A few years ago, Iranian author and Rutgers faculty member, Golbarg Bashi, published a children’s alphabet book, P is for Palestine (now out of print). It is an abecedary for children, teaching them words associated with the Palestinian struggle for justice and national rights. Somehow the book has become a cause celebre for the pro-Israel community in the New York metropolitan area. A prominent local rabbi declared the book a travesty and threatened to evict a Manhattan bookstore selling it from the synagogue’s annual book fair. The bookstore caved to pressure and released a statement saying it opposed the book’s content, but continued selling it, hiding it behind the counter as if it was a banned substance.
Then a few months ago, Bashi scheduled another book reading at the Highland Park (NJ) public library. Once again, the Israel Lobby voiced its anger and the Library canceled the event. That’s when Palestine Legal got involved and negotiated an agreement with the Library to reschedule the event to a later date. That was yesterday. To attend the event, one had to call the library to make a reservation. In order to avoid pickets there, both the author and the attendees were forced to enter by the back entrance. These knuckleheads have turned our public libraries into battlegrounds just as anti-abortion campaigners turned clinics into war zones in their battle against a woman’s right to choose.
In the lead-up to the event, two New Jersey pro-Israel groups filed a lawfare suit against both the Library and the town council claiming that they violated federal law by aiding and abetting terrorism:
The…Central Jersey Jewish Public Affairs Committee (CJJPAC)—a pro-Israel advocacy organization…in concert with Zachor Legal Institute, an anti-BDS legal think tank—is launching action against both the borough of Highland Park, N,J., and its library.
…The Zachor Legal Institute, wrote to the Mayor…and president of the Library Board…informing them that the town “appears to be in violation of federal law, including the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) prohibition on providing material support to designated foreign terror organizations.”
…“We understand a number of groups affiliated with the BDS movement have coerced the library into allowing the use of library facilities to spread hate-filled propaganda to children…
We agree with the Lawfare Project that, based on First Amendment law, the library can and should prohibit the reading of a book to children that legitimizes violence.
…The [legal] action will support the removal of federal funding and seeks federal government censure for a town taking federal funds used to promote anti-Semitism. “The nature of the book reading and its propagating of anti-Semitism towards Jews in Israel are believed to meet the definition of anti-Semitism as used by the State Department and the Department of Education.
…Two of the primary promoters of the reading, Samidoun and Jewish Voice for Peace, have ties to organizations that are discriminatory and provide support to terror organizations. Consequently…the reading constitutes a violation of the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”), as well as a potential violation of 18 U.S.C. 2339B (the “Material Support Statute”)…
Needless to say, all of these charges are a pack of lies. Virtually every sentence is a lie, and in some sentences there are multiple lies. The claims will be laughed out of court if these groups dare to bring an actual lawsuit. But that is not the real goal. These shysters know they cannot win. But they can browbeat and hector public bodies like towns and libraries into cutting off the Palestinian community from access to public venues. They can seek to ostracize points of view critical of Israel by transforming them magically into advocacy of terrorism and anti-Semitism.
Now the Town and library face tens, if not hundreds of thousands in legal fees defending themselves from pro-Israel holy-rollers who have nothing better to do with their lives than squelch speech and literature which expresses pride and dignity in the culture and traditions of Palestine.
There are many atrocious things that Israel has done to the Palestinian people. Among them, they’ve criminalized childhood, culture, national identity and language. Now, their foot soldiers in the Diaspora want to criminalize children’s books which express pride in Palestinian identity.
Jews Should Know Better
This reminds me of another tragic episode in the long Jewish tradition of suffering. The Romans too sought to ban a book which threatened the conquerors of Judea, because it taught Jews pride in their culture, identity and traditions. They banned the book and banned its teaching. Anyone caught doing so would be put to death.
The book was the Torah. And one of the rabbis who was executed by the Romans for braving their edict was Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradyon, as portrayed in the Martyrology recited on Yom Kippur:
Rabbi Hanina…also chose to teach Torah in public in spite of the decree, holding a Sefer Torah in his arms. After his capture, they wrapped him in a Sefer Torah and piled branches about him, lit them, and placed wet wool over his heart so that he would not die quickly. He told his disciples what he saw: “The parchment is burning but the letters are flying free!”
Books have always been viewed as seditious by conquerors and tyrants. Those who write and teach books have often been targeted for offending the powerful. But somehow the book haters always lose and the books themselves live on despite attempts to suppress them. Even those who choose to burn books cannot prevent the letters from flying free and conveying their message of freedom and justice to the rest of the world.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.