C is for censorship, S is for slander

It isn’t every day I’m called a terrorist — especially when the accusation is based on my membership in an organization that deplores violence of any kind.

And it isn’t every day I’m accused of wanting to kill Jews — me, a religious Jew myself — because of an innocuous illustration in a children’s book.

But there it was, for all to see, in the local Jewish Link for May 16: Jewish Voice for Peace (to which I belong) has “known ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” according to writers Elizabeth Kratz and Rochelle Kipnis, who also suggested that JVP endorses “kite-bombings [sic], rocket-launched bombs…killing Jews and targeting civilians.” No evidence for any of these wild claims was cited, of course, there being none. But what on earth was all the fuss about?

Believe it or not, it’s all about a little children’s book called P Is for Palestine, an illustrated guide to the English alphabet that links each letter to a word having something to do with Palestinian life. The author, Golbarg Bashi, was scheduled (until recently) to read from the book at the Highland Park Public Library, an event co-sponsored by a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. That gave Israel’s apologists — who are probably getting tired of defending apartheid and mass murder — the welcome diversion of attacking Dr. Bashi for her use of the Arabic word intifada for the letter “I,” a word she describes as “standing up for what is right” and illustrates with an adult and a child raising their fingers in a “V for victory” sign near a barbed-wire fence.

Ah, the wonders of demonization! According to Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, the secret purpose of this unassuming illustration is “to brainwash terrorists early on, as toddlers, to blast rockets and kill Jewish people.” And Jewish Voice for Peace? According to Ms. Kipnis, a Trump-boosting Israel supporter, it’s “a [sic] extreme leftist political organization that refers to the Israeli/Palestinian disputed territory as ‘Israeli occupation.'” (So did all fifteen of the judges of the International Court of Justice in 2004 — including Thomas Buergenthal, a Jewish Holocaust survivor — but who’s counting?)

Under the weight of such attacks, the book event at the Highland Park Public Library has been canceled pending a meeting of the trustees, a decision one of Highland Park’s “concerned” citizens has publicly applauded as a way of showing “sensitivity to its Jewish residents.”

Really?

This Jew begs to differ. It should go without saying that the Highland Park library would not have originally scheduled the event, nor would a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace have co-sponsored it, if the book promoted anti-Semitism or called for the murder of Jews — or anything remotely of the sort.

And it’s worth stressing two issues that seem to have been forgotten in the hysteria. First: those who are trying to suppress Dr. Bashi’s book have placed themselves in direct opposition to the U.S. Constitution. Second: in slandering people who disagree with them — including Jews like me — the censorship advocates deserve to be called bigots, or even anti-Semites, much more than the author they want to silence.

The constitutional issue is as straightforward as it is serious. A public institution — in this case, a public library — is forbidden by the First Amendment to discriminate against any sort of speech on the basis of its content. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled in 1995 that a public institution’s support of speech cannot be conditioned on the opinions expressed: that kind of discrimination, the Court stressed, “risks the suppression of free speech and inquiry.” Even if Dr. Bashi’s critics had a point about the book’s content — and they don’t — the library’s administration would be in violation of the First Amendment for canceling a planned book event because the book might prove controversial.

The library’s position is even more indefensible because the event was approved and publicly announced before the attacks against P Is for Palestine commenced. That means that the library cannot claim to have interfered with Dr. Bashi’s reading of the book on any grounds but the fact that some people don’t seem to like what the book says. That is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.

As for the smears against Jewish Voice for Peace, I find it strange that the same people who insist it is anti-Semitic even to imply some criticism of Israel — because most of Israel’s population is Jewish — are themselves willing to defame an entire group of Jews solely because they support the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. By the critics’ own principles, shouldn’t those attacks open them to the charge of anti-Semitism?

Finally, I take issue with the claim that P Is for Palestine is being condemned by “the Jewish community.” As far as I can determine, the attacks on the book are being driven by such partisan outfits as the Religious Zionists of America, an organization that exists largely to rationalize Israeli war crimes. Of course, these people too have the right to express their¬†opinions. But they do not speak for me; nor have they been designated as spokespeople for “the Jewish community.”

Some Orthodox Jews (I’m one of them) welcome a positive depiction of Palestinian life for the benefit of young children in this country, where Palestinians are routinely demonized. Some of us are heartbroken at the systematic oppression of Palestinians by a state that calls itself Jewish, in defiance of the ethical principles Jews proudly maintained for centuries in the teeth of discrimination, intolerance and poverty.

And plenty of us can recognize politically-driven bullying and censorship when we see it.

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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