Josh Pruzansky, a resident of Highland Park, called the decision by the Highland Park Public Library to reschedule a reading by a children’s book author who supports the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) for Sukkot “a smack in the face to the Jewish community.”
He sent a letter to Bruce Tucker, chair of the library’s board of trustees, on behalf of members of the closed Facebook group Frum HP/Edison, in which he demanded the library board resign because it “has taken a diverse, yet unified, community and has literally ripped it apart over this event.”
The reading of “P is for Palestine” by Golbarg Bashi, an Iranian-born professor of history at Pace University, originally set for May until a outcry from the local Jewish community, has been rescheduled for Oct. 20, coinciding with Hoshanah Rabah, the final intermediate day of Sukkot and hours before candle-lighting for the last two days of the fall holiday season. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national grassroots organization that supports BDS, arranged for Bashi’s appearance in Highland Park.
In an apparent compromise, in June the library announced that it would invite authors Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das to read their children’s book, “I is for Israel.” The authors accepted the invitation, but a date for that reading, which is expected to be held in the weeks after Bashi’s reading, has not been set.
Hoshanah Rabah was viewed by the Talmudic rabbis as a mini-Yom Kippur, when the entire Jewish community is judged by God to be worthy of the seasonal rains. Shemini Atzeret, the day after Hoshanah Rabah, is considered a separate, but connected yom tov, holy day, devoted to the spiritual aspects of the festival of Sukkot.
“It’s a shanda to have it on Hoshanah Rabah, one of the holiest days for the community,” Pruzansky told NJJN. “It shows very poor judgment by the library.”
A person answering the phone at the library told NJJN that the Oct. 20 date was the only time the author was available, and director Jane Stanley did not return calls from NJJN seeking comment.
In order to allow the community to heal, Pruzansky wrote in a letter he provided to NJJN, “I am publicly asking [Tucker] and other Board members that (sic) ignored the concerns of our community, to resign immediately,” which would allow Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler to appoint replacements who “will keep the library functioning as a place of education rather than as a political sewer.”
Tucker confirmed to NJJN that he received the letter but declined to comment.
Lisa Ben-Haim, a Highland Park resident who has been active in the fight against Bashi’s appearance, said she wasn’t surprised the library rescheduled the author visit for a Jewish holiday.
“You will never convince me that it was coincidental,” she said. Ben-Haim said she’s skeptical because the library announced the event date on Oct. 4, the morning after a borough council meeting was held that approved wording of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, which the township said includes denying Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist and movements that promote economic warfare against the state (See “Highland Park resolution condemns anti-Semitism, not BDS,” p. 1). The council is set to vote on the resolution one Oct. 29, and the content of Bashi’s reading, Ben-Haim said, likely would have conflicted with the intentions of the resolution.
“They are bowing to the violent threats from the organizations that the author is associated with,” she said, adding she is “enraged” at the scheduling mere “hours” before Shemini Atzeret.
Michael Gordon, a Highland Park resident at the forefront of the protests against the reading, felt the same way. “The scheduling of this anti-Semitic event is disrespectful and provocative” toward the Jewish community, he told NJJN in a telephone interview.
“This author has called the Jews of Highland Park racist,” he said. “If it were any other group this author would have been banned from coming to speak, but when Jews are the victims, people bend over backward to allow this speech. If it were any other group people would be standing up against it, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
The library’s posting said because of space limitations, the event will be limited to parents and their children between the ages of 4-7, and library card holders will be given priority.
The event has produced lively Facebook debates on pages like Pruzansky’s and closed groups Frum HP/Edison and Jewish HP/Edison on what action should be pursued by the community, with some saying the event should be ignored to tamp down the publicity they believe the organizers are hoping for, and others advocating a mass protest in front of the library during the reading. Others urged those with small children to book a spot at the reading to fill the room with Israel supporters.