‘S’ is for Slander

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.

Michael Lesher
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.

15 thoughts on “‘S’ is for Slander

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. File under “C is for Cowardice”:

    Meeting Cancellation
    Notice of Cancellation of the June 5, 2019 meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Highland Park Public Library

    After Library Director Jane Stanley’s consultation with Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler and Highland Park Chief of Police Rick Abrams about citizen safety and crowd control concerns posed by the meeting of the Highland Park Public Library Board of Trustees scheduled for June 5, Library Board of Trustees President Bruce Tucker has concluded that the Library cannot in good conscience proceed with the meeting. While the Highland Park Public Library has the utmost confidence in the Borough Police Department, it has been decided that the June 5, 2019 meeting of the Library Board of Trustees is hereby cancelled.

    Because there is no time in the foreseeable future when those conditions are likely to change, the Library Director, on the advice of counsel, is taking the following actions:

    The Library will reschedule the “P” is for Palestine author talk at a time that is mutually acceptable to the author and the Library.

    The Library will schedule a program around the book “I” is for Israel” by Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das as soon as possible.

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  3. july 2

    Bernhard Rosenberg
    TONIGHT the JEWISH COMMUNITY should be very proud of those who spoke out with great eloquence at the Highland Park COUNCIL meeting regarding P IS FOR Palestine. All WERE GREATLY PREPARED and spoke with vigor. OUR UNITY WAS VERY OBVIOUS.
    I BELIEVE THIS MEETING HAS CONVINCED THE HIGHLAND PARK COUNCIL THEY MUST PERSUADE THE LIBRARY BOARD TO CANCEL THE READING OF P IS FOR PALESTINE.. I TAKE THE MAYOR AT HER WORD WHEN SHE SAID THEY WERE NOT AFRAID OF A LAW SUIT. THIS IS AN IMPORTANT FIRST STEP. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

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    • That doesn’t respond to Michael Lesher’s argument at all. In the future, if you treat my website as a dumpster for your propaganda without making an attempt to respond to what’s posted here, I’m either going to block you or charge you rent. And as a fellow resident of our great state, I think you know that rents around here aren’t cheap.

      What you describe does not, in any case, sound like anything to be proud of. It’s a tendentious description of a bunch of bigots descending on the library and demanding righteously that we keep underwriting their apartheid state with our tax dollars while they dictate whether we’re allowed to talk about it.

      Two pieces of free advice: I’ve lived in New Jersey long enough, and spent enough time in the Jewish community here (I lived in a Jewish household for a decade, for starters), to know that you don’t represent the “Jewish Community.” So stop writing as though you did. You should also turn off your CAPS LOCK. Your leaving them on when you write makes it sound like you’re screaming. You may well be screaming, but there’s a noise ordinance around here. Keep it down.

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      • I thought PoT readers might benefit from having a link to Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg’s website:

        http://bernhardrosenberg.com/biography/

        The ratio of propaganda to bona fide scholarship there is pretty transparent–but also, apparently, consistent with serving “on the New Jersey State Holocaust Commission,” and being “the Chairman of the Holocaust Commission of the New York Board of Rabbis.”

        In the moral universe Bernhard Rosenberg inhabits, Zionist propagandists can legitimately be promoted and subsidized by the State, but P is for Palestine can’t legitimately be read at the public library. Readers can judge for themselves whether that’s a universe suitable for habitation.

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    • Repeating a slander over and over doesn’t make it true. Your whole case turns on the claim that the word “intifada” means “murder,” and that its use has intrinsically anti-Semitic implications. Neither thing is true. The word “intifada” is Arabic. You don’t claim to have a working knowledge of Arabic, and what you say about the word flouts what it actually means. Pretending that it means what you want it to mean doesn’t change anything. It just shows that you’re willing to assert blatant falsehoods in the hopes that your audience will believe them.

      You don’t represent “Jews,” or even the Jews of central Jersey. You should stop talking as though you did. Your attempts to speak for Jews are about as fraudulent as your claims to a knowledge of Arabic. It’s sad that either thing is taken seriously, but that’s what happens when people have low standards.

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      • we need to run people for election in Highland PARK who stand against BDS. We JEWS ARE OUR WORST ENEMY. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

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        • You know, Rabbi, I’ve noticed something interesting. When you post on my site, you expect to take up as much room as you like, no matter how unresponsive you are to the people who were here before you. Whereas when I try to post on your site, I encounter a wall that prevents me from posting. Does this remind you of anything?

          Do you really think it’s appropriate for a rabbi serving on the New Jersey State Holocaust Commission to be demonizing Jews? It seems counter-productive.

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        • It’s been a couple of days since I posted on your site, Rabbi Rosenberg. Are you going to approve my comment, or had you just expected all of the traffic to run in one direction? Then again, it’s been months since I posted Michael Lesher’s letter here, and I haven’t seen a word of response to it from you. If you comment here again, could you respond to some of this?

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