Without Women or Evolution: 'Ultra-Orthodox Wikipedia' Is Literally Rewriting History

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A new initiative aimed at bringing Wikipedia to the ultra-Orthodox community is making waves in Israel due to what many take to be the crude manner it has edited out content deemed unsuitable for the community.

Called Hamichlol (“the entirety”), the Hebrew-language project uses the “wiki” technology found at the root of Wikipedia to create a parallel and Haredi-friendly version of the online encyclopedia for the growing number of ultra-Orthodox connecting to the internet in Israel.

Founded by a young Hasidic rabbi, hamichlol.org.il is the first attempt to introduce the open, digital wiki format to the closed religious world, famously zealous in its reverence to the printed word of scripture and other canonic texts, as opposed to Wikipedia-like projects that are inherently digital and dynamic.

The project describes its goal as “creating the largest Jewish encyclopedia in history, which includes articles on all issues pertaining to the Torah, Jewish values and the history of the Jewish people, but also knowledge pertaining to mankind and from all the secular [hulin] fields – written in clean language according to the Jewish worldview.”

To get started, the project’s leaders imported tens thousands of Wikipedia articles from the Hebrew-language Wikipedia and began rewriting their content according to what the editors term the ultra-Orthodox aspeklaria – from the Latin for “mirror.” Since Wikipedia is “open source”, there are no copyright issues involved.

Captions on Hamichlol's Zooarchaeology entry, with the words 'Middle Paleolithic, some 200,000 years ago' and 'Natufian culture, some 14,000 years ago' stricken out.

As the project is still only in its initial stages, the signs of this translation and framing process are, for the time being, violently present: vivid red strike-throughs of words like "evolution," "peprehistoric" and even phrases like "the religious taboo on eating pork," deleted along with anything else that does not jive with the anti-scientific worldview of the fundamentalist religious community.

For example, the article for the field of zooarchaeology, which focuses on prehistoric animals, currently reads: “Zooarchaeology (or archaeozoology) is the study of remains at archaeological sites as part of the search for major developments in evolution,” with the last two words deleted. The caption for one of the photographs accompanying the article – remains of an ancient turtle that presumably was not a passenger on Noah’s Ark – with the following line deleted: "Middle Paleolithic, some 200,000 years ago."

And it’s not just science and evolution that have been made kosher. Even generic, otherwise uncontroversial articles are required to become “modest” – an ultra-Orthodox euphemism for a prohibition on any images of women. Thus, for example, the entry about the current Israeli government, which includes ultra-Orthodox parties, has all the female ministers cropped out – a warped perspective eerily evident in the doctored image.

Israel's 34th government, with the women edited out. From Hamichlol. Credit: Haim Zach, GPO / Hamichlol
The original image. Spot the differences.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO

The editors of the standard Hebrew Wikipedia were not pleased by the appearance of Hamichlol. Many claimed the project was a flagrant abuse of Wikipedia’s free-to-use license for the purpose of creating a competing encyclopedia that undermines Wikipedia’s commitment to openness, transparency and progress. The ultra-Orthodox project, some claimed in internal forums for editors, was inherently incompatible with Wikipedia because fundamentalist Judaism was formulated as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Founded by a libertarian with another person with a doctorate in philosophy, Wikipedia views itself of an example of how the internet can be used for good by continuing the secular encyclopedic tradition that began in the Enlightenment, and emulating and further democratizing it – values evident in its goals and format.

However, it seems the editors of Hamichlol are more than keenly aware of this tension and take a rather pragmatic position with regard to secular knowledge: “Contemporary knowledge is not necessarily a contradiction of Haredi Judaism,” the project’s editorial guidelines explain. “Just because modern knowledge is usually presented as intertwined with a secular worldview and lifestyle, it is not to be taken as contradictory to ultra-Orthodoxy,” they write, encouraging readers to join in as editors and “untangle” secular assumptions from the mass of articles imported from Wikipedia.

Encyclopedic politics

It is important to couch criticism of the explicit manner scientific knowledge and images of women are censored in the Hamichlol project with an important caveat: Knowledge production has always been an ideological business. The history of encyclopedias is full of examples of ideologically driven revisions of texts from competing worldviews.

Encyclopaedia Britannica began in 1768 as a religious response to the 1751 Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, which was deemed heretical. As conservatives, the editors of Britannica wanted to translate the French encyclopedia into English, but neutralize its revolutionary force – which is credited with playing a part in the intellectual ferment that preceded the French Revolution.

Britannica would later go on to help Wikipedia get underway, with hundreds of articles from its 11th edition being copied in full to Wikipedia to lure its army of editors, reluctant to start articles on their own from scratch, but more than happy to argue about existing ones, rewriting and modifying their texts according to what they held to be true until a consensus was reached.

The shift to digital format has allowed these different changes to our encyclopedic texts to be recorded in a uniquely direct and accessible way. Britannica, for example, allows users to see the different versions of its online articles (which are generally few and far between). Wikipedia permits even more, inviting users to browse between the different and constantly changing versions of its articles.

It is safe to assume that, as long as Hamichlol uses the wiki system the edits will be logged and accessible. Changes to the text won’t show up as red lines like they do now, but there will be a record of every version, even the unkosher or half-kosher ones, allowing readers to see how texts were censored or even just edited over time. In this regard, Hamichlol’s willingness to engage head-on with what many ultra-Orthodox view as a taboo corpus of knowledge in such a transparent digital medium is praiseworthy.

For all its benefits, Wikipedia and the profusion of similar wiki-sites online are the best example we have of a world in which competing systems of truth live side by side. In the U.S., there have long been competitors to Wikipedia, for example Conservapedia, which excises from Wikipedia all of its “liberal lies,” on everything from science to the Bible, and even Metapedia – the so-called alt-right Wikipedia. In China, the government is apparently toying around with developing its own online encyclopedia, one that may not be open to public editing, and in Turkey, Wikipedia is still banned.

Hamichlol, at least for now, is free to use and free to edit.

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