Even though she is a resident of the Franklin section of Somerset, Rochelle Kipnis frequently takes her children to events at the Highland Park Public Library. She was startled, however, to see a post on the library’s Facebook page announcing a May 19 talk by Golbarg Bashi, author of “P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book.” Critics accuse Dr. Bashi with using the book, published by her in 2018, to inculcate children with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda.
“The public library shouldn’t serve as a place to indoctrinate toddlers against Israel in a town highly populated by a religious Jewish community, many with families in Israel experiencing rockets,” said Kipnis, a member of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick who also often attends services at various Chabad houses and Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison. “How is it teaching them to love thy neighbor?”
To get the word out, Kipnis told NJJN in a phone interview that she immediately posted the event on her own Facebook page on Sunday, May 5, and on a closed group, Frum HP/Edison, encouraging residents to call or e-mail the library to voice their objections. The post was quickly shared on various other pages, generating what the library acknowledged was an “extraordinary public response.” Within an hour, Kipnis said, the library’s post had been removed. By the next afternoon, the Highland Park Public Library board issued a statement announcing that, in keeping with policy when there are objections to issues at the library, the Bashi event would be postponed until it could be addressed at its open public board meeting on May 20.
When contacted by NJJN, Library Board President Bruce Tucker declined to go into specifics, but said they would discuss how the program was vetted and decide at the meeting whether the event would be rescheduled or cancelled.
The book uses the letters of the English alphabet to stand for various topics important to Palestinians. However, Bashi, an Iranian-born instructor in Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, has been heavily criticized for including inflammatory pictures and words in a book intended for children. For instance, “I” stands for Intifada, the two Palestinian uprisings against Israel, with a man and child behind barbed wire in Gaza, their hands forming a peace sign; thousands of Israelis and Palestinians were killed in the two conflicts.
“This is not an innocent book,” said Highland Park resident Michael Gordon. “It’s not an issue of the book per se being in the library; it’s an issue that it’s a children’s book in the children’s section, which is not a place for propaganda.”
The letters BDS, for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, and the words freedom, justice, equality appear on the top left corner of Bashi’s website. Bashi did not respond to messages left at the number listed on her Rutgers faculty listing, but on a May 8 post on her Facebook page she 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.’”
A number of sources told NJJN that the program was arranged through the central New Jersey chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national grassroots organization which is dedicated to the “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians,” according to its website. However, most mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel groups accuse JVP of an anti-Zionist agenda. Various posts made on social media indicate it was discussed at JVP meetings, but the chapter did not respond to NJJN’s inquiries.
In a statement about the Bashi event that was shared with NJJN, Highland Park Councilman Josh Fine, the liaison to the library board, said at the May 7 council meeting that he was “surprised and upset” to learn about the program.
“Personally, I do not believe this picture book program with its BDS-supporting author should have been scheduled at our library in the first place,” he said. “However, since it was scheduled to take place, I think the library board of trustees has made the right decision to hold an open public meeting to explain why and how this program was scheduled, and to have an open discussion about what course of action it will take in regard to the program.”
Kipnis, whose husband Daryl unsuccessfully tried to unseat incumbent Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman in in the last election for the 12th District, said that as the mother of three young children, she’s particularly worried about an event like this that can reinforce biases against Jews.
“My husband got a lot of backlash for running for Congress and being Jewish,” she said. “We have to combat anti-Semitism wherever we see it.”
And when it comes down to it, Kipnis doesn’t see any justification for hosting the author of a children’s book with such violent themes.
“Why do they need to know about the intifada as toddlers?” she asked.