Controversy heats up ahead of library meeting on ‘troubling’ book reading

Controversy heats up ahead of library meeting on ‘troubling’ book reading

Critics say Palestine ABC distorts meaning of ‘uprising’

Highland Park Public Library had originally scheduled a reading of the controversial children’s book by author Golbarg Bashi, but it was postponed after an enormous public outcry. Photo by Debra Rubin
Highland Park Public Library had originally scheduled a reading of the controversial children’s book by author Golbarg Bashi, but it was postponed after an enormous public outcry. Photo by Debra Rubin

“P is for pathetic.”

That’s how Rabbi Eliot Malomet of Highland Park described the efforts by a group — widely viewed by pro-Israel factions as hostile to the Jewish state — to “politicize” the author’s reading program at the borough’s library.

The book at the center of the controversy is “P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book” by Iranian-American author Dr. Golbarg Bashi.

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) — a national grassroots organization that supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and, according to its website, is dedicated to “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians” — had arranged for the reading, originally scheduled for May 19, of the children’s book by Bashi, its author and a BDS supporter.

The book teaches the alphabet using issues of importance to Palestinians. One page in particular that has drawn outrage: “I is for Intifada…Arabic for rising up/ for what is right, if you are a kid or a grownup!” The accompanying illustration shows a man and child flashing the peace sign behind barbed wire, presumably “imprisoned” by the Israeli occupiers of their land.

In fact, said Malomet, religious leader of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, the two intifadas were Palestinian uprisings against Israel that resulted “in the murder of 2,000 Jews.”

Another Highland Park rabbi, Eliyahu Kaufman of Orthodox Congregation Ohav Emeth, said, “Intifada does not simply mean
‘uprising.’ It means men, women, and children being blown up by suicide bombers.”

After what library officials called an “extraordinary public response,” the event was postponed and a library board of trustees meeting was scheduled for May 20 to decide whether the reading should be canceled outright. With both supporters and opponents vowing large turnouts, the board was forced to reschedule the meeting for June 5, initially to be held in the larger borough council chambers before being moved again to the even larger Highland Park Community Center.

News of the program exploded beyond the municipality’s borders after Franklin resident Rochelle Kipnis, a mother of three who frequents the Highland Park Public Library, noticed the event posted on the library’s website and quickly posted it and her objections to the book on her public Facebook page and on the closed Facebook group Frum HP/Edison, resulting in a slew of protest calls and e-mails.

Susan Gordon, a member of the central Jersey JVP chapter, in a post on her public Facebook page, said the program “was to be the first in a series of collaborations between JVP and local libraries to foster cross-cultural enrichment, tolerance, and conflict management for children.

“Our event, meant to promote tolerance, was canceled due to intolerance and the promulgation of falsehoods about Palestinians,” Gordon wrote.

The ensuing firestorm has attracted the attention of both the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the office of intellectual freedom of the American Library Association (AMA), both of which contacted library officials. The AMA informed the library it wasn’t appropriate to cancel an event because of perceived or anticipated controversy over its content and that such a move could have legal or financial implications.

News of the cancellation was also posted in the AMA’s online magazine and has been picked up in the secular print press, television news, and in the Israeli newspapers Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. Calls and e-mails from NJJN to the Chicago-based AMA were not returned.

A source involved in the issue, who asked not to be identified, told NJJN they believed the matter would ultimately end up in court as an argument over freedom of speech. Library board attorney Michael Cerone did not return calls from NJJN.

The library recently posted an explanatory message on its home-page: “We are a small-town library, with an overstretched staff, that somehow manages to present interesting and exciting programs day after day and night after night. Many of those programs come to us through people well known to the community and the library staff, as did a suggestion for an Author Talk for the book‘P’ Is for Palestine by Golbarg Bashi.”

Gordon accused those who called for the program’s cancellation of “shameful action that will only exacerbate ignorance and hate if it succeeds….” She said it was intended as “a gentle event to help children feel compassion for other children living under a violent military occupation.”

Gordon and JVP did not respond to NJJN requests for comment.

Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s center for law and justice, told NJJN that she or another representative of the organization would attend the June 5 meeting and appreciated the library giving the matter thoughtful attention.

“We were contacted by members of the Highland Park community about this book that will end up misleading and misinforming children, particularly about the concept of intifada as something to aspire to when we all know full well it means murderous attacks on Jews,” Tuchman said.

ZOA’s letter outlined the reasons the program should be canceled, including that the book “promotes and praises violence” and “serves the agenda of a hateful anti-Israel group rather than the mission of the Highland Park Library.”

It was signed by Tuchman, ZOA’s national president Morton Klein, and northern New Jersey chapter executive director Alan Jay.

In a May 8 post on her Facebook page Bashi wrote that she had been scheduled to speak at a “library in NJ,” but “when Israel Advocates found out, they stopped it. So much for the First Amendment and ‘Muslim women’s empowerment.’”

Bashi has not responded to NJJN’s requests for comment.

However, local rabbis and others opposing the program — all of whom made it clear they did not want the book banned from the library — are calling for the cancellation of an event they believe would wrongfully indoctrinate children with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content.

The scheduled reading was “meant to provoke this community, and we kind of took the bait,” said Malomet. “We’re giving it much more attention than it deserves. This book is unoriginal and a blatant set of lies, and it has become a political football among a certain set of people.

“It is a despicable thing the library was sucked into this, and people are responding with a certain sense of outrage. P is for pathetic and P is for propaganda….”

Malomet also lamented that the issue has made the library, which should be a sanctuary, “a denizen of hate” and “a place that is no longer safe for Jews.”

Religious leaders from other Highland Park synagogues have spoken out.

Rabbi Steven Miodownik of Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim told NJJN, “A public library that serves the needs of our diverse community should not be showcasing any book with an overtly political agenda, especially at a children’s event,” he said. “The Jewish community is justified in its calls for the event to be canceled. Although all points of view should be reflected in the library’s holdings, it should steer clear of public events devoted to hot-button topics that invite the media circus we are seeing.”

Rabbi David Bassous of Congregation Etz Ahaim, also Orthodox, called the situation “very disturbing.”

“We have to hold our ground as a community and make our voices known,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to come together and show a united front.”

Kaufman said, “I’m all for freedom of expression, but we should be careful what we say to our children. If she wants to read the book to adults, I have no problem.” He pointed to “so many aspects of this book that are so troubling” and encouraged people “to come to the meeting and advocate and have their voices heard.”

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