Meta Extends Ban on the Term ‘Zionist’

A leading antisemitism expert called the move 'problematic'.

by Rivkah Brown

9 July 2024

A man with light brown hair and a suit looks wanly at the camera
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg attends the Senate judiciary committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the US Capitol in Washington, January 2024. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Pro-Israel groups have welcomed a major victory after one of the world’s most powerful technology companies announced it is expanding its ban on the term “Zionist”.

As of Tuesday, Meta will remove content from its platforms – which include Facebook, Instagram and Threads – that uses the term in conjunction with “antisemitic stereotypes”, such as mocking Zionists for having a disease.

The company will also ban any “denials of existence”, “dehumanising comparisons”, “calls for physical harm” and “claims about running the world or controlling the media”.

Speaking to Novara Media, antisemitism expert Brendan McGeever described the announcement as “problematic” and would hamper the fight against genuine antisemitism.


Meta has moderated the use of the term Zionist since around 2019. Its existing rules focus narrowly on two specific instances. One is the comparison of Zionists to rats, which the company says “reflect[s] known antisemitic imagery”. The other is in situations where it’s clear that “Zionist” is a byword for “Jew” or “Israeli”. The latter rule appears to conflate Jews and Israelis, a conflation widely considered antisemitic.

The new rules announced by the company’s Policy Forum mark a significant expansion of its crackdown. In its press release, Meta says it consulted 145 stakeholders – including more than 10 pro-Palestinian, Muslim and Arab organisations, as well as anti-Zionist Jewish organisation Jewish Voice for Peace – about its proposed policy change. It concluded that while for some Zionism is an ideology or byword for the Israeli government and its supporters, “for many, the term is a proxy for Jewish people or Israelis”.

The company has insisted that the policy proposal was not initiated “at the behest of any outside group”, though several commentators have noted that it aligns neatly with the views of many pro-Israel groups. For decades, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, World Jewish Congress and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, not to mention the Israeli state itself, have encouraged the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Their efforts have had considerable success: after a meeting with Labour leader Keir Starmer in 2022, Knesset speaker Mickey Levy told reporters Starmer shared his view that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”.

Meta is still considering whether one further use of the term “Zionist” constitutes antisemitic speech: the comparison between Zionists and criminals (the example the company gives in its summary guidance is “Zionists are war criminals”). The company already bans imputing criminality to any protected group, for example suggesting that gay people are sex offenders. The question of whether Zionism should be considered a protected characteristic in relation to criminality – given that it can refer to the Israeli government or military, whose actions have widely been described as criminal – is now being considered by Meta’s Oversight Board.

Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg assembled the 21-strong Oversight Board, which is modelled on the UN, in 2018 to restore trust in his company that had been severely dented by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Among its ranks are former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.

Quashing dissent.

Meta courted controversy when its policy change was first reported by The Intercept in February this year, prompting 73 civil society organisations – including Amnesty International, the movement for Black Lives and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as several Jewish and Israeli human rights groups – to express their concerns. “This move will prohibit Palestinians from sharing their daily experiences and histories with the world,” they wrote, “and it would prevent Jewish users from discussing their relationships to Zionist political ideology”.

Meta has long been accused of using both overt and covert censorship methods to suppress pro-Palestinian speech – an independent audit commissioned by the company in 2023 found as much, later substantiated by Human Rights Watch. It isn’t just users the company has been silencing, but its own employees.

In January this year, almost 200 Meta workers signed an open letter to Zuckerberg demanding he stop silencing them on Palestine (the letter was made public after being deleted by moderators of Facebook’s internal channels); one of the staffers responsible for the letter is currently under internal investigation. Meanwhile, a Palestinian American former Meta engineer is currently suing the company he claims fired him for attempting to fix bugs suppressing pro-Palestinian content.

Though Zuckerberg himself has been relatively muted about the events in Gaza (beyond calling the 7 October attacks “pure evil”, which the Israeli government rewarded with a personal thank-you note), his deputies have been less discreet.

Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer between 2008 and 2022 who until January sat on the company’s board of directors, is an outspoken Israel advocate. In April this year, she presented the documentary Screams Before Silence, an exposé of Hamas’ alleged sexual violence, having previously co-hosted an event on the subject at the UN’s New York headquarters with the Israeli ambassador to the US. Much of the sexual violence committed by Hamas on 7 October has since been shown to have been substantially misreported.

Brendan McGeever is a senior lecturer at the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. “Meta’s announcement is problematic in two respects,” he told Novara Media.

“First, there are existing frameworks already in place at national and international levels for addressing racism and antisemitism, including the JDA [the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which McGeever co-signed] which gives a much clearer approach to the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Meta’s attempt to add its own definitional approach will bring little clarity to an already contested area.

“Second, Meta’s lists the ‘denial of existence’ as an example of hate speech, but quite what this means is not made clear. Calling for equality for all within a single state may be interpreted by some as a ‘denial of existence’, but it cannot reasonably be understood as antisemitic hate speech. The announcement therefore at best muddies the waters in an area already beset by confusion, and worse, promises to reshape the definition of antisemitism in ways that will further hinder people’s capacity to speak out against Israeli state aggression and in support of justice for Palestinians. In conflating criticisms of Israel with hate speech, Meta’s approach will also hinder our capacity to understand and combat antisemitism.”

Meta did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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