One, two three, four, we won’t be silent anymore; five, six, seven, eight, teach your children to love, not hate.”
Despite torrential rain showers, upward of 120 demonstrators from the Jewish community chanted, held signs, waved Israeli flags, and sang for more than two hours outside the Highland Park Public library on Oct. 20. They were protesting the public reading of a children’s book, “P is for Palestine,” which they allege is anti-Semitic, by author Golbarg Bashi.
“Hate speech is not free speech,” said Highland Park resident Aliyana Wasserman, who held a sign that read, “Don’t expose our children to hate.”
Across the street, about 40 counter demonstrators responded with chants of “Free Palestine,” and several police officers stood between the two groups on North 5th Avenue, which was closed to traffic in the vicinity of the library. Officers were posted inside the library as well. Individual demonstrators crossed to the other side of the street to quietly engage with their counterparts, and despite the tension, the peace held.
Bashi, an Iranian-born professor of history at Pace University who has publicly supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, was originally scheduled to appear in May, but the reading was postponed in the wake of protests by the Jewish community. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national grassroots organization that supports BDS, arranged the reading.
Her book teaches the alphabet using issues of importance to Palestinians, such as “I is for Intifada … Arabic for rising up/ for what is right, if you are a kid or a grownup!” The accompanying illustration shows a man and child flashing the peace sign behind barbed wire, presumably “imprisoned” by the Israeli occupiers of their land.
In an apparent compromise to the outcry, the library has invited author Gili Bar-Hillel and photographer Prodeepta Das for a reading of their book, “I is for Israel.” A date for that event has not been announced.
After the reading and book signing, Bashi told NJJN she was pleased that her First Amendment rights were upheld. She said the library “had seen my book and loved it,” but a “minority” of people fomented opposition by playing on fears of anti-Semitism, which she put in the same category as racism and Islamophobia.
“It is very dangerous to make these comments about my book when there’s real anti-Semitism coming from the alt-right movement,” Bashi said, adding she would be “the first person” to stand up against anti-Semitism, and that she is open to discussing the matter with her critics.
Bashi said she wrote the book for “historical posterity” and found the descriptions painting her community as dangerous and to be feared is “the same narrative once used against blacks.”
“It is a shame that people are restricting an author based on her ethnicity and content of a book,” she said.
Since the book’s January 2018 publication, she said, “an incredible amount of trauma has been inflicted on my person and reputation. Just Google my name and see the lies that come up.”
Several weeks ago the Zachor Legal Institute, a national think tank and advocacy organization that fights against BDS, in partnership with the Central Jersey Jewish Public Affairs Committee sent a letter to Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler and Library board president Bruce Tucker threatening to file a complaint with the federal department of education, which could lead to the library being stripped of federal funding.
When Bashi arrived at the library, she was met in the parking lot by police who escorted her into the building. Several more officers were posted inside, including outside the door to the room where the author read her book. At one point before the reading police evacuated the library to do a sweep, although they declined to give specifics when asked for the reason.
Many of the pro-Israel supporters included children, and the protesters often broke into song, including “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Oseh Shalom,” and “Hatikvah” after the pro-Palestinian demonstrators’ derogatory chants about Israel.
At one point, they turned around and faced the library, shouting “Shame on you Highland Park Library,” and “Tucker must resign.” The previous week Josh Pruzansky, a participant in the closed Facebook group Frum HP/Edison, wrote a letter to Tucker on behalf of the group demanding he and the board resign for being tone deaf to the diverse community.
Georgie London of Highland Park said she is troubled that the book attempts to indoctrinate children in the BDS movement, which she said seems to promote “pure hate.”
“The BDS organization is claiming the moral high ground,” she said. “But I bet during the Nazi era the moral high ground was also claimed by supporters of the Nazi party.”
On the other hand, Rich Siegel of Teaneck, co-board director of Deir Yassin Remembered, who said he was Jewish and had lost family in the Holocaust, stood on the other side of the street waving the Palestinian flag. Deir Yassin was a village in which approximately 100 Palestinians were killed during a battle with the Irgun, a pre-state defense force, in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Deir Yassin Remembered, he said, “promotes the liberation of Palestine and memorization of the Nakba,” literally, “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians referring to the establishment of Israel.
“When it comes to freedom of speech the Zionist Jews fall short,” said Siegel. “They deny our right to speak about the Nakba and the mass expulsion of Palestinians, but think their right is protected.”
Much of the tension revolved around the presence of Neturei Karta, an international anti-Zionist sect of chasidism — in the U.S. they are primarily based in Brooklyn and Monsey, N.Y. — who believe a Jewish state should not be established before the arrival of the Messiah.
At one point someone on the pro-Israel side of the street shouted, “You can’t be Jews,” and then began yelling at the chasidim in Hebrew. One of the Neturei Karta responded, “Speak in English. This is America” (he declined to comment to NJJN, saying he doesn’t speak to Jewish newspapers because they misquote him and portray Neturei Karta negatively).
Some on the pro-Israel side crossed over to talk with them, including Sariel Malitzky, a Highland Park resident and assistant rabbi at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison.
“I asked [one of the chasidim] how he could stand there and support people who murder innocent women and children,” said Malitzky. “He was just spewing nonsense.”
Inside the main library — but not the room where the reading took place — groups from both sides sat at the same tables and quietly talked. At times a librarian came over to shush them, reminding them it was a library.
One was Sharon Gerber of Monroe, who joined the group of counter-protesters supporting Bashi’s reading. She said “as a Jew, to see another group of people being ghettoized is not tikkun olam. There should be one state with everyone living together in peace in the birthplace of three major religions.”
Rabbi Shmuel Greene of Highland Park, the director of Central & Southern Jersey NCSY, the youth arm of the Orthodox Union, was one of several anti-BDS protesters who, along with his 6-year-old son, Zevi, got a coveted spot to attend the reading, which was limited because of the room’s size to 45 library card holders with children between the ages of 4-7.
He left early, saying Bashi was “rambling” and that she described her book as being written in language to which children could relate. Greene was not moved.
“This is way too serious a subject to turn into a child’s game,” he said.