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Retired professor sues for reinstatement on Quora after ‘Palestine’ banning

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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.

Benay Blend

Benay Blend received her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She has contributed articles to The Palestine Chronicle.

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17 Responses

  1. Boomer on January 27, 2020, 9:46 am

    So the word “Zionist” is hate speech? Wow. I imagine it must depend on context. Presumably, it’s okay to be pro-Zionist. Sorta like it’s okay on some websites to show a female breast in the context of breast feeding, but not otherwise.

  2. lyn117 on January 27, 2020, 11:55 am

    Hate speech if you note historical facts about some Zionist actions, such as mass murder ?

    Hate speech if you note that Israel practices racist policies against the indigenous people of its land?

  3. bcg on January 27, 2020, 1:53 pm

    More on the attempt to squash speech about Israel, here’s a 972 article on the Fieldston firing of an anti-Zionist teacher:

    On January 9, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School — an elite private school in the Bronx known for its diversity and progressive values — fired JB Brager, a 31-year-old history teacher. Brager, who is Jewish, had expressed views on Twitter that were anti-Zionist and in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Brager’s firing appears to be the latest instance in a trend, trickling down from colleges to high schools, in which educators whose politics challenge the mainstream Zionist narrative about Israel are punished for their political views.

  4. punterweger on January 27, 2020, 2:24 pm

    Obviously a reprehensible act, but unfortunately at this point a lot of the sites we rely on for information have very similar biases – Wikipedia for example. I once tried to edit their page on Ayalet Shaked to include some of her FB posts that called for genocide. But good luck with that, I got nowhere. The entire process is extremely laborious and intransparent.

  5. JWalters on January 27, 2020, 7:45 pm

    It has become obvious that Israel has a full court press on to eliminate as much criticism of Israel as possible from the web. They even delete especially informative comments from web discussion forums, even comments that have been approved by a forum and have been up for a couple of days. Looks like they have a hacking brigade for that. So no tactic is too sneaky or underhanded. This should not be surprising, since these people justify mass slaughter and robbery. Their evil must be resisted at every point. Thank you Rima Najjar!

  6. Rashers2 on January 28, 2020, 2:00 pm

    Good luck with the lawsuit! Several years ago, I was banned by Quora and couldn’t be a*sed to pick a fight with them although, since I was never profane or racially pejorative, I suspect that it was owing to frequent use of similar “key words”.

  7. PaulMerrell on January 28, 2020, 10:39 pm

    The court documents in Merrimac v. Quora can be accessed here.

  8. Boomer on January 29, 2020, 6:58 am

    When I turned on the radio this morning I heard BBC world service interviewing a Zionist. I infer that she was Israeli, but I’m not sure. I missed the introduction, and had to turn it off rather quickly. She was explaining to the interviewer (who had mentioned the billions of aid that was being offered to the Palestinians) that to implement the Trump plan it would be necessary to get rid of the Palestinian leadership. “Palestinians could have enjoyed a paradise, but chose to be terrorists instead,” she said [or words to that effect, I’m quoting from memory, it’s not exact.]

    I”m accustomed to hearing Zionists blame the Palestinians, of course, but this was particularly irritating. I couldn’t listen to more.

    If Zionists now wish to label the use of the word as “hate speech,” surely it is because at some level they understand how hateful their behavior has been, and continues to be.

    • lonely rico on January 29, 2020, 10:44 am

      Stanley L. Cohen –
      In accordance with international humanitarian law, wars of national liberation have been expressly embraced, through the adoption of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (pdf), as a protected and essential right of occupied people everywhere.

      “Palestinians could have enjoyed a paradise, but chose to be terrorists instead,”

      Zionist ignorance and racism on full display.

      The Palestinians didn’t choose terrorism, they had it forced on them by the relentless violence – murder, rape, pillage, theft, destruction – of their Zionist invaders/oppressors.

      The great irony of this nonsense is that Jewish refugees might have enjoyed paradise in Palestine,
      but chose Zionism instead.

      Bravo to Rima Najjar. You are owed an apology.

  9. JoeSmack on January 30, 2020, 1:18 pm

    If someone were trying to prove how quixotic, short-sighted, and clueless Palestine activism in the United States had become, they would cite Rima Najjar suing a private internet company for being racist.

    I, too, have experienced Zionist racism from social media companies. It can be frustrating but honestly what a waste of time and resources. I wouldn’t be surprised if the attorneys who filed the suit get some sort of reprimand from the court.

    • Eric Blair on February 1, 2020, 3:59 pm

      Najjar’s lawsuit is a futile gesture that underscores how fragmented and atomized the Palestinian resistance movement, and indeed most other social movements, have become in this age of neoliberal hyper individualism. The internet, which was embraced and hyped by many activists as a liberating tool that will make communicating and organizing easier and more efficient and effective, thus increasing the power and reach of social justice, anti-imperialist and national liberation movements, has had the exact opposite effect. These movements are more disunited than ever and lack the coordination and strategic planning required to mount an effective resistance that resonates with and draws in a wider public.

      The internet has turned out to be a massive bait and switch operation. The giddy expectations of liberty and emancipation through open communication turned out to be naive after all and the internet is being used by western governments, their intelligence agencies and affiliated media outfits and NGOs as a propaganda platform to aggressively push a pro-western, pro-Zionist narrative with any and all opposing viewpoints shut out and discredited via any means necessary, including censorship and smear campaigns against individuals and organizations.

      The western liberal democracies are quickly becoming totalitarian surveillance states yet this fact is barely ever discussed in activist circles. There is instead a kind of desperate belief that oh things will get better eventually. But they won’t unless people can unite in large numbers and demand that things change. The civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labour movement, the anti-Apartheid movement saw mass mobilizations of people, sometimes risking life and limb, taking to the streets and public spaces and making nonnegotiable demands of those in power.

      There is no equivalent of this today.

      In 2020 governments do what they want (e.g. weekly Israeli massacres of peaceful protesters, provocatively assassinating foreign leaders, torturing journalists like Assange and Manning) and the media either ignores it completely or backs them up all the way. No protests, no nothing. The European countries and the UN, that at least used to offer token complaints over Israeli war crimes, now say nothing or are supportive of Israel’s “right to defend itself.” In 2020 launching an aggressive imperial war wouldn’t even require fake WMD “evidence” it would just be done and the media would cheerlead all the way.

      All the horror scenarios floated post-911 about permanent war and a creeping global surveillance state are coming true, yet those in the west who ought to be ringing the alarm bells are silent or in denial about what is happening in plain sight.

      A bunch of individual “Davids” taking uncoordinated and random potshots at the massive and very coordinated “Goliath” of the western (including Israeli) information warriors (corporate social media, media, intelligence agencies, think tanks) that preach what amounts to a doctrine of Judeo-Christian global supremacy while banning and shutting down all opposing voices, is about as effective as relieving oneself into the wind.

      Even good sites like this one and many others are often basically an online equivalent of sitting at the pub, coffee shop or wherever and having a chat or cathartic rant amongst likeminded individuals. It might feel good on a personal level, but what is it actually achieving?

      These things need to be talked about openly. Pretending, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that totalitarianism “can never happen here” is not going to have great results. At the very least serious activists have to find ways of communicating using tools that aren’t owned and controlled by the establishment or open to government surveillance and time is running out.

      • RoHa on February 2, 2020, 12:52 am

        “It might feel good on a personal level, but what is it actually achieving?”

        I hope it is spreading greater knowledge of the I/P situation, teaching rational thought, and promoting correct usage of commas.

        But I think you do have a good point. The Yellow Vest protests in France look like genuine popular resistance (which is why they get much less media support than the Extinction Rebellion nonsense), but they seem to be the only ones. Perhaps there are other protests that have slipped my notice.

        I have no ideas on how to arouse the general public in the manner achieved by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Israel is not a member of the Commonwealth, and has succeeded in destroying the British Labour Party and dominating the other major parties in the world.

        But I am not totally pessimistic. In 1975 I was an active member of the National Referendum Campaign (the NO campaign). The Keep Britain in Europe campaign gained the majority then.

        In 2016 many of the “Yes” voters, after forty years of experience, changed their minds and voted “Leave”. And it has finally happened.

        So sometimes things do, eventually, work out. This gives me just a tiny, feeble, glimmer of hope that the Palestinians might succeed in getting full rights in a single state.

      • Mooser on February 2, 2020, 2:16 pm

        “The Keep Britain in Europe campaign gained the majority then”

        Awwww, too bad.

        But now, with the Brexit victory, Britain will have a chance to prove it was Britain’s membership in the EU which keeps Britain from being self-sufficient, and caused a case of Sundowners to the British Empire.

  10. JustJessetr on February 2, 2020, 3:39 pm

    Privately run websites are a private party. Unfortunately they can boot off whoever they want.

    Leftist marketers and programmers and activists need to collaborate on a project that must grow as powerful as a Quorum, or Facebook

    • Mooser on February 2, 2020, 5:13 pm

      “Privately run websites are a private party. Unfortunately they can boot off whoever they want”

      By a simple majority vote, or does it take a three-quarters majority?

  11. Ronald Johnson on February 10, 2020, 4:53 pm

    It might help, at this late date, to retrieve the meaning of “hate”. The noun form used to be “hatred”, but it’s been shortened to “hate”. The verb has become the noun, dependent upon the context.

    Pending further revision, the dictionary definition of “hate” is, “intense dislike”. Not a crime at all.

    But it has been criminalized , in that we are urged to oppose HATE, with punishments applied to the vague notion of “hate speech”. Soon, a revision will be required for the First Amendment, to establish a fine mesh of definitions for “hate speech”. But so far, muddling the language has served well enough to throttle our right to express feelings of intense dislike.

    • RoHa on February 11, 2020, 1:37 am

      “Hate speech” means “anything said by anyone who expresses anything less than enthusiastic and uncritical agreement with the fashionable line”, and “anything said by anyone you don’t like”.

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