HIGHLAND PARK – The controversial "P is for Palestine" book reading went on as planned Sunday at the Highland Park Public Library, after being rescheduled from May.
About four adults and three children attended the event. Those inside, which included borough resident Lisa Ben-Haim, were members of the local Jewish community, Ben-Haim said.
"It started at 2 and she rambled until almost 3 o'clock, and then she started reading from the book," Ben-Haim said. "All of us had planned to walk out in protest when she got to 'I is for Intifada,' but it was so painful sitting there listening to her, we walked out at E."
When asked about the event's attendance after it concluded, Director of Library Services Jane Stanley said she "was not prepared to answer any questions right now."
Protesters of the reading appeared outside the venue. With about 125 of all ages, the group was on hand to "let their voices be heard," Ben-Haim said. She added that the protesters had posters and were present to mark that they felt the event was "inappropriate."
"We are not against the author," Ben-Haim said. "We are against the reading as it promotes antisemitism and the BDS movement. That is the main reason we are protesting. We feel enough is enough."
"I am so proud of our Highland Park community for showing up, in the rain, to make sure our voices were heard," Ben-Haim added after the event. "Bashi and JVP (Jewish Voices for Peace) came into Highland Park to spread their hate and antisemitism, and we weren't going to let this happen quietly. We need to stand up to anti-Semitism. We also wanted the board of trustees of the library, especially Bruce Tucker, to hear that what they allowed, the reading and the scheduling of this reading on the eve of a Jewish holiday, is not only unacceptable but also disgusting."
There were a handful of supporters on the opposite side of the street, said borough resident Josh Pruzansky. The road was closed, and 10 police officers ensured the safety and security of both groups.
This is a peaceful protest, Pruzansky said, but the author, Golbarg Bashi, "supports the BDS movement."
The BDS movement works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law, according to its website.
"We don't want her speaking to our children in a community library," he said. "She is a person who sponsors hate, sponsors violence. BDS was called antisemitism by the United Nations, by the U.S. Congress, by the Parliament of Germany. It was called antisemitism by the state of New Jersey. Why are we bringing an anti-Semite to our library to speak to our children on a Jewish holiday?"
Ben-Haim added that the library scheduling the event was "insensitive" given the nature of the material presented in the children's book. The event re-scheduling was also ill-timed, Pruzansky said.
"The library had no remorse scheduling this author on a Jewish holiday," he said. "It's akin to having David Duke come here to speak about a Confederacy alphabet book on Easter Sunday. It is wrong."
The event was originally scheduled in May. Bashi, an outspoken BDS movement supporter, wrote the children's alphabet culture book to "inform and bring awareness to the lives of Palestinian children," she said.
After the event was publicized, some community members took issue, believing the 2017 self-published book featuring letters of the English alphabet standing for certain Palestinian words was anti-Semitic and promoted violence. The event was then postponed and rescheduled.
BDS stand for "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions." The BDS movement works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law, according to the definition on the Zachor Legal Institute's website.
Recently, the institute sent a letter to the borough and library informing them that the groups supporting the reading promote anti-Semitism and since the library apparently receives federal funding, it could be in violation of the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, said Marc Greensdorfer of the Zachor Legal Institute.
"The purpose of our letter was not to threaten litigation; rather, it was to inform the city/library that they were being used by groups promoting discrimination with a request that they do their due diligence on the parties involved," Greensdorfer said.
Earlier in the week, Mayor Gail Brill Mittler issued a statement on social media expressing her dismay toward the event and the division within the community "usually known for its uncommon civility and diversity," it has wrought.
"For the record, I'm a fierce advocate of free speech," the mayor said. "Yet I too have deep misgivings with the library's decision to host a reading of the self-published, children's 'P is for Palestine' book. If we really want our children to grow up to thoughtfully consider complex world issues, a library reading of such an opinionated book, by an author with a record of contentious public comments that are hurtful to so many residents, is the wrong way to go. A thoughtful, respectful, adult discussion of the Palestinian plight and the rightful existence of the Jewish State of Israel Is the correct format for such global and provocative subjects. The reading of a politically charged book to 5 and 6 year olds, in a public library, is not."
The mayor went on to say that the community "must be able to allow some room for people to disagree with us" and "find a way to genuinely respect them."
"The name calling, the bitterness, and the call to arms, should stop," she said.
Ben Haim added, "hate has no place in their community," as many signs around the borough read.
The borough council is set to vote on a resolution against anti-Semitism at its Oct. 29 meeting.