Holocaust museum seeks YouTube viewers in Iran

Today Holocaust museum Yad Vashem launched its Farsi-language YouTube channel

How do you say “Holocaust” in Farsi?  You and I may not know, but the world’s largest center dedicated to preserving the memory of Europe’s murdered Jews is hoping millions of Iranians will soon find out – or at least, will learn it in a different context.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem was set to launch the Farsi-language version of its YouTube channel, making available to speakers of the language a number of clips and stories recalling some of the twentieth century’s darkest moments.  This is in addition to the Yad Vashem website which already operates a Farsi-language page.  (I guess they figured more people are likely to stumble across their material on youtube.)

The organization’s goal is to combat the misinformation campaign launched by the Iranian regime, a government which in 2006 hosted an international conference questioning the Holocaust’s validity.  Five years later, it is unclear if any Iranians were actually influenced by the event or by their president’s continued incitement.  (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequently criticizes what he considers international validation of the State of Israel vis-à-vis the Holocaust.)

If the statistics are correct, Israel has an audience in Iran.  Last week, the Israeli tourism ministry released figures showing the number of hits it has had to its own website.  It noted that a surprising number of virtual visitors – indeed, a few thousand – came from countries like Iran.  But it might be a while before Iranians (whose passports say “not valid in Occupied Palestine”) will be booking rooms at Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama.

The figures also noted a number of hits from Arab countries.  But it is not clear why they are visiting these pages.  More than two years ago, Yad Vashem launched the Arabic-language version of its YouTube  site.  Of the dozen or so clips on there, most are survivor testimonials, each receiving a few hundred hits.  By contrast, one clip showing Jews being gunned down in Latvia in May 1945 had over 200,000 views.  Are they checking to see if it is true or simply sadists watching Jews being killed?

Yad Vashem did not invent this strategy of outreach; it is merely its latest promoter. The idea of using the web as a combative tool was set in place nearly half a century ago by the US Department of Defense. But it is no longer just a tool of governments or even quasi-governmental bodies like Yad Vashem. Social networking groups have shown that governments and their borders cannot keep people apart – physically yes, but virtually no. LinkedIn introduces Israeli start-up entrepreneurs to Saudi business investors. MySpace allows a Syrian teen to learn what music an Israeli teen is listening to.

And a Facebook group dedicates itself to “Lebanon & Israel Friendship.” It promotes “happy debating” and is not bound by envoys, military censors or diplomats. Its rules are basic:

1. Argue the views, not the poster. If you insult the poster directly in a manner of swearing, you will be banned.

2. Holocaust denial will not be tolerated.

3. Everyone has the right to their religious freedom, or lack of it.

4. No anti-Semitism will be tolerated or the acceptance and support of killing innocent civilians.

5. Racism will not be tolerated. Argue facts, not nationalities.

6. Any post not made in English (or that does not include an exact English translation) will be deleted.

If the group succeeds in creating friendships, its members will likely call each other using Skype.  Limits are no longer defined by lines drawn on a map but rather by internet connection speed.  And it seems like everyone is catching on.

The Israeli military has its own youtube page and regularly churns out its version of ongoing operations.  The Israeli foreign ministry’s spokesman Yigal Palmor cross-promotes pro-Israel tweets on a regular basis.  And earlier this month, an Iranian television clip showing the alleged confession of an Iranian national who claimed he trained with Mossad agents in Israel went viral on the internet.  Perhaps both sides are hoping mass-information will outweigh misinformation.

There are naturally limitations.  Many governments attempt to block access to a number of these sites specifically for these reasons.  Others choose to allow access, only to then track their citizens and the comments they make.  One contributor on the “Lebanon & Israeli Friendship” page admitted he will be seen as a traitor just for writing anything.  Others fear simple involvement in such an exchange could get them arrested.

In the long run, such restrictive efforts will fail.  This is the direction communications are heading; this is the future battleground over hearts and minds.  One thing is undisputable: whoever the victor, most of us would prefer a war of webpages over a war of weapons.