Last week, the Ynet Internet site, which is owned by Yedioth Ahronoth, launched an online encyclopedia, an extraordinary project on the local Internet landscape. Over three years of work were invested in the project.
A few days after the launching of the encyclopedia, various Internet forums called for a boycott against the encyclopedia and against the whole of Ynet, due to what was perceived as "a leftist tendency on the part of the encyclopedia's writers," in the words of one forum. Sources at Ynet claim that for every angry letter from the right, a similarly outraged message was received from the left.
"The politics of knowledge is a fascinating thing," says the encyclopedia's editor, Michal Schechter. "We calmed down once we saw that we were receiving angry messages from all directions."
Yon Feder, Ynet's editor-in-chief, has mentioned in the past that his background experience as an editor of encyclopedias (Britannica for Youth, the Encyclopedia of the History of the Land of Israel, the Israeli Encyclopedia, among others) prompted him to push the idea of an online encyclopedia. Even during a period of cutbacks and layoffs at Ynet, the project was maintained on a back burner.
Thousands of hours of work, millions of dollars and a tremendous amount of energy went into the project. Now the encyclopedia has almost 10,000 entries. Unlike traditional encyclopedias, the online encyclopedia has promised Ynet surfers, who will in the future have to pay NIS 228 a year for access to the encyclopedia, that the project's permanent team will continue to update the content on a steady basis.
A large portion of the initial entries are drawn from several databases of existing encyclopedias, which were purchased, sifted and re-edited. Many other entries were written by freelancers and the permanent team, which works in Yedioth Ahronoth's building. Although individual surfers will be invited to purchase subscriptions, Ynet feels the encyclopedia's main target audience is educational institutions.
Shortly after the online encyclopedia was launched, rotter.net, a forum site visited by many right-wing surfers, began displaying reactions from surfers who contended that many of the entries were clearly slanted toward the left. Yishayahu Rotter, who owns the site and serves as a rabbi and educator at a religious high school in Haifa, claims that the bias is clear and blatant and "is evident throughout, from the omission of information to the presentation of erroneous, sometimes even absurd, information."
Rotter gives the following examples: "When you read about the Altalena, you discover only at the end of the text, as if someone hoped that no one would read that far, that [Yitzhak] Rabin was involved in the incident. And how is this fact mentioned? In soft terms, intimating that he just happened to be there. That's right, it was just a coincidence that he arrived there and gave the order to sink the ship. That is a distortion of the facts."
The entry "Yitzhak Shamir" notes that he was upbraided by the Kahan Commission, which determined that as the foreign minister, Shamir had not made an effort to verify the information that was relayed to him immediately after the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon began.
"Is that the most important thing for children to read [about Shamir]?" asks Rotter. "Perhaps in the entry on Sabra and Chatila, but why in the entry on Shamir?"
Rotter describes the entry on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as one that "could not have been written better by any Arabic encyclopedia," because it "totally downplays the terrorist side of this man who is presented as an Arab statesman."
On various other forums, surfers noted that the Moledet party is presented as "an extreme right-wing party," while Meretz is presented as "a bloc of left-wing parties." The concept of transfer, wrote others, is presented as an illegitimate means even though voluntary and consensual transfer is "a legitimate way to settle disputes between countries."
Moti Sender, manager of the Katif.net Web site, says that the first thing he checked was what the encyclopedia had to say about Gush Katif. "I was astonished to find that the bloc of settlements, which is home to 7,500 residents and has been around for 33 years already, is not even in the encyclopedia," said Sender. "When I started to search systematically I discovered that many entries connected with the right side of the map are not there. Is this by accident or by design?"
Rotter has called on Ynet to tell it as it is and declare that this is a leftist encyclopedia. "If this is said openly, at least people will be able to prepare themselves for what they will find and it will be clear to them that the encyclopedia is not objective," Rotter says. Feder has listened to all the arguments and is not getting excited. "An encyclopedia has to be devoid of any political stance or ideological conception," he says. "It is supposed to provide just facts."
Feder does not dismiss the possibility that some mistakes may have been made in the choice of words, but notes that the clear guideline given to the writers and editors was "to refrain from opinions." In a few instances, admits Feder, there is substance to the surfers' complaints. Thus for example, the entry on Arafat is indeed problematic.
"I read the entry and Arafat really is presented more as a statesman and less as a man tainted by terrorism," says Feder. "I have written a few additional lines and the entry will be updated in the coming days."
But Schechter says that the claims regarding Ynet's leftist tendencies are offset by the many complaints received by the site from the left half of the political map.
"We were asked why we wrote that Be'er Sheva was founded in 1948, when in fact it was an Arab city whose residents were cruelly driven out," says Schechter. "One surfer asked why the entry on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not mention that he stood on a balcony watching a particularly famous demonstration at Zion Square in Jerusalem. Another asked why we used the term Kafr Kassem Affair, when the incident [in 1956] was actually a massacre, during which people were shot at point blank range."
The dispute between the right and the left focuses on more than just recent history. Schechter relates that one surfer sent the site an angry message asking why the entry on the biblical Joshua did not mention that he brutally conquered large populations. "You are denying the injustices perpetrated by the Jews throughout history," wrote another surfer.
Schechter accepts some of the comments. "One man wondered why we wrote that the Communist party was an Arab party, when in fact throughout most of its history it was a Jewish-Arab party," she relates. "He is right. We have to correct that."
Like Feder, Schechter recognizes that the Arafat entry is a sensitive issue. "That entry was written by an expert on the subject. He knew that he was sitting on a powder keg in all respects. The question as to whether Arafat directly finances terror or not is one for which there is no answer of the type that can be included in an encyclopedia. Even so, it is common knowledge that Arafat is not doing anything to halt the terror activities, and that point must be noted.
"The comment regarding Shamir is petty," continues Schechter. "The Kahan Commission's report became an event that is stamped in the history of Israel. We are essentially being told to conceal that information from the reader."
Feder says that a few weeks ago he issued an order not to use the terms "extremist" and "radical" anymore - in reference to either the right or the left - in order to excise this problematic term. "I don't want to call Uri Avineri a `radical leftist,'" says Schechter. "I describe his views, relate his biography. Let the reader draw his own conclusions."
Schechter admits that some important entries are missing, like one on Gush Katif. "The first thing that surfers did was to type in their home town," says Schechter, "to see what was written about it. We have information on all the communities in Israel, but unfortunately have not managed to edit it so that there is an entry for every place. This will be rectified in the near future," she promised.
"The fact that everyone is complaining is comforting," says Schechter. "After all, at the end of each entry we invite readers to send us their comments, and our greatest fear was that we would receive responses from only one side."
Feder notes that complaints against an encyclopedia are a fact of life, even with printed encyclopedias. Schechter adds that even though they expected complaints, there were relatively few. Only about 1 percent of readers have sent in their reactions.
"About half the responses are compliments," says Schechter. "Of the other half, about one third are totally irrelevant. The remainder are equally divided between responses from the right, the left and from organizations and other bodies that view themselves as watch dogs, such as the homosexuals and the Scientologists."
Schechter has a special section in her mailbox for specific requests regarding entries. "People are upset that there are no entries for mystics or New Age," she says. "One surfer asked why there is no entry on roller blades, another regarding a particular regional Israeli radio station, and someone even asked why there is no entry for the ship Aurora, which played a role in the Bolshevik Revolution and has its own museum in St. Petersburg. There is a whole wide world out there, and there will always be missing entries.
"Whenever anyone asked me how long I needed before they could launch the encyclopedia, I replied, `100 years,'" says Schechter. "Even now I would be happy to have another 100 years until they launched it."
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