"He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas." — Benjamin Franklin
Recently Columbia University's Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) launched a petition to boycott a small New York City bookstore chain called Book Culture. So far the petition has attracted the usual suspects, including SJP and JVP students and 18 anti-Israel Columbia/Barnard professors including Katherine Franke, Brinkley Messick, Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi.
It is a natural impulse of all people of good conscience to come to the aid of a bookstore attacked by bigots and radical extremists. However, I must urge all to consider the wider context before rushing to Book Culture's defense.
As it happens, Book Culture's owners are far from being innocent victims in this widely-eported story. Ironically, they are in fact Palestinian sympathizers who actually financed and promoted the now notorious children's book that started it all, P is for Palestine. Only when community backlash to the bookthreatened their business did they attempt to moderate their position in some clumsy damage control. It was in response to their subsequent disavowal of support for terrorism against Israeli civilians and their rejection of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel that SJP and JVP subsequently turned on them and initiated their boycott.
P Is for Palestine was written by Goldbarg Bashi, a BDS supporter and the wife of anti-Israel professor Hamid Dabashi (who switched from supporting the store to calling for its boycott!). The book features the entry, "I is for Intifada," which the author claimed was a spiritual and artistic protest "for what is right"– while, in reality, it whitewashes if not actually endorses the terrorist intifada that took over 1,000 innocent Israeli lives. Furthermore, despite the outcry from parents in the sizable local Jewish community who were concerned about increasing tensions in the neighborhood, Book Culture hosted the author reading the book to the neighborhood's children on November 18, 2017 at the Columbus Avenue location. I wonder what it is like for Jewish parents to send their child to a kindergarten where the other kids believe that intifada is a good thing.
Before the reading, many people from the community, Jews and non-Jews, contacted the owners on social media and by phone, but the owners were consistently indifferent to the concerns and their responses ranged from "virtue signalling" to annoyance and open hostility. Some reported on social media that responses to phone calls sometimes became antisemitic. There were a few street protests and a group called PAIN – Popular Action for Israel Network was formed to organized social pressure online. The owners refused numerous requests to cancel the reading, disabled the comment feature on their Facebook pages after removing all negative comments, and essentially sent a signal to the Jewish community that they could shove it.
Then on November 21, 2017, the senior rabbi of the local Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Ammiel Hirsch, informed Book Culture's owners that in supporting a book with entries like "I is for Intifada" it appeared that the bookstore endorsed terrorism and BDS. As a result, the bookstore would not be allowed to participate in the synagogue's upcoming book fair. Suddenly, the owners changed their attitude, met with Rabbi Hirsch, and released their (belated) statement disavowing terrorism and BDS.
As a classic — and especially as a Jewish — liberal I do not want to be on the side of banning books. However, with children's books the standards ought to be somewhat different, as it is our responsibility to protect children, who cannot form their own well-researched judgments, from dangerous propaganda.
Furthermore, consider the larger context. One of the biggest obstacles to peace between Israel and Palestinians is the pervasive cradle-to-grave indoctrination of the Palestinian children against Israel. Books full of Jew hatred, Holocaust denial, rejection of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, and so on, are crucial factors in perpetuating the conflict. The attempts by islamic organizations, some affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to introduce the same propaganda to US college campuses have already succeeded and helped poison the campus atmosphere. As a leader of the Columbia University chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, I am well aware of this phenomenon at Columbia and elsewhere. Recently these organizations have made inroads sneaking anti-Israel propaganda into the K-12 curriculum too. In this context, P is for Palestine is not an innocent way to teach the alphabet, but an attempt to bring anti-Israel brainwashing down to the pre-K level. And its author is not a simple "Upper West Side mom," as she would like herself to be seen. As a pro-BDS academic who is married to another pro-BDS academic, Goldbarg Bashi is fully aware of the significance of the book.
It may be difficult for a business to strike the right balance when taking a position on the very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stepping into the fray and ignoring the legitimate concerns of the local Jewish community was an astounding mistake. If the owners want to have the help of the community now after the tables have turned on them and heal some of the self-inflicted wounds, they could start by adopting a more balanced approach to the conflict — for example by also carrying books like I is for Israel, written by education professor Melissa Landa, and inviting her to do a book reading.