media giant, urging it to “fully adopt” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as the “cornerstone of Facebook’s hate speech policy regarding antisemitism.”

Canadian signatories to the letter include B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and Students Supporting Israel.

The letter, sent to the company’s board of directors, noted that Facebook’s Director of Content Policy Stakeholder Engagement, Peter Stern, “recently attested to the usefulness of the IHRA working definition when Facebook first developed its hate speech policy.

“However, Mr. Stern admitted that Facebook does not have a policy aimed at combatting online anti-Semitism,” the letter alleged. “He further admitted that Facebook does not embrace the full adoption of the IHRA working definition because the definition recognizes that modern manifestations of antisemitism relate to Israel.”

Nearly 40 countries have already endorsed or adopted the IHRA working definition in some official capacity, either through their membership in the IHRA or independently, the letter noted.

Canada adopted the IHRA wording last year as part of an anti-racism policy. So have several Canadian cities, while others have either shelved or withdrawn efforts at adoption amid accusations that it would stifle criticism of Israel.

The letter came amid growing concern from Jewish groups worldwide that Facebook is allowing Holocaust deniers room to expresstheir views.

Today’s antisemitism “undoubtedly includes the delegitimization of Israel’s right to exist,” the letter goes on. “This bigotry is expressed in various ways, such as the rejection of Jewish self-determination, Holocaust revisionism and denial, and the application of double standards toward the Jewish state and people.”

Adopting the IHRA definition would provide Facebook “an effective, neutral, and nuanced tool to protect Jewish users from hate speech and imagery that incites hate and oftentimes leads to violence,” the letter argues. “While the impact of online hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation on our society continues to be researched and explored, we cannot afford to lose any more time in fighting this bigotry and preventing violence.”

Survivors Seek to Shame Facebook Into Removing Holocaust Denial

Aug. 7, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A new campaign seeks to shame Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into pushing Holocaust deniers off his popular social media platform.

Dubbed #NoDenyingIt, (http://www.claimscon.org/nodenyingit/#clips) the drive is led by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the or Claims Conference), the New York-based agency that pushes for compensation for survivors of the Holocaust.

The effort will see 30-second video messages from Holocaust survivors around the world posted to Facebook and other social media sites urging Zuckerberg to finally take action against Holocaust denial on the site he leads.

“This is something you’d think would be pretty straightforward,” said Conference president Gideon Taylor in a CJR interview. “We’re saying that Facebook has an obligation to history and to survivors to ensure this terrible kind of speech is not being promoted.

Gideon Taylor
Gideon Taylor

“We have Holocaust survivors every day issuing calls for Facebook to take down Holocaust denial,” he added. “We want him to sit down with Holocaust survivors and hear directly from them.”

Taylor added two factors make the campaign especially important now: The ever-decreasing number of first-hand witnesses to the Holocaust, and the steadily increasing number of voices claiming it didn’t happen.

“Facebook is a platform being given to these groups to make the voice of hate louder,” he said. “We’re asking that Facebook not let itself be used as a megaphone for that hatred.”

Survivors taking part in the campaign include famed Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld; Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor and head of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors; Eva Schloss, step-sister of Anne Frank; and Charlotte Knobloch, who survived Kristallnacht.

Joining them are Canadians Pinchas Gutter of Toronto and Sydney Zoltak of Montreal. Both say rising antisemitism around the world makes the effort critically important now.

“A huge amount of people now believe things that are lies,” Gutter said in an interview. “The Internet creates a platform for these lies to be spread and it has to stop.”

Gutter was seven when the Second World War started. His family was eventually confined in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. In April 1943, during the first three weeks of the ghetto uprising, the family was discovered and deported to the Majdanek death camp.

Pichas Gutter
Pichas Gutter

On the day they arrived, Gutter’s parents and twin sister were murdered. The boy, however, was sent to a work camp. He later passed through several other concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, where he was liberated by Soviet troops on May 8, 1945.

Today, he does what he can to educate people about the Shoah, and sees the #NoDenyingIt campaign as an extension of that effort.

“The only thing I can do now is educate people and the program is about educating the world,” he said. “It’s time to deal with all these lies and malignancy before they lead to killings and other terrible things.”

Zoltak is also a child survivor. His family was confined in the Siemiatyzce ghetto but escaped during its 1944 liquidation, eventually finding refuge in the barn of a family who remembered a small kindness once given them by Zoltak’s mother.

Sydney Zoltak
Sydney Zoltak

In an interview, Zoltak said he has “a special dislike for Holocaust deniers,” something he tries to ease by telling his story as often as he can.

“I don’t know what Mark Zuckerberg is thinking by allowing Holocaust denial to go on,” he said. “He says that denying the Holocaust is not hate speech, but it is.”

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a former Canadian representative to the Claims Conference (Farber is also publisher of the CJR), said, “the very fact that survivors have to do this in 2020 is disgusting. Deniers are using Facebook to express ideas that are unquestionably antisemitic and hateful.

“(Facebook) has to say clearly that Holocaust denial is a vile spreading of hatred against Jews and will not be tolerated.” He said the social media giant has been pushed for two years to remove such material.

In an e-mailed statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform will “take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust. The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying about the atrocities, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.

“We know many people strongly disagree with our position – and we respect that. It’s really important for us to engage on these issues and hear from people to understand their concerns,” the statement continued. “We have a team that is dedicated to developing and reviewing our policies and we welcome collaboration with industry, experts and other groups to ensure we’re getting it right.”

A random search of Facebook, however shows such statements still make it on to the platform.

In one public group called “Did the Holocaust Really Happen?” one participant argued that claims of six million dead must be false because there simply wasn’t enough time during the Second World War to kill and cremate that many victims.

Another claims the “Holocaust myth” is nothing more than the theft of “billions of dollars from hardworking German taxpayers…to fund the brutal occupation and genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Since 1952, the Claims Conference has negotiated the payment of more than US $80 billion in indemnification to survivors. This year, the agency will distribute approximately $350 million in direct compensation to over 60,000 survivors in 83 countries and allocate approximately $610 million in grants to over 200 social service agencies worldwide to provide Holocaust survivors with home care, food and medicine.


Steve Arnold

Editorial: Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Care About Holocaust Denial

Aug. 6, 2020 – No less a thinker than Homer Simpson once pronounced: “It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s that I don’t care.” It is difficult not to consider these words when confronted by the actions of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook.

Facebook is arguably the most important social media platform of our time – maybe the most influential information outlet of all time. It has brought together old friends and lost relatives; it has allowed for the continuation of friendships around the world; it has spawned groups dealing with everything from recipes to physics. But Facebook also has a dark side, which prompts our thoughts today.

In years past, in order for hate groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Holocaust deniers to spread their vile messages, they were mostly forced to stand on busy street corners, handing out their abhorrent messages. If two people walked away with a leaflet, it was considered a good day.

In 2020, all that is required for hatred to seep into our communities is a laptop and internet hookup. Consider numbers that would make legacy media hyperventilate: Worldwide, there are over 2.7 billion monthly active users of Facebook, and 1.8 billion people on average log onto the site every day – a 12 percent increase over just a year ago.

Facebook has been confronted often with requests to take more corporate responsibility by guarding against its use, or misuse, by hatemongers. From time to time, some individuals have been deplatformed. Sadly, the numbers are few and the will from Facebook seems weak.

For the Jewish community, the focus is on the numerous Holocaust deniers who use Facebook as their vehicle of choice to spread their poison. Those of a certain age might remember Toronto-based Ernst Zundel, who was once the largest purveyor of Holocaust denial material in the world. He would salivate today at how Facebook could distribute his lies.

It may seem unbelievable, but Facebook has consistently refused to recognize Holocaust denial as a violation of its “community standards.” Indeed, consider the opening statement of the site’s terms of reference for its standards when it comes to hate speech:

“We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Zuckerberg explained in a 2018 interview: “I don’t believe that our platform should take that [Holocaust denial] down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” notably adding, “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong…”

News flash for Mark Zuckerberg (who was raised in a Jewish home): Holocaust denial is not just getting historical facts “wrong,” it’s intentional all right, and the most contemptible form of Jew-hatred imaginable.

In recent weeks the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, has begun a campaign dubbed #NoDenyingIt!

It’s an online campaign “to ensure the voices of Holocaust survivors are heard by Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and that is: ‘Holocaust denial posts on Facebook must be removed!’ As one survivor put it, ‘They are calling us liars. We are witnesses,’” the Claims Conference stated.

Holocaust survivors have been sending short videos every day to Zuckerberg demanding he stop this hatred. It’s horrible that in the dusk of their lives, these elderly men and women must ask Facebook to do the right thing. It’s time for Zuckerberg to stop doing a Homer Simpson and to show he understands – and cares.