Hebrew U Students Launch Fact-checking Site of Israeli Politicians

Shani Keynan, 26, and Sefi Keller, 23, are the cofounders of PolitiWatch, an organization dedicated to fact-checking the statements of Knesset members and cabinet ministers

Despairing of the cavalier way Israeli politicians seem to treat the facts, two Hebrew University of Jerusalem students are launching a venture whose mission is to keep the country's elected representatives honest, or at least to call them out when they aren't.

Shani Keynan, 26, and Sefi Keller, 23, are the cofounders of PolitiWatch, an organization dedicated to fact-checking the statements of Knesset members and cabinet ministers. They aim for neutrality - Keynan is secular and a member of the Labor Party's Young Guard, while Keller wears the knit kippa of the religious Zionists and self-identifies with the right.

PolitiWatch is a byproduct of Postmodern Times, the joint Hebrew blog the two friends began in 2011. In it, Keller expounded against "extreme tolerance," while Keynan came out in favor of teaching values.

Neither of them took part in last year's social protests, but the new project is nonetheless connected to it. The protests, Keynan says, gave rise "to a sense of desperation, as if everything is rotten and you can't believe anyone. People felt there was a need to burn down everything and start anew. Sefi and I don't identity with that attitude, but for healthy political debate the system has to work," Keynan says.

"I'm against revolution. Revolution is blood," he continued, adding, "The problem is there is no data on which to base public debate. Sometimes public figures present a ton of data supporting their position, and you think, if it's true then there's something there. But there's no way to check, and another politician says the exact opposite."

The role of PolitiWatch, Keynan says, will be to check the facts and publish the results of the examinations.

The idea started, Keller says, when he was watching CNN coverage of a speech by Mitt Romney during his primary campaign and noticed a link to a fact-checking website. "I grabbed my head," Keller recalls. "How is it that there's nothing like that site here that will tell you when a fact is right and when it's not?"

The direct inspiration for PolitiWatch comes from PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times' Pulitzer-winning website with catchy features such as the Truth-O-Meter and its campaign-promise scorecards.

PolitiWatch's first target was Interior Minister Eli Yishai's claim that a large number of Haredi men want to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, which he said is not drafting them. PolitiWatch gave it two out of five points, or "mostly false," after determining that only 92 ultra-Orthodox men were not drafted due to budgetary reasons. Keynan and Keller say they were unable to confirm their findings with Yishai - that the minister's two media advisers promised to get back to them but never did.

Shas spokesman Yakov Betzalel wrote in response: "There is a growing desire to participate in the military burden." He added that the 92 Haredim who were not drafted for budgetary reasons are proof of the state comptroller's determination that the army is not meeting its promises on drafting Haredim.

PolitiWatch has four part-time researchers on the payroll, which Keynan and Keller themselves are bankrolling for now. They are trying to raise NIS 50,000 within 40 days on the Mimoona crowdfunding website, at which time they plan to hold a launch party at the Israel Democracy Institute. So far, they have raised less than NIS 2,000 on Mimoona. The cofounders say they do not want to accept money from organizations identified with the left, such as the New Israel Fund, until and unless they have an equal amount of funding from right-wing groups. Ideally, Keynan and Keller say, all their funding will come from "ordinary citizens."

Shani Keynan, left, and Sefi Keller in front of the Knesset this week.
Emil Salman