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Is Wikipedia good for the Jews?
By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
02/02/2010
As online user-generated encyclopedia celebrates 100,000th Hebrew-language entry, it prompts debate in Knesset.
 
A number of Israel’s leading “Wikipedes” came to the Knesset on Tuesday, where they reaped the laurels of their efforts, but also leveled a certain amount of criticism toward a lack of government cooperation with their efforts to compile a free online Hebrew-language encyclopedia.

The Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee invited Wikipedia contributors and users to join in the morning meeting, which was held to mark the publication of the online encyclopedia’s 100,000th Hebrew-language entry.

The meeting was initiated by MK Yulia Shamolov Berkovich (Kadima), who used the session as an opportunity to express concerns regarding Wikipedia’s gradual replacement of print encyclopedias as tools for students.

Shamolov Berkovich evoked gentle criticism, both from Wikipedia representatives and from fellow MK Dov Henin (Hadash), when she suggested that every entry should contain a “small-print” warning that “it is part of a human project” and was thus a less-than-perfect resource. She argued that there is less of a chance for bias to slip into print encyclopedias than in Wikipedia’s online contributor-based system.

Members of Wikipedia Israel argued that a print encyclopedia, whose political outlook could be easily shaped by its editor-in-chief, was more open to bias than Wikipedia with its cooperative style, where there was transparency regarding editorial decisions.

A number of academics also addressed the committee, arguing that Wikipedia could be used as a powerful tool for scholarship – and that Israeli academia could also increase its involvement in generating entries. Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University’s Political Science Department, for example, assigned students the task of writing Wikipedia entries on key subjects, including Camp David, the Israel Prisons Service, the pre-statehood National Council and the Gidonim underground movement. As a result, said Cohen’s former teaching assistant Ofer Eitan, the articles were reviewed not just by Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, but by Cohen himself, and the result was more than 200 new Hebrew-language Wikipedia entries.

Dr. Gilad Raviv, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that use of Wikipedia was not problematic in academia, and that “the solution is to teach students the proper ways to engage in critical reading of Wikipedia entries. I am happy to say that I know of schools that do just that, but unfortunately, there are others who are afraid of students using the resource.”

A second hot topic at the Knesset meeting was open-source media and resources. Wikipedia representatives complained that Hebrew-language entries often lack adequate pictures, partially because the public archival bodies, such as the Government Press Office, refused to share their pictures for free. Other governments, they said, post free photos specifically for such Internet use, whereas in Israel, creators’ rights are maintained for 50 years.

Following Operation Cast Lead last winter and the Second Lebanon War in 2006, international Wikipedia contributors complained to their Israeli counterparts that the only available pictures for their entries came from Palestinians, because the IDF refused to release any photos for free Internet use.


Committee chairman MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) responded with incredulity. “That’s completely backwards!” he called out, adding that providing open access to information was crucial to the advancement of students, particularly those whose parents could not afford to stock home libraries.

On the bright side, Wikipedia advocates noted the number of classic Israeli texts becoming available for open use, following the 70-year period after a writers’ death in which creative rights are maintained for written documents. The works of the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, for example, are being eagerly awaited as the 70th anniversary of the poet’s death in October 1943 approaches.

Hebrew Wikipedia is 30th out of 272 Wikipedias in terms of entries, with 100,771 on Tuesday evening, just ahead of Lithuanian and just behind Serbian. Arabic Wikipedia is No. 24, with 119,862 entries.
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