On December 31, 2019, attorneys for Rima Najjar, a retired professor of English literature at Al-Quds University, filed a suit against the question-answer website Quora in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, arguing the site had unlawfully banned her from posting and moderating a forum. The row centers around the use of the word “Palestine” and “Zionist,” the latter of which Quora said constituted “hate speech.”
Najjar joined Quora in 2016 and leading up to her ban she was one of the most viewed contributors writing about Palestinians and Zionism. According to the complaint, filed by Daniel Siegel of Siegel, Yee, Brunner, and Mehta, and Rima Kapitan, of Kapitan Law Office, Quora repeatedly subjected Najjar to several temporary bans and “collapsed” or withdrew her answers from the main list of answers to a question, before implementing a permanent ban. The temporary bans followed complaints from other users.
Initially, Najjar attempted to resolve the matter directly with Quora, but to no avail.
Then on May 2, 2019, Quora banned Najjar permanently. Her lawsuit accuses moderators ignored their policy of objectivity, as noted in the company’s guidelines, and instead evinced hostility towards her based on her national origin as a Palestinian, and her political opinions. In doing so, the self-identified public forum was not in compliance with the very neutral policies which it professes to hold.
In one forum, Najjar was asked to relate her family’s dispossession from Lifta. Najjar said this was a painful subject for her to discuss. In response, some Quora users claimed Najjar’s knowledge of her family history was fabricated. Najjar’s father hails from the Palestinian village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Lifta was depopulated by Israeli forces and Zionist militias during a series of attacks beginning in 1947.
Najjar’s posts on Lifta were temporarily collapsed, meaning hidden on the forum. Quora later told her some of her posts were collapsed by “in error,” according to the complaint.
“Quora initially prohibited her from using the word ‘Palestine’ in questions because the term was deemed controversial,” the complaint said. “Dr. Najjar explained why Palestinians should be permitted to use that term, and Quora refrained from further collapsing her answers for that reason.”
The complaint states Najjar “noticed that there were comparatively few Palestinian and anti-Zionist writers on Quora and sought to fill a void by providing well-researched posts that informed the Quora audience about Palestinian history and rights.”
In one instance Najjar used the term “Zionist” directed at another poster. After banning Najjar Quora told her this violated their “Be Nice, Be Respectful” policy. Specifically, she was told via email that Quora moderators defined discussion of anti-Zionism as “hate speech,” clarifying that “if you write a lot of content that is anti-Zionist and then call out people for being Zionists, then you’re using this term in a pejorative way with the intent to derogatorily label that person.”
Months after Najjar’s removal from the site, Quora still hosts numerous pages with commenters using the terms “Zionist” and “Palestine.”
As her attorneys argued “Zionism” is in practice “the negation of the right of Palestinians to self-determination in Palestine.” To restrict Najjar from criticizing this movement is to prevent her from “affirming and defending her own Palestinian identity, human rights, and the rights of others who share her national origin.”
My own ban came soon after, not because of discrimination towards me. As a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, I moderated a Quora “space,” a forum within the site, with Najjar called Solidarity Song.” We wrote in the space description,
“We invite you to share posts, links, questions–anything relevant to anti-colonial struggles and post-colonialism (analysis/explanation of the cultural, social and economic legacies of colonialism) round the world. We hope that by sharing our stories we can learn and gain strength and inspiration in order to maintain steadfastness, ‘sumoud’ in Arabic, as we face the oppressor in our various struggles for justice and liberation.”
A second space we ran, “One Km to Palestine” we described:
“This Space of everything Palestine is directed at the group of people, Jews and non-Jews, who have had a conventional introduction to Israel, presented to them as a triumph, the fulfillment of struggle to create a country for Jews around the world, omitting the reality that, for Israel to exist as a Jewish state, the Palestinian people had first to be brutally dispossessed of home and property, their culture and history erased.”
While Najjar’s well-written responses were deleted from the platform, my answers are still visible, thereby illustrating the disparity in our treatment, and signaling inequality based on Najjar’s country of origin.
As compensation Najjar’s attorneys are asking for her reinstatement to Quora; an order preventing Quora from discriminating against users on the basis of anti-Zionist political opinion, Palestinian ancestry and/or Palestinian national origins; and compensation for attorney fees and other litigation expenses, lost income Dr. Najjar could have received through Quora’s Partner Program, emotional distress, punitive damages, and other relief that might be considered proper.
If Najjar wins her case, it could set a legal precedent to counter recent moves by governments and various institutions around the world to deny Palestinians and their supporters the right to free speech about their case.
There could perhaps be impacts on other attempts to censor pro-Palestinian voices, including the firing of a teacher at an elite New York public school over anti-Zionist statements; continued harassment of Students for a Just Peace in Palestine by pro-Israel groups; and Facebook’s censorship of Palestinian news outlets.
As Najjar explains, “I hope that my case will make it easier for Palestinians and supporters of justice in Palestine to speak freely on social media.”
For example, President Donald Trump’s Executive Order that requires alleged anti-Semitic incidents be treated in the same way as forms of discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin” as defined in the federal funding rules in Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In reality, his order gives green light to silence criticism of Israel.
After filing the case Najjar wrote on Facebook on January 1: “What a fantastic way to begin 2020 by fighting back!” The day before she messaged me to inform me that they had just sent the complaint to Quora.
Clearly, she refuses to be silenced by Quora’s ban. Because of her courage in fighting back, various social media platforms, college campuses, and other similar forums might very well have a much more difficult time banning resistant voices.
The case is Merriman v. Quora Inc., 3:19-CV-08472, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.