Fighting Against Quora’s censorship of Palestinian voices: an interview with Dr Rima Najjar

By Ramona Wadi

“Zionist propaganda on Quora is rampant…” – Dr. Rima Najjar

Erasing Palestinians from Palestine through Zionist colonial forced displacement methods, refined since the 1948 Nakba, is no longer sufficient on its own for Israel.

As global support for Palestinians among people grows, thus providing a challenge to the international complicity upholding the colonial project in Palestine, censorship of Palestinian voices has become an urgent Israeli strategy on social media, as well as a convenient reinforcement to the erasure of Palestinian memory.

The reason is that Israel’s fabricated narratives, upon which its colonial existence is partly founded, is dependent upon a complete absence of Palestinians, their history and memory.

Israeli hasbara, or propaganda, is not a recent endeavour. Even prior to the establishment of Israel, such tactics were employed at an international level, including the UN, to eliminate the possibilities of Palestinians articulating their existence and, as a result, facilitate the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Decades after the Nakba, Israel is moving to colonise online public spaces of expression. In May 2019, Dr Rima Najjar, a Palestinian retired professor of English Literature, researcher and activist, was permanently banned from Quora, a question/answer social media platform, on account of allegedly violating Quora’s “Be Nice Be Respectful” policy.

Dr. Rima Najjar holding up Evelyn Shakir’s Bint Arab. Shakir was a pioneer in Arab-American literature and is revered for being one of the inspirations behind the establishment of Arab-American studies.

Through her lawyer, Najjar is legally challenging Quora’s decision, stating that “the policy is enforced against her because of her advocacy for the national rights of Palestinians, and that the policy is not enforced in the same way against non-Palestinians.”

The litigation letter clearly states, “It is evident that Dr Najjar’s national identity itself is what Quora finds dangerous.”

Jews for Palestinian Right of Return has started a petition on in which they explain: “Although the pretext for the ban was that Dr Najjar violated the site’s ‘Be Nice, Be respectful’ policy, the real reason is that she has rigorously, and with great clarity and insight, explained how Zionism is a racist settler-colonial ideology and the Israeli regime an apartheid state.”

Speaking to the Wry Ronin, Najjar outlines how Zionist propaganda plays out on Quora and and explains how eliminating Palestinian voices from this particular venue results in the proliferation of inaccurate and false information about Palestine and its history that surfaces quickly in a google search. Moreover, Dr. Najjar claims that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Zionist members of Quora, who dominate the platform.

Ramona Wadi: Based on your experiences using Quora, how would you describe Palestinian presence in public spaces?

Dr Rima Najjar: It’s hard for me to gauge Palestinian presence on Quora in terms of membership and readers. But as far as writing goes, there are very few Palestinians writers on Quora. The “most viewed writers” on the topic of Palestine are almost exclusively Zionist of various nationalities, especially Israeli or American-Israeli. Also, on such platforms, it is hard to tell how authentic some accounts are. Fake accounts are easy to establish. Based on an analysis of their writing and commentary on Quora, I felt strongly that one or two writers claiming to be young Palestinian Americans were probably fake accounts. For example, one who claimed to be a 16-year-old Orthodox Christian Palestinian wrote and pinned on her account an answer saying that 98% of Palestinians were “rabidly anti-Semitic” and kept it there, even after I pointed out that the research/poll she was quoting had been conducted by a Zionist organization and is scientifically flawed and unreliable because of the wording of the questions.

Similarly, she posted an answer in which she lauded the openness of US society to religious diversity and compared that negatively to her mother’s hometown in the West Bank. She kept her answer as is, even after I questioned what she claimed to be her mother’s statement, since I knew the town myself having lived close to it for several years. She also did not incorporate in her answer information I provided about the Palestinian legal framework in the West Bank that protects the rights of the Christian minority there.

Ramona Wadi: How does the friction between propaganda and fact play out on Quora?

Dr Rima Najjar: Zionist propaganda on Quora is rampant and pretty much follows the guidelines, almost word for word, outlined in the infamous handbook – see: The Israel Project’s Secret Hasbara Handbook Exposed.

I believe someone could easily use excerpts from Quora answers on the topic of Israel/Palestine to provide examples for every ploy in the Handbook. Some of it is subtle both in style (“On the one hand this; on the other that”) and in the use of deception through framing. Palestinian political history in the 20th and 21st centuries has long been presented by mainstream media and scholarship in the United States as a “conflict” between two sides, Zionist and “Arab,” each with a plausible “claim” to Palestine, rather than as a Palestinian national liberation movement and its revolution against settler-colonialism and ongoing oppression. A focus on the latter continues to be met with false accusations of anti-Semitism, as has happened in the Chicago school district which is withdrawing a “Teaching Palestine” course.

A lot of Israeli propaganda on Quora is also crude and relies heavily on aggressively silencing the Palestinian point of view through intimidation.

Quora’s mission is advertised as “to share and grow the world’s knowledge. The vast majority of human knowledge is still not on the internet. Most of it is trapped in the form of experience in people‘s heads, or buried in books and papers that only experts can access.”

Quora also bills itself as “an American question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, and edited by Internet users in the form of opinions.” There is some contradiction built into these two statements, depending on your understanding of what “knowledge” is and who is meant by “Internet users.”

Let me give you an example. I once answered the following question on Quora: How does Israel silence speech on justice in Palestine? My answer (along with hundreds of other well-researched answers I wrote) is now deleted from Quora content. It was voted down and “collapsed” (i.e., obscured from view) when I first wrote it.

A comparison between the way I approached the question and the approach in the remaining answers that now show up in a google search of the question illustrates how Quora’s content, at least on the topic of Palestine/Israel, cannot be described as “knowledge” and that the predominant opinions expressed are not by a generic section of “Internet users”, but rather by Zionists whose answers are informed by hasbara.

I responded to the question by writing:

There are two major ways in which Israel and its supporters suppress and silence speech on justice in historic Palestine. One is through its activities to encode a new definition of anti-Semitism … In these definitions, criticism of Israel’s political claim on and criminal practices in historic Palestine, based as they are on a monolithic and increasingly disputed Zionist definition of Jewish nationalism and Jewish identity, is deemed anti-Semitic. For a Jewish critique of Israeli state violence and its antithesis to “Jewish values” and identity, see Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Columbia University Press, 2012).

The second major tactic Israel uses to silence speech that calls into question Israel’s legitimacy is Lawfare: ‘a form of asymmetric warfare, consisting of using the legal system against an enemy, such as by damaging or delegitimizing them, tying up their time or winning a public relations victory.’ Lawfare against pro-Palestinian activism is focused on criminalizing the increasingly successful advocacy of the Palestinian-led, global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

If you now google this particular question, your browser will immediately fetch the Quora answers that remain. The “top answer” is by Elke Weiss, an American-Israeli who has 13.3k answers on Quora, is a professed Zionist and whose hasbara answers I have reported many times for their misleading content. At one point she falsely represented herself in a credential as a “historian,” and several people reported her for that misrepresentation as well. But she remains on Quora with a huge number of (most likely) machine-generated answer views of 41.8m. [See Behind Israel’s Troll Army: “Israel’s app is upvoting comments on @reddit and @Quora that argue that Israel cares more about Palestinian civilians than Hamas does, and that Palestinians were never displaced by Israel (Nakba denial).]

Weiss’s answer ignores the mountain of evidence that Israel and its supporters are aggressively engaged in silencing Palestine speech and posits, instead, the hasbara line that “Israel doesn’t silence speech, but Israeli supporters do.” She goes on to make the point that both Palestinians and Israelis silence each other by “shouting and trying to drown the outside out,” falsely equalizing the power each side holds. She concludes with:

“Shame on us both. I include myself, I definitely don’t expand my horizons as much as I should and I verbally spar mercilessly to prove my point.

So, Israel isn’t silencing anyone.

Palestinians aren’t silencing anyone.

We all are just yelling and trying to drown the other side out.

We’re really just silencing ourselves into being noise, instead of productive conversation.”

The second answer by Michael DeMartino, Graphic Designer, says, “For the most part, the Israeli government doesn’t. They have plenty of home-grown groups which argue in favor of Palestinian rights. He goes on to list human rights NGOs in Israel as proof, adding, “Outside of that [banning BDS because it is detrimental to Israeli society] the Israeli government doesn’t ban groups which preach a “Justice in Palestine” type of message.”

This answer wants the reader to view Israel as a democracy that is open to criticism and that is acting in self-defense, not as the oppressor of the Palestinian people that, in fact, it is.

The third and last answer reiterates Weiss’s answer almost word-for-word, an indication that it is coming from a hasbara template. Dave Baron, “Lived on a Kibbutz,” wrote:

“Israel doesn’t silence speech on justice In Palestine. Speech on Justice is drowned out by the masses of pro-Israel commentary. Anyone speaking for Palestine is going to get a lot of pro-Israel people objecting. This makes people speaking for Palestine uncomfortable.

“I read of an American politician who said. “Why would I ever make negative remarks regarding Israel? That would cost me political capital. If I’m going to spend political capitol I’ll spend it on getting a bridge built or recycling centre for my state. Why waste it on Palestine?””

Anyone googling the question will get three answers, all denying an incontrovertible Israeli practice, as Asa Winstanley shows in How Israeli spies are flooding Facebook and Twitter and Inside Israel’s million dollar troll army, and as I show in my deleted answer. Additionally, we have Dave Baron smugly explaining how it is all made possible, not through Israel’s own efforts, but through the effort of its supporters who good at making “people speaking for Palestine uncomfortable”.

Ramona Wadi: Legally and politically, what are your expectations from suing Quora?

Dr Rima Najjar: Legally, I hope the courts will recognize that exclusion of individuals from public spaces because of their expression of Palestinian identity in opposition to Zionism is discrimination based on national origin as well as political opinion. Politically, I seek to create a space on Quora for Palestinians to advocate for their national and human rights without fear of exclusion and censorship. As I said in an answer to the question “What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel?”:

The Zionist movement would have it that Israel speaks for/represents the national rights of Jews worldwide and, therefore, any criticism that delegitimizes Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine is anti-Semitic.

The above reasoning is now being challenged, even in mainstream media. Increasingly, Jews worldwide are rejecting this paradigm that defines their identity. Any Jew who acknowledges Palestinian right of return as legitimate is, in essence, delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state.

But what is the alternative? Many doomsayers can only envision bloodshed and violence. But there are serious and dedicated people today, Israeli Jews and Palestinians, in and out of Israel, who are working to actualize the idea of one democratic state (a single constitutional democracy) in all of historic Palestine. Here is a glimpse of what the political program of such a state would look like.

Among my demands in suing the site is that Quora reinstate my content, reinstate my account, publicly affirm that opposition to Zionism is not “hate speech,” and take steps to preempt discriminatory harassment of Quora users because of their national origin or advocacy on behalf of particular marginalized groups.

I am also demanding Quora acknowledge that the underlying algorithms the site uses to flag violations, far from being value-neutral, reflect racist biases, and that Quora take real steps at reform.

The implicit political argument that seems to thrive on Quora mimics the prevailing dynamics espoused by the international community – requiring purported neutrality from Palestinians while allowing the Zionist ideology to disseminate the elimination of Palestinians through the denial of their existence as a people with complete impunity.

“Internet users” are refusing to accept the same momentum of alienation that has been reached in the diplomatic arena. Despite being made “to feel uncomfortable,” people speaking for Palestine are fighting back.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance journalist and independent researcher featured in Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, MintPress News and more.

Editor’s note:

In a letter to the Wry Ronin, Elke Weiss voiced contention on Dr. Rima Najjar’s comments. To “defend my reputation,” Weiss wrote, she stated her 25,000+ followers on Quora are not machine-generated and added her “historian” status is supported with a bachelor’s degree.

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