Just 24 hours before a June 5 public meeting to discuss an author reading of “P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book,” by Dr. Golbarg Bashi at the Highland Park Public Library, the library’s board of trustees canceled the gathering because of concerns about crowd control, violence, and congestion.
Both supporters and opponents of the reading vowed large turnouts, and Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler told NJJN local authorities estimated that as many as 2,000 people, including a contingent from New York, might have descended on the meeting site, the Highland Park Community Center.
After consulting with Mittler and Police Chief Rick Abrams, and on the advice of counsel, library director Jane Stanley decided to hold Bashi’s reading of the children’s book, originally scheduled for May 19, at a date convenient to the author, a professor of history at Pace University. The library also announced their intentions to schedule a reading of the children’s book, “I is for Israel” (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016), by Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das.
While Mittler said she shared the frustration of those who complained that they did not have a chance to present their positions, she noted, “My primary responsibility is to take care of all residents and to keep everyone safe. I think this is the best outcome and I support the library’s decision.
“We can’t solve the Mideast crisis in Highland Park, but we can live peacefully here.”
“P is for Palestine” (Dr. Bashi, 2017) uses the alphabet to highlight issues of importance to Palestinians. One page of particular concern to those opposed to the author’s appearance writes that the letter “I” is for intifada, referring to the two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, with illustrations of a man and child flashing the peace sign behind barbed wire in Gaza.
Lisa Ben-Haim, a Highland Park resident who was recruiting meeting participants to speak against Bashi’s reading, said the compromise of two children’s books in the library’s calendar “was not a solution.”
“I feel like it’s a conciliatory move and the two events are not equal in any way,” she said. “We all know [Bashi] is a BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel] supporter and her book has a deeper meaning.”
Ben-Haim also said that rather than a peace sign, the man and child on the Intifada page were signaling “V for victory … [which] they use when they commit terrorist acts against Israel.”
The Vaad HaRabonim of Raritan Valley, comprised of the Orthodox rabbinate in New Brunswick, Highland Park, and south Edison, in a May 31 statement said parts of the book can be interpreted as “symbolizing and justifying acts of violence against Jews as part of that culture. Particularly painful is a reference to the term ‘Intifada,’ which the author represents as a generic struggle for justice, but, in actuality, has routinely been used by terrorists as a call to commit acts of violence against innocent civilians.”
In requesting the program be cancelled, the statement said, “The rapturous support this book has received among groups hostile to Israel makes us even more wary of the political agenda behind its publication.”
The library has been inundated with complaints that Bashi’s book was an attempt to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic propaganda while others claimed a cancellation would be tantamount to censorship of cultural information about Palestinians.
As news of the controversy spread and was covered in media outlets as far away as Israel, a decision was made to limit comments at the public meeting to Highland Park residents. Admittance would be capped at 170, the maximum capacity of the room in the community center, with residents given first priority. The only larger space in the town of 14,700 residents is Highland Park High School, which Mittler said was rejected because its numerous entrances and maze of hallways presented a security issue.
The reading had been arranged by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a grassroots organization which supports BDS and, according to its website, is dedicated to the “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians.” However, the Anti-Defamation League describes JVP as “a radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural, and academic boycott of the State of Israel.”
After Bashi’s reading was first announced, the ensuing firestorm attracted the attention of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (AMA). The AMA contacted library officials and said it wasn’t appropriate to cancel an event because of perceived or anticipated controversy, and such action could have legal or financial implications. The library also received a letter signed by the New Jersey ACLU, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and Palestine Legal informing the library that it considered a cancellation unconstitutional, which observers believed to be an indication that cancelling a reading would prompt a legal challenge.
John Kovacs, a lawyer who planned to read a statement at the meeting protesting the program, said he believed the library would have been victorious had the case gone to court.
But Kovacs, a member of Reform Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, compared the book fight to the BDS campaign on college campuses, in which students are intimidated by groups opposing Israel.
“I think the library board was fooled by these people and deprived the community of the opportunity to speak,” he said. “The amazing irony is that [supporters of the reading] used the issue of free speech when these people are oppressors of free speech. They scream Islamophobia to intimidate people.”
“While we’re glad the library ultimately recognized that these complaints were false — and frankly downright racist — the event should never have been cancelled in the first place,” Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath said in a statement provided to NJJN. “Children have the right to hear about Palestinian culture without government censorship.” Palestine Legal describes itself as “an independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom.”
A statement from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey called on “those invested in stemming hate to pause, seize this time for constructive conversation, and work toward peaceful practices that transcend a single book or event.”
After the library announced its compromise, the Vaad issued another statement stating it was “relieved” the situation had been diffused and asked that community members not go to Bashi’s appearance.
That generated a strong response from Brooklyn Councilman Dov Hikind, known for his strong support of Jewish issues, who made an unsolicited phone call to NJJN. Hikind, who has been posting about the controversy on his blog, said he had planned to come to the meeting and vowed to come to Bashi’s reading with demonstrators.
“They [the board] were intimidated, and I promise you there will be a lot of reaction,” he said. The Vaad’s response to the compromise, he said, “was pretty pathetic.”
Ben-Haim, a member of Orthodox Congregation Ohav Emeth, said, “I know the Vaad asked us to stay away from the reading, but at what point do we keep quiet and at what point do we need to be heard?”
Susan Hornstein, a member of Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, said she was glad the meeting was cancelled because the “media circus” would only have benefited those in favor of the “P is for Palestine” book event. But at this point she said, it’s too late.
“We were played. Our community was targeted by a publicity-seeking individual and some groups backing her. They have already won. They have incited rancor in our community and garnered much publicity.”