Sex, Lies and Wikipedia: Pro-Palestinian Editors Accused of Protecting Linda Sarsour Over Harassment Claims

Allegations that the American-Palestinian activist enabled sexual assault have repeatedly been deleted from her Wikipedia page, raising claims that some editors are inserting the Israel-Palestine issue into an unrelated matter

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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Linda Sarsour during the opening session of the three-day Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 2017.
Linda Sarsour during the opening session of the three-day Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, October 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

The recent allegations that American-Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour rejected a female colleague’s accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace has led to suggestions that pro-Palestinian editors at Wikipedia are keeping the story off Sarsour’s page in order to defend her public image.

On December 17, a website called The Daily Caller first reported that Sarsour had been accused of “enabling the alleged sexual assault and harassment of a woman [Asmi Fathelbab] who worked for the feminist activist” at the Arab American Association of New York in 2009. Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the story the following day, presumably only-too-happy to shine a negative light on the woman Politico has described as the “face of the resistance to Donald Trump.” Sarsour herself rejected the accusations, telling Buzzfeed, “This is character assassination. This is where we have to draw the line.”

Though it is common for political disputes to play out on Wikipedia – for example, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors fighting over contentious topics like Jerusalem’s status – Sarsour’s case highlights how the Israel-Palestine issue can sometimes trump other important ones.

#MeToo and personal vendettas

After an Israeli editor called Icewhiz edited Sarsour’s Wikipedia page to include the allegations (Fathelbab related that Sarsour had dismissed her harassment accusation because the accused was a “good Muslim” who was “always at the Mosque”), a Turkish editor called Seraphim System deleted Icewhiz’s edit, claiming it was “unsuitable” for the Sarsour article. When Icewhiz attempted to reintroduce his content, his entry was again deleted.

This is not the first time these two editors have crossed paths. A review of their respective contributions to Wikipedia reveals a long-standing political feud that has played out on articles for Israel, Turkey, Jerusalem and even “Israel and the apartheid analogy.” Their history set the tone for the debate that ensued.

When another pro-Israel editor again added a new paragraph about Sarsour and the allegations (including her denial to Buzzfeed), a full edit war broke out. More pro-Palestinian editors joined the fray, fighting the attempts to integrate what they described as defamatory content to the Sarsour article.

However, intersectionality and Sarsour’s dedication to feminist causes left those arguing her corner having to explain why the allegations were not deemed “Wikipedia-worthy.”

“These allegations are widely reported by several reliable sources. Our usual policy (exercised recently quite frequently with the #MeToo revelations) with public figures is to include such allegations when they are made publicly and reported, qualifying that said allegations are allegations – not fact,” one editor wrote on Sarsour’s “Talk page” – a forum page linked to every Wikipedia article where editors are expected to discuss changes in a civil manner.

Seraphim System pushed back, seeking to undermine both the sources reporting the claims against Sarsour and the allegations themselves: “The sourcing is not very good (Fox News, Buzzfeed and the Daily Caller). It is only one person [Fathelbab] who says Sarsour didn’t believe her. It is only gossip – just because reliable sources report something, that does not mean it is suitable for Wikipedia.”

“This is certainly relevant given her outspokenness on women’s issues,” the second pro-Israeli editor retorted. I “concur that this material belongs in article [sic] because of her self presentation as an outspoken feminist,” wrote a third pro-Israeli editor, called E.M. Gregory.

The "Talk page" for the Linda Sarsour article.Credit: Screengrab

Read the full debate here.

The debate soon escalated out of control, with both sides accusing the other of hypocrisy. “Whaw. Just whaw. I haven’t seen worse hypocrisy or double standards for years. Yes, I’m looking at you, Icewhiz, and you E.M. Gregory: Recall [the debate] over the Elie Wiesel molestation allegations?” wrote Huldra, a female editor who has contributed to articles related to the Palestinians.

“My opinion about including/not including this here is the same as in the Wiesel case: Unless there are several other instances, this stays out of the article,” she wrote.

“Why not? All the #MeToo allegations, even if denied, were added in Wiki,” the second pro-Israeli editor responded, attempting to see the content returned to the article.

Huldra then seemed to suggest a problematic compromise: If the allegations against Sarsour are to be published in Wikipedia, then the community of editors should also add the allegations against Wiesel. “Make your choice,” she wrote, deleting the allegations to the article again and demanding that anyone wanting to add them should first file an arbitration request with Wikipedia calls a “Request for comment.”

The deft usage of Wikipedia guidelines and procedures are part and parcel of Wikipedia’s collective-editing process. However, in Sarsour’s case, there are a number of instances where seemingly pro-Sarsour editors are making use of Wikipedia’s rules to defend her personally rather than the actual content being debated. Moreover, one contributor tells Haaretz, it seems that at least two of these editors are using their Wikipedia status to defend the Sarsour article for non-encyclopedic purposes.

Abuse of power?

The main contributor to the Sarsour article is an editor called Sangdeboeuf, who also enjoys quite a senior status on Wikipedia, where they are frequently involved in policy debates. Judging by their past edits, Sangdeboeuf’s interest are mostly progressive issues that veer toward the left side of identity politics – most recently editing pages like male privilege.

Sangdeboeuf was extremely active in defending Sarsour from the allegations, writing: “I don’t think anyone’s disputing that the allegations were made. But saying that they have therefore been verified and corroborated is frankly laughable.”

However, as the debate escalated, some of Sangdeboeuf’s actions started raising eyebrows. For example, although deleting another person’s edits is customary on articles, it is not customary on the “Talk page.” Yet there are at least five instances where Sangdeboeuf edited the debate itself. For example, while the debate was labeled “Alleged enabling of sexual assault and harassment,” Sangdeboeuf renamed it “Asmi Fathelbab allegations,” shifting the onus from Sarsour to the accuser.

In the most problematic example, Sangdeboeuf and two other editors from the pro-Sarsour camp seemed to use their Wikipedia status to lock Sarsour’s page for editing, due to what one of them called “disruptive editing” – a move that ignores the content of the allegations and the claims made by other editors.

While all issues pertaining to Israel and the Palestinians are locked to public editing due to their contentious nature, this debate and the manner Wikipedia’s rules were used to block negative content from being added highlights how, for some editors, you can’t be both feminist and Zionist – at least when it comes to Linda Sarsour.

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