Deletion Discussions on Hebrew Wikipedia – The case of Jewish and Muslim Nobel Prize Winners

Anat Leshnick

On the same day in 2008, two seemingly related articles were proposed for deletion on Hebrew Wikipedia:Muslim Nobel Prize Winners” and “Jewish Nobel Prize Winners.” Each item included a list of all Nobel laureates, sorted by category and year. On the deletion discussion pages, editors argued whether these articles were worthy of inclusion on Hebrew Wikipedia. While different possible solutions (such as merging the articles) were suggested, most editors either supported the inclusion or deletion of both articles, or the deletion of only the article about Muslim laureates. While these are only two of many items that have been proposed for deletion on Hebrew Wikipedia since its inception in 2001, it is exactly these types of politically charged arguments that illuminate the different perceptions editors hold regarding the local/global nature of Hebrew Wikipedia as well as the ways in which they perceive their own role as editors.

Deletion policies and debates about the inclusion or exclusion of articles from Wikipedia raise intriguing questions regarding the constructed meanings of the new open source based, “free” and “collaborative” encyclopedia and its boundaries. For instance: should any content be included on Wikipedia because it is technically possible to do so, or should editors be more selective so that Wikipedia does not become just another venue for unsorted content? If so, who should have the authority to make decisions about what is “worthy” or “important” enough to be included, and based on which criteria?

These are some of the main themes I was interested in while analyzing the debates that took place on Hebrew Wikipedia deletion discussion pages. While different Wikipedia versions differ with regard to deletion processes, on Hebrew Wikipedia, whenever editors cannot reach a consensus regarding the status of an item proposed for deletion, it is transferred to a “deletion page,” (an example of similar deletion discussion pages in the English version can be found here) where editors vote to keep or discard it. My analysis focused on the ways in which participants justified their positions regarding the items being discussed.

While my study included many such examples, the discussions that took place over “Muslim/Jewish Nobel Prize Winners” will serve as an example for this post, as they demonstrate the character of debates more broadly.

Bazaar and Cathedral Approaches to Wikipedia

The main goals of Wikipedia, as they appear on its “purpose” page, are to create the largest free encyclopedia in history, in terms of both depth and breadth, which also serves as a reliable source of information (Wikipedia:Purpose, 2018; Wikipedia[Hebrew]:Wikipedia). It is important to note that there is some inherent tension between these two proclaimed goals: on the one hand, Wikipedia draws its inspiration from models such as the Ancient Library of Alexandria, which strived to collect all human knowledge under one roof; on the other, its forefathers are the encyclopedias of the Enlightenment, which were characterized by the systematic selection of knowledge considered worthy of inclusion.

An image estimating the size of a printed version of Wikipedia as of August 2010. (Up-to-date image using volumes of Encyclopædia Britannica). Retrieved Sept. 14, 2018 from:

But what happens in cases like “Muslim/Jewish Nobel-Prize Winners”?

Logically, one might assume that editors who espouse a cathedral approach would suggest a similar path for both articles: either delete both, since they don’t possess enough encyclopedic value, or keep both, to maintain the site’s uniform ethos. In line with the former approach, one editor argued that “a scientist’s religion has no significance for winning a Nobel prize”; in line with the latter approach, one editor claimed that “whoever voted to keep Jewish Nobel Prize Winners and delete the Muslim article suffers from a lack of neutrality.”In principle, the online environment in which Wikipedia operates makes it possible to return to the earlier, indiscriminant model. Yet at the same time, Wikipedia’s editors generally agree that a distinction must be made between “what can be written about and what should be written about.” In practice, therefore, approaches towards inclusivity or selectivity may be located along a continuum ranging from what (following Eric Raymond’s work on software engineering methods) editors refer to as a bazaar approach – viewing Wikipedia as a vast marketplace in which most topics can be included – to a cathedral approach, emphasizing selectivity.

In practice, however, in specific cases such as these, many editors advanced arguments that did not seem to correlate with their broader approach to issues of selectivity. For example, some editors explained that articles should not be judged only on “encyclopedic worthiness,” but also on the degree to which they serve specific values that they perceive as important for the local Jewish-Israeli community. Thus, one editor who supported deleting the “Muslim Nobel Prize Winners” entry but keeping the “Jewish Winners” category intact claimed that:

Some of you have argued throughout this discussion that “Judaism” is a nationality while “Islam” [is a] religion, a category we should not use to classify Nobel Prize Winners […]. If we accept this position, it will pave the way to entries about other nationalities. And then, what shall we do with Nobel Prize Winner Yasser Arafat? Will we create a list or category for Palestinian Nobel Prize Winners? It is well accepted that the Palestinians are not a nation […]. The definition of Palestinians as a nation [has a high price].  Hebrew Wikipedia would not be able to afford such an own goal. [Therefore,] there is only one solution […] – Keep Jewish Nobel Prize Winners and get rid of all other lists. No one can underestimate this incredible achievement that has to do with the Jewish Genius (and not religion, nationality or race).

It seems that this editor believes that an article acknowledging Jewish Nobel Prize Winners on the basis of nationality might lead to the creation of a “Palestinian Nobel Prize Winners” category, which would not only legitimate the prize given to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but also acknowledge the Palestinians as a nation. This acknowledgement, as can be inferred from his claim that “It is well accepted that the Palestinians are not a nation,” contradicts not only the editor’s personal political views but also the Hebrew Wikipedia community’s views as he perceives them – as can be seen in his definition of this scenario as an “own goal.” The editor sees the existence of such an article on Hebrew Wikipedia as harmful to the Jewish-Israeli national cause, and thus as something the editors should not espouse.

Just like items considered damaging to the Jewish-Israeli cause were judged to be worthy of deletion by some editors, these same editors argued for the inclusion of items considered to be beneficial for the image of Israel or the Jewish people, even when these items did not pass the threshold for inclusion based on their traditional “cathedral,” selective approach. Thus, for example, the same “Jewish Nobel Prize Winners” article was described as a matter of national pride by one editor, and therefore as worthy of inclusion:

If this article gets deleted then we might as well just close down the entire Hebrew Wikipedia […]. Jews won 152 Nobel Prizes (as of 2006) and make up 20% of Nobel Prize winners. This percentage is 100 times more than their relative proportion in the general population.

In other words, it seems that the existence of an article which is consistent with the Jewish-Israeli character that editors believe Wikipedia should preserve and nurture is part of how editors perceive Hebrew Wikipedia’s role. The eventual deletion of the article about “Muslim Nobel Prize Winners” and the retention of “Jewish Nobel Prize Winners” supports this claim.

Wikipedia Editors – The Educational Approach

The discussions on deletion pages point to the tensions that exist between different approaches to Wikipedia. In particular, it seems that there are tensions that arise when editors’ belief in Wikipedia’s need to be selective clashes with their belief in its need to be educational and to promote what they perceive as cherished local-national and religious values. In such cases, editors may support the inclusion of articles that have little encyclopedic value based on the selective standards they themselves apply in other circumstances, if these items serve local national goals.

Hebrew Wikipedia is part of a project whose declared ethos is communal and egalitarian. Nonetheless, when a local-national-religious issue stands in conflict with this agenda, as in the case of the deletion or inclusion of articles regarding Jewish or Muslim Nobel Prize Winners, it appears that Jewish-Israeli solidarity trumps other allegiances for at least some editors. At the same time, Hebrew Wikipedia is still in its (relatively) early stages. It remains to be seen whether this ideological elasticity and the dynamic nature of decisions will remain so over time.



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