On May 2, 2019, both Dr. Rima Najjar, a Palestinian retired professor from Al-Quds University, and I were banned from Quora. Quora is a question/answer social media platform and we were co-administering two “Spaces” devoted to Palestine-related topics (“Spaces” are innovative sites similar to “Groups” in Facebook). Dr. Najjar is now preparing to sue Quora for discrimination, because, as her lawyer Rima Kapitan writes in the settlement letter, Najjar’s ban is based solely on “her advocacy for Palestinian rights through her opposition to Zionism” and for “unlawfully deny[ing] her access to a place of public accommodation on the basis of Dr. Najjar’s national origin.”
In lieu of litigation, Najjar proposes (among other demands) that Quora reinstate her account as well as mine. I was banned, not for my content, but simply because I supported Dr. Najjar and reposted one of her posts.
When Dr. Najjar and I first started collaborating on Quora it was with the idea that my Jewish background would offer her some kind of protection against accusations of anti-Semitism. While there are qualms in the activist community when Jewish voices are privileged over those of Palestinians, in this case it was different. Dr. Najjar is a strong writer, so there was not so much danger of my voice overpowering hers. As often as possible, I tried to counter the legion of Zionists on Quora with an alternative Jewish voice.
Nevertheless, my answers were not targeted near as often as her writing. This would seem to support the contention that her ban was a case of censorship partly due to her national origin. Her content, which countered the Zionist “narrative” so long imposed on the struggle for justice in Palestine, was a problem for those busily disseminating hasbara content. Being philosophically and politically in agreement, she and I collaborated in answering questions. More often than not, Dr. Najjar edited my writing so that the ideas stood out more clearly. And yet, I was never a target of attacks that she received.
So, I have to wonder – Why did Quora treat my writing differently than Dr. Najjar’s? Her answers were “collapsed,” or made unviewable by site moderators, more often than my own and was temporarily banned from editing several times. Even after we were both permanently banned, my answers remain on my profile in Quora; while her hundreds of well-researched answers have been completely erased.
I totally agree with the legal theory expressed in Dr. Najjar’s settlement letter. There is no doubt that she was banned because of her Palestinian nationality, which hasbara systematically denies even exists – “Arab” nationality, yes, but not Palestinian.
Other Jewish writers and readers on Quora felt they could more easily bring me back into the fold, whereas many, especially Israeli Jews, who are strongly represented there, consider Palestinians as Other, never to be admitted into chosen ranks. At one point, one of the administrators for a Space called “Strength in Unity,” a space devoted to Palestinian/Jewish dialogue (and really one of the clearest examples of “normalization” I have ever come across), tried to convince me that our Jewish rituals are all linked to Israeli landscapes, so it would be good for me to switch my love of the New Mexican desert, where I live, over to my “homeland” which she felt should be Israel. When that didn’t work, I’m pretty sure she reported me as violating the Be Nice, Be Respectful policy.
Dr. Najjar speaks from her own firsthand experience, which more clearly threatens Israeli hasbara. My own knowledge comes from books, conversations with Palestinian friends, and online news sources from Palestine. When someone posed a question about “what the Zionists did to Rima Najjar’s family,” I answered it for her, drawing from my own knowledge of her family history as well as what she has written. Immediately there came pushback that Dr. Najjar must have dictated the answer because apparently a Jewish person could not, or would not, have written with such authority about the Nakba.
Rima Najjar breaks Zionist stereotypes about what a Palestinian woman should be—submissive, uneducated, and tied to the family’s house. Dr. Najjar did not need me to protect her – and, in the end, I failed, anyway. She handled herself with grace and strength, always clear in her convictions, but that was not enough to counter the concerted effort of groups like the Israel Forever Foundation, which runs pieces such as Varda Epstein’s in which she describes how she “fight[s] back” against pro-Palestinian voices on social media, including Quora. Using military terms, she vows to “obliterate” any anti-Israel bias that she finds. “Because this is war, Habibi,” she declares, thereby announcing a war of words that she will win by default if there are no Palestinian voices left on Quora.
Epstein is not fighting this war alone. A recent article in Mondoweiss documents that Israel has issued a new call for “social media warriors” who will be tasked with “encourag[ing] grassroots events and online initiatives against the BDS [boycott] movement and in support of Israel.” I can attest to this because as a Jewish writer who supports BDS, I’ve received a fair share of hateful comments, too.
I believe this is an important case for several reasons. Because many of these posts contain Islamophobic material, this trend contributes to an increase in such crimes against not only Arabs but all people of color. For example, Quora refused to delete the account of an individual who repeatedly called an Egyptian Quora user a Nazi because he wrote that Hamas generally does not act outside of international humanitarian law. After several days the comments were deleted, but the damage to the Egyptian man was done. This kind of misinformation is spread on social media at an alarming rate, but without writers such as Dr. Najjar, there are no Palestinian voices to counter it.