Far from dying down, the decision by the Highland Park Library to allow a reading of a controversial children’s book, criticized by members of the Jewish community as anti-Israeli and supportive of violent insurrection, has continued to roil emotions in the community.
Local residents turned out at a June 24 library board meeting and a July 2 Highland Park Borough Council meeting to voice their outrage or support for the library’s decision to invite Dr. Golbarg Bashi for a public reading of her book, “P is for Palestine” (Dr. Bashi, 2017).
The reading, originally scheduled for May 19, was postponed after the library was inundated with complaints, and a June 5 public hearing of the library’s board of trustees to discuss the matter was cancelled the day before amid fears of crowd control, violence, and congestion.
Instead it was decided that the library would reschedule the program at a later date and also host a similar reading of the children’s book, “I is for Israel” (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016), by Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das. Library director Jane Stanley said neither event has been scheduled because Bashi, an Iranian-born professor of history at Pace University, is out of the country for the summer and will not return until September.
NJJN was not in attendance at the library meeting in June, but residents who turned out at the July council meeting demanded the council take a stand against rescheduling the reading, noting the resurgence of anti-Semitism across the nation, asserting that the book attempts to indoctrinate children, and voicing astonishment that the multi-ethnic Highland Park would agree to host such an event.
“The council should not allow the Highland Park municipal library, as a separate-but-related institution, to promote anti-Semitism,” Ruth Kolton of Highland Park said at the meeting. “Can the library want to teach toddlers that the murder of women and children on buses, pizza stores, on the way home from school or the supermarket is OK?”
Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler told residents that the library board and the town council are autonomous bodies, and the council was not aware that the program was scheduled until the controversy erupted. Moreover, she said she was “appalled” to learn the library had no procedure in place for vetting books for readings.
“I don’t know how it existed so long without such procedures in place, but it did,” said Mittler. The library board has said it plans to develop such a protocol.
During his public comment at the meeting, John Kovac of Highland Park referred to the “Hate Has No Home Here” lawn signs visible on township lawns and urged council members to “live up to the slogan and not make a mockery of it” by allowing the reading of “P is for Palestine.”
Bashi’s book uses the alphabet to highlight issues of importance to Palestinians, including one with the letter “I” for intifada, referring to the two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, with illustrations of a man and child flashing the peace sign behind barbed wire.
Originally the reading was arranged by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a grassroots organization which supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (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.”
In a statement sent to NJJN, central Jersey JVP member Marion Munk said, “Palestinian stories deserve to be told and I am so glad the Highland Park Library has agreed to change their position and allow a reading of the children’s book ‘P is for Palestine’ to proceed. As a proud Jewish member of this community, I’m thrilled that my local library won’t be censoring stories about Palestine.”
Susie Wolf of Highland Park told the council that while she didn’t know if the initial scheduling of the reading was a deliberate attempt to push a pro-BDS, anti-Israel agenda, “Our library is supposed to be a safe, non-political location, not a place where I have to worry about being openly a Jew and a Zionist.”
Addressing the council, Honey Wisotsky of Highland Park cited Bashi’s support for BDS on her website as well as her May 9 tweet calling Israel “a racist fascistic settler colony built on the stolen land of another people.” Wisotsky said children should not have “to be protected from false, unethical, and/or obscene material and presentations.”
“The Highland Park Library controversy highlighted a renewed urgency [for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey] to build on our existing work championing the needs and interests of the Jewish community in the civic arena,” according to federation executive director Susan Antman. She noted that federation announced last month that it would be “stepping up” community relations and advocacy among interfaith members, elected officials, and the broad Jewish community.
“In our diverse Jewish community with varied religious observance, interests, political leanings, and such, there are certain issues that affect every Jew, such as hate. These issues don’t take care of themselves, and no one synagogue, no one Jewish organization, no one sub-set of the Jewish community can go it alone.”
After Bashi’s reading was first announced, the ensuing firestorm attracted the attention of the Zionist Organization of America 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 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 they considered a cancellation unconstitutional, an indication that cancelling the reading could prompt a legal challenge.