The World Thirsts for Knowledge about Jews and Israelis
In April 2014, the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL) reached a milestone by attracting more than 1 million unique visitors. In 2013, we reached nearly 10 million people, more visitors than the world’s most popular museums, and expect to exceed that number this year. The growing multitudes that look to the JVL are an indication of the worldwide interest in Jewish and Israeli history, politics and culture.
Why do so many people come to the JVL?
It is because of its reputation for the breadth of the subjects it includes – a collection of nearly 30,000 documents and graphics covering everything from anti-Semitism to Zionism – and its reliability.
Visitors to the JVL come from every corner of the planet – 235 countries and territories. Though most come from the U.S. (68%), U.K., Canada, Australia and Israel, the top ten countries also include India and the Philippines. In the Middle East, the top visitors after Israel are Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
The JVL is also reaching its main target audience of young people, with about 47% of our visitors between 18 and 34 and 62% between 18 and 44. Seniors also use the JVL, with 14% of our traffic aged 65 or older. In terms of gender, it’s nearly an even split with 52% female visitors and 48% male.
Back in 1997, the web was just becoming popular and it became de rigueur to have a company site; therefore, I created one for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). It soon became evident that my interns and other students did not read or refer to books; instead, they typed furiously on their keyboards. If they did not immediately find what they were looking for, they concluded the information did not exist; often prompting me to point to a book on the shelf behind them that answered their inquiry.
At that time the web had little information about Israel, and what it contained was generally hard to find and not very good. Predicting that students would soon come to rely on the web, I decided to create a one-stop shop where a student could find the answer to any question they might have about Israel. The goal was not to reinvent the wheel but to get permission from the best existing sites to post their material (listing them as a source with a link back to their site) in an easy-to-use compendium. Fortunately, organizations were very generous in allowing us to use material, which benefitted both AICE and the source because it multiplied the number of eyes that would see the articles. We wrote our own original material as well and obtained as many original documents as possible.
What applied to Israel also was relevant to every other topic related to Jewish history. Students needed answers to questions on any subject. Dr. Frankenstein had created a monster because the site, the Jewish Student Online Resource Center (JSOURCE), would need to cover more than 5,000 years of Jewish history, a task that was impossible. Still, we would try our best, and focus on encyclopedia-type articles. We left daily news to media sites, but prepared analyses to help visitors understand current events.
We also did not want the site to advocate a point of view beyond a positive attitude toward Judaism and Israel. Some material can be viewed as critical of Israel or exposing some of its flaws. Articles also touch on various aspects of controversial issues such as settlements and the peace process. We prefer that visitors draw their own conclusions from studying the material, especially original documents, such as peace treaties, State Department cables and other archival material. For those looking for specific facts to refute popular myths about the conflict in the Middle East, we offer the text of the book, Myths and Facts. AICE also publishes a free college level textbook, an online collection of articles about different subjects related to Israel written by some of Israel’s leading scholars. new chapters and updates are made regularly to the Israel Studies Anthology making it more timely that a printed textbook .
We redesigned the site in 2001 and changed the name to the Jewish Virtual Library. A source of pride is that we often acquire material that few, if any other sites have, such as the Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, Holocaust photos taken by GIs that have never been seen before and documentation of Israel’s relations with each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
The Library also includes the Virtual Israel Experience, an educational tool and virtual tour of Israel designed especially for students going on Birthright and other trips to Israel. The VIE highlights Israel’s ancient history, accentuated against its timeless beauty and modern culture. The Jewish History World Tours allow users to virtually visit Jewish communities across the world to learn about their history and culture. The goal is to educate visitors about Jewish heritage, the development of Judaism, the changing nature of Jewish communities and the connection between the Jewish past and present.
We also receive many questions, some strange, others thoughtful. The two most frequent questions for many years were: “Was Hitler Jewish?” and “Why do Jews put stones on graves?” The answers to both and many more questions can be found in the JVL.