HIGHLAND PARK - A library event featuring the children's book "P is for Palestine" and its author has been shelved...for now.
Author Golbarg Bashi was scheduled to read her alphabet-based Palestinian culture book on May 19 at the Highland Park Public Library. But after the event was publicized and several residents took issue, believing the 2017 self-published book featuring letters of the English alphabet standing for certain Palestinian words is anti-Semitic and promotes violence, the event was postponed pending discussion at a June Board of Trustees meeting.
"My First Amendment rights have been broken," Bashi said. "This is an illegal act. It has been done at an American library. American librarians have allowed a group to break the First Amendment — a violent group. Zionists based in that neighborhood. People who adhere to the ideology of Zionism. It is very important between Judaism and Zionism. These are two different things."
One page of the book in question is "I is for Intifada."
According to Bashi, an Iranian-American and former Rutgers University professor, "intifada" is the Arabic word for "resistance" and has a peaceful connotation. She likened it to "Black Lives Matter" and the recent "Woman's March."
The word's literal definition is "tremor," "shuddering" or "shaking off." Intifada also is the word for the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and ensuing acts of violence between Palestinians and Israelis since 1987 in which thousands have died.
"The people who object to it and come up with all kinds of false lies about it do not know Arabic," said Bashi, a mother of two who lives in New York's Upper West Side. "In the American media context, intifada has been used in connection with violence imagery. Just like other Arabic words. Intifada is actually 71 years old. It is resistance to occupation of a people's land. It is like Native American resistance to white settlers. You have violent aspects in that, but you also have mostly peaceful resistance. You have to completely use the Native American example in the context of Palestinian resistance."
The illustration for the "intifada" page is of a little girl being held by her father standing by a barbed wire fence. Their arms are raised in the "V for victory" stance. The "M" page also raised eyebrows as the women and children drawn on the page are flying kites. Often, Palestinians have flown "kite bombs" into Israel.
Bashi said the issue is not about Israel.
"It's not about the Jewish state," she said. "Israel is a European settler colony based on Zionism which is a political ideology. I do not defend nation states. Any. I am a children's author. I have written a book about children who are misrepresented and underrepresented and maligned in this country — Palestinians. And these children come from a country that has a resistance movement. And it would be disingenuous of me not to include that in the book. This is a loving book written from a place of love to diversify children's books in this country."
"Palestine in this country is a forbidden word," Bashi added. "They don't care what you say about it. Immediately, Zionist Israel advocates try their very best through any means possible to raise it and destroy that person who dares say anything positive about the people who exist."
Some feel the event in Highland Park, which has a large population of religious Jews, is not an appropriate setting.
"I don't represent any group and my opinions are mine alone," said Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El in Edison. "The book says that 'intifida' means rising up for what is right if you are a kid or a grown up. The intifada was not a rising up for what is right. It was a mass descent into immorality in an attempt to destroy the state of Israel. To bring such a message to Highland Park, where many Jews reside including Holocaust survivors and many whose children and grandchildren live in Israel, is a disgrace."
Rosenberg added that no one is seeking for the book to be banned.
"We have to make it clear that we aren't seeking that the book be banned or that a different perspective not be heard — simply that a book which presents a term understood to mean massacre of Jews to children as a 'moral' or 'positive' concept constitutes the insidious presentation of hate speech," he said.
"We are not suggesting that the book should be banned; we simply do not believe that the author's attempted transformation of a word generally understood to mean the violent massacre of Jews as a morally acceptable concept for children should be presented at a public library," said Rochelle Kipnis, Somerset County Republican committeewoman and pro-Israel community advocate. "If the author truly wants 'Intifada' to take on a positive meaning, she should immediately denounce the murder of Jews during the First and Second Intifada."
Bashi said the book is "about children who basically have no books written about them in English in this country." Bashi added this is not the first time her book has encountered controversy and called it a "First Amendment" issue. Before it was published, she received backlash from a New York mother's group on Facebook.
Bashi said that "once you open the door to kind of pressure from a mob group who oppose a book for any kind of reason and you cancel, and you ban a book reading, you are opening the doors of Fascism in this country and this is what Highland Park Library has done. This should never happen. You don't like it, don't come to the book reading."
Bashi has been defended by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S.-based left-wing activist organization focused on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. JVP also supports the boycott against Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Calling JVP an "anti-Zionist" group, Bashi said she was invited by the event's organizers, JVP-Central New Jersey chapter.
Rosenberg said that JVP purposely set up the book reading in a religious Jewish community.
"They knew there would be backlash from which they could then push a narrative of victimhood," Rosenberg said. "The key thing to understand about JVP is that they are a radical organization that believes in appeasement of those who wish to destroy Israel and the Jewish people."
Bashi said the library canceled the event while library officials said it had been postponed. According to the Library's website, both the event and the book were pulled, pending a decision by its Board of Trustees. The topic was scheduled to be discussed at the May 20 regular library board meeting, but was the meeting was rescheduled due to the expected large turnout and "overwhelming public response," according to the library's website.
The new meeting date is 7:30 p.m. June 5 at the Council Chambers at Highland Park Borough Hall. At that meeting, the board "will reconsider the program for the author of the alphabet book 'P is for Palestine,'" according to the library's website, and the meeting agenda will be restricted to this issue and there will be a public comment portion.
On the website, the library added it is a "small town library, with an overstretched staff, that somehow manages to present interesting and exciting programs day after day and night after night." It noted that many programs, such as the "'P is for Palestine' Author Talk" are suggested by "people well known to the community and the library staff."
After the talk was scheduled, the library "received numerous objections to it." As the library policy requires the Board of Trustees to address patrons' objections to Library materials at the next regularly scheduled meeting, the event was removed from the schedule, pending the Board's next meeting, which was May 20. Due to the "extraordinary interest in the matter," accommodations had to be arranged and the meeting was been moved to June 5.
Further, the library's website said that "If the objection is to a book, the book is to remain on the shelf and available to the public until the Board makes a determination. In this instance, however, the issue is about an event, which is subject to time constraints. The event was originally scheduled for May 19, one day before the Board's next regularly scheduled meeting."