For the second time this week, the London Public Library has been caught up in backlash over shows at Wolf Performance Hall, this time from a high-profile Jewish advocacy group demanding the library cancel the performance of a pro-Palestinian comedian.
However, the library did not bow to the pressure and Arab-American Amer Zahr will perform Saturday night as scheduled, despite calls from B'nai Brith Canada to give him the hook.
"After careful consideration, the library has decided it will not be cancelling this event," Michael Ciccone, chief executive officer and chief librarian, said Friday.
The decision that the show would go on was made late Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after B'nai Brith issued a news release condemning Zahr's stop in London and criticizing the city for allowing the show to be performed.
Once the organization's news release was published, "it was an avalanche this last 24 hours of concerns" at the library, Ciccone said, adding that most of the outrage came from outside London.
He said that he is not sure whether this latest bit of blowback will cause the library to change its approach to renting out the hall.
"I think anytime there is a controversy, we always re-evaluate our approach," he said, signalling that there will be discussions and lessons to learn from Friday's fracas.
Earlier this week, the library came under fire from a controversial British free-speech author who blasted the library for refusing to rent Wolf Performance Hall to the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship so she could deliver a talk called "Sex, Gender and the Limits of Free Speech on Campus" at a meeting of the Canadian academic freedom group.
The library refused to rent the space, saying the lecture by Joanna Williams violated a number of policies including the rules of conduct, workplace harassment and sexual harassment, and there was " a risk or likelihood of physical danger to participants or the audience."
Zahr, from Dearborn, Mich., the American city with the largest Arab-American population in the country, is no stranger to controversy for his outspoken pro-Palestinian activism. He has performed at concert halls, comedy festivals and college campuses across the United States and internationally and has appeared on all major cable news networks.
His commentary focuses on the lives of Arab-Americans and their experiences living in North American society. He has never shied away from his Palestinian heritage and his opposition to Israel's policies.
B'nai Brith had never taken any action against Zahr before. "This is the first time we became aware of Mr. Zahr," said Richard Robertson, the organization's research manager.
"This is the first time we have been taking umbrage with him appearing in Canada. This is the first time that we've been made aware of how problematic he is as an individual and heard him travelling to Canada."
B'nai Brith not only wanted the show cancelled but for the city to re-examine its policies for renting out public space. "It's inappropriate for the city of London to be providing the usage of public space to an American who we consider to be a radical," Robertson said.
"There needs to be some form of vetting process that is in line with the city's inclusion and diversity policy and also with the anti-racism and and hate policies that are employed by our federal and provincial governments."
Robertson said B'nai Brith's stance "has nothing to do with (Zahr's) right to perform as an artist and this has nothing to do with him as a comedian."
However, it takes issue with what it says is Zahr's reputation for "making anti-Semitic comments, comments that praise terrorism and endorse violence against individual citizens and civilians."
Zahr said the campaign to stop his show was "an attempt to silence me and to silence the Palestinian community and the Arab community and anyone who supports Palestine."
He said he stands by any comments he's made in opposition to Israeli policies and added that what he is performing is "a comedy show."
"Comedians are supposed to be critics of society, power and pointing out the ridiculousness in life," he said, adding he has a deep, foundational point of view about Israel.
"I honestly believe those things but I don't hate any group of people. It's silly to have to say that. Of course, I don't hate any group of people for who they are," he said.
Zahr was concerned about what would have happened if the library had cancelled his performance. "If the theatre gives in to these demands and cancels our show, then they might as well cancel any Palestinian speaker who might ever come in to criticize Israel," he said.
His show is called "The Truth" and "a big part of the show, I talk about this idea of the power of the truth and when you have the truth people get very scared and when you have the truth they try to shut you up."
He said he is open to conversation with those who oppose him.
"I invite them all to come to my show. Come on down," Zahr said.