Below the fold, I’ve reproduced (with permission) the text of a letter regarding the P Is for Palestine controversy by Michael Lesher of Passaic, New Jersey, addressed to the Trustees and Director of the Highland Park Public Library, in Highland Park, New Jersey. More on the controversy from Jewish Link of New Jersey: Rochelle Kipnis (May 9), Elizabeth Kratz (May 17). From the Newark Star Ledger: Rachel Kleinman (May 9). From ABC News. From Fox News.
The library will be holding a public meeting on Wednesday, June 5th at 7:30 pm to discuss the matter.
To the Trustees and Director of the Highland Park Public Library:
As a lawyer, an Orthodox Jew, and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, I want to respond to the disgraceful treatment of author Golbarg Bashi, whose illustrated children’s book P Is for Palestine has been denied a reading at Highland Park Public Library because of slanders that target not only the book and its author, but Jews who have supported Dr. Bashi’s right of free speech.
The charges being circulated about the book are too absurd to require a response; it should go without saying that the Highland Park library would not have originally scheduled the event, nor would a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace have co-sponsored it, if the book promoted anti-Semitism or called for the murder of Jews — or anything even remotely of the sort.
I’m writing to stress two simple issues that seem to have been forgotten in the hysteria. First: those who are trying to suppress Dr. Golbarg’s book have placed themselves in direct opposition to the U.S. Constitution. Second: in slandering people who disagree with them — including Jews like me — these censorship advocates deserve to be called bigots, or even anti-Semites, much more than the author they want to silence.
The constitutional issue is as straightforward as it is serious. A public institution — in this case, a public library — is forbidden by the First Amendment to discriminate against any sort of speech on the basis of its content. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled in 1995 that a public institution’s support of speech cannot be conditioned on the opinions expressed: that kind of discrimination, the Court stressed, “risks the suppression of free speech and inquiry.” Even if Dr. Bashi’s critics had a point about the book’s content — and they don’t — the library’s administration would be in violation of the First Amendment for canceling a planned book event because the book might prove controversial.
The library’s position is even more indefensible because the event was approved and publicly announced before the attacks against P Is for Palestine commenced. That means that, on top of apparently violating the rules of the American Library Association — which forbid content-based discrimination — the library cannot claim to have interfered with Dr. Bashi’s reading of the book on any grounds but the fact that some people don’t seem to like what the book says. That is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.
As for the smears against Jewish Voice for Peace, I note that the Jewish Link “reports” that JVP has “known ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” and supports “kite-bombings [sic], rocket-launched bombs…killing Jews and targeting civilians.” No evidence for any of these wild claims is cited, there being none. What is more, I find it strange that the same people who insist it is anti-Semitic even to imply some criticism of Israel — because most of Israel’s population is Jewish — are themselves willing to defame an entire group of Jews solely because they support the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. By the critics’ own principles, shouldn’t those attacks open them to the charge of anti-Semitism?
Finally, I take issue with press reports claiming that P Is for Palestine is being condemned by “the Jewish community.” As far as I can determine, the attacks on the book are being driven by such partisan forces as the Religious Zionists of America, an organization that exists largely to rationalize Israeli war crimes. Of course, these people too have the right to express their opinions. But they do not speak for me; nor have they been designated as spokespeople for “the Jewish community.”
Jews are not a homogeneous group; we disagree among ourselves on a wide range of topics. Some Orthodox Jews (I’m one of them) welcome a positive depiction of Palestinian life for the benefit of young children in this country, where Palestinians are routinely demonized. Some of us are heartbroken at the systematic oppression of Palestinians by a state that calls itself Jewish, in defiance of the ethical principles Jews proudly maintained for centuries in the teeth of discrimination, intolerance and poverty.
And plenty of us can recognize politically-driven bullying and censorship when we see it.
Passaic, New Jersey
Michael Lesher is the author of Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014). A collection of his poems, Surfaces, will be published by The High Window (U.K) this summer, and a memoir about his journey to Orthodox Judaism,Turning Back, will be published by Lincoln Square Books later this year.