My brother and I often discuss Palestine/Israel (what else is new?) even across continents in long skype conversations.
Recently, what with the trauma in our lives of its approaching 70th-year commemoration, the Nakba was on our minds. He asked me what I thought was the most important factor that contributed to the creation of Israel in Palestine. My brother was wondering if there was a factor that sustains Israel today more than others and how that might be connected to the past.
I suggested he ask me this on Quora, so I could answer it there publicly, rather than go on with the private conversation. He did so, using pretty much the same words I used previously to describe the topic of inquiry.
To both our great surprise, the bot in Quora flagged his question, first as “This question may need editing”, followed by “This question has been marked as needing improvement and will be in a restricted state until edited.”
“Needing improvement” is a nebulous notice on Quora (it is unclear to me if it comes from a person or a bot). To take a stab at receiving an explanation of cryptic notices like this one, there is an interesting and useful blog on Quora called “Collapse Detectives”, in which people who follow the blog get to help those of us struggling to understand the motivation behind Quora policies and notices.
The people who give advice and clarification on the forum are often popular and successful writers who have been members of the Quora community for much longer than I have and possess good insights.
I posted a query regarding the notice related to my brother’s question on Collapse Detectives: “What’s wrong with the wording of this question?”
The discussion that ensued was astonishing in what it revealed about the workings of a community’s standards on social media when it comes to Palestinian and Israeli sensitivities.
Two discussions stand out. One with Joyce Fetteroll, whose area of expertise is in psychology and perception, and Altuğ Gür, who answers questions about a variety of subjects, often with humor.
Keep in mind as you read the following excerpts from the public conversation that both writers have no stake in the political issue of “the Middle East” but are out there on Collapse Detectives to help explain Quora’s policies, as they understand them to mean or possibly as they may have participated in setting them (I am not sure how “helping set policy” actually works in practical terms on Quora).
Altuğ Gür believed that the Quora policy guiding the correct wording of questions is designed to delete assumptions behind phrases or terms. Joyce Fetteroll explained that the thrust of the policy is to keep language neutral, and “That means being aware of how different people will interpret the words… Politics can go into answers. Questions are intended to be neutral. That way both Palestinians, Israelis and any others interested in the history of the area can provide an answer from their own view.”
Generally speaking, I agree that the policy as Joyce describes it above is a good policy. I get my share of “troll” questions about Palestine on Quora, and I am glad there is a policy that flags such questions.
But when it comes to applying this policy to the specific example at hand — i.e., referring to “Palestine” as “Palestine” rather than “the place where Israel is created”, I part ways with Joyce and Altuğ.
I responded with:
You say, “Quora wants questions worded neutrally. That means understanding that others will interpret through their own understanding.” I am saying that this policy has crossed into censorship on the issue of Palestine. You are saying the “reader” or “Quora community” decides which words in the English language are provocative and which are not. The word “Israel” is provocative, I am willing to bet, to a good section of the Quora community, not to mention people coming across Quora questions on Google worldwide. Does that mean we should remove that word from the question lexicon on Quora?
Nevertheless, I had to cave in and asked Joyce to kindly edit the question based on her understanding of what’s acceptable on Quora. She did as follows: “What were the major factors that contributed to the creation of Israel where it is today? Are those factors still important in global politics on the issue?”
My brother was shocked and commented:
I see that my question has been “edited” replacing “Palestine” with “where it is today” by way of avoiding the word “Palestine”!!!! Is “Palestine” the same as “where it is today”? Where it is today is Israel, not Palestine!!!!!
Unpersuaded by the new wording as well was a participant (Nathan Ali) on the forum, who commented:
It’s also a question of how one sees the Overton Window. Here’s a great timeline to show the absurdity of censoring the P-word. Would the quote from Shakespeare below not be allowed?:
Circa 1603: Shakespeare’s Othello, Act4 Sc.3 ll38–9
EMILIA: I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.
At the point of my writing this blog post, there is still one answer to that question (mine) on Quora . I don’t understand what other “point of view” the new wording is meant to facilitate.
Joyce Fetteroll wrote, “Diplomacy is about helping people understand each other.”
I wonder: What exactly are Israelis and Palestinians supposed to understand about each other from answers to such an unnaturally worded question or from a policy that makes it taboo to use the word “Palestine” in context in the question.
I am afraid that people in the Quora community who ask questions (which “belong” to the community, not the questioner, as Joyce explained), may get the idea that there is a factual question mark related to the word “Palestine”.
We wound down the discussion with the focus continuing to be on “perceptions” as follows:
And the point I’m trying to make is the word IS provocative to other people. You don’t get to declare that a word is universally not provocative.
The area was called Palestine when Israel was established. That is a fact. But the word Palestine has since then had multiple meanings, some of them with a lot of emotional baggage.
Suggesting everyone can only interpret the words as “historical Palestine” when that’s the context the OP used it in is like arguing that no one should get upset if I ask how niggers were treated in 1600 because the first derogatory use of the word wasn’t until 1775. It’s unreasonable for me to assume no one will be upset.
What I take from your comment and specifically the example you give, Joyce, is something that is truly astonishing to me; that the word Palestine in reference to a place as it was called on maps for a long period in history is akin, in its provocative connotation, to the use of the word “nigger”. This is like suggesting the word “Palestine” in the context of the question I pose is very much like the “F — -” word in terms of its potential to provoke!
You say, “questions belong to the community not the original poster.” I am commenting on the hypothetical question we are discussing as a member of the community.
I did not intend for you to transfer the pejorative sense of “nigger” to the word Palestine. And yet you did.
Gee, why wasn’t I able to control that?
I don’t want to get dragged into whether there’s Palestinian censorship on Quora. I’m can, though, help you word a question neutrally.
In the meantime, the heartbreaking shouting to the outside world and knocking on the tank wall while suffocating (as Ghassan Kanafani’s extended metaphor in his novella ‘Men in the Sun’ goes) to declare the existence of Palestine continues on social media, as in this video clip:
In a way, I can understand what Joyce Fetteroll says about provocative perceptions. I finally started watching Mad Men the other day and was enjoying it, until suddenly, out of the blue, a man “from the Israeli ministry of tourism” shows up at the advertising company: “We’d like to think that if Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East (READ Arab world), Haifa can be the Rome.” I was so provoked, I turned the TV off.
Members of the Quora community who are provoked by the mention of “Palestine” in a question must believe that the mere mention of “Palestine” counteracts the whitewashing and normalization of Israel as a Jewish, settler-colonial state, which is why censorship of Palestinian speech on the one hand and Israeli propaganda and “branding” on TV (see Shame! The Good Wife Does A Good Job Of Branding Israel) and on social media on the other go hand in hand.
It appears that, on the 70th annual commemoration of their Nakba, Palestinians exist, not exactly nowhere, but in a surreal parallel universe.