New Jersey Library Cancels Debate on 'P Is for Palestine' Children's Book Fearing Unrest

Highland Park library promises to schedule events for both 'P is for Palestine' and 'I Is for Israel' in effort to defuse situation, but Jewish groups vow to carry on protest

Danielle Ziri
New York
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An excerpt from 'P is for Palestine,' written by Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi.
An excerpt from 'P is for Palestine,' written by Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi.Credit: Courtesy Dr. Golbarg Bashi
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK — A New Jersey library canceled a hearing scheduled for Wednesday on whether it should host a public reading of the children’s book “P is for Palestine,” citing citizen safety and crowd control concerns.  

In a compromise decision, the library said it would be scheduling a new date for the “P is for Palestine” event, including a talk with author Dr Golbarg Bashi, and also arranging a program around the book “I is for Israel” — by Gili Bar-Hillel and Prodeepta Das — as soon as possible. 

The announcement came after rival groups of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists vowed to demonstrate outside the Highland Park Public Library during Wednesday evening’s meeting, sparking fears of clashes and unrest after weeks of online spats between the groups. 

In a statement, Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler said she realized the decision to go ahead with the “P is for Palestine” event “will not please everyone and for some it sidesteps some deep concerns about the book reading.

'P is for Palestine,' written by Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi.
'P is for Palestine,' written by Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi.Credit: Courtesy Dr. Golbarg Bashi

“I share some of those concerns. Yet we in Highland Park can not solve the hotly contested Middle East conflicts. But we sure can show the world how we live in a peaceful, diverse community.”

Critics of “P is for Palestine” took particular issue with a two-page illustrated spread that reads: “I is for Intifada, Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or a grown-up!” Critics said the pages glorified the violent Palestinian uprisings in the late 1980s and early 2000s and constitute a “call for violence and terrorism.”

Author Bashi is an Iranian-born writer and instructor of Middle Eastern at Rutgers University. Her book had already sparked controversy when it was offered for sale at a popular bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side in 2017.

The Highland Park Public Library’s board of trustees had already canceled a previously scheduled reading of the book because of pressure from community members. 

Former State Assemblyman Dov Hikind told Haaretz that the decision to reschedule the “P Is for Palestine” reading was “cowardly” on the part of Brill Mittler. 

“The message they’re sending is simple: It’s OK to have a book that teaches children about the violent intifada so long as we also have one about Jews,” he said.

“The Highland Park Public Library sold its constituents out, and for real cheap,” Hikind wrote in a statement. “Shame on all of them for canceling the hearing and stifling the voices of democracy!”

Hikind vowed that “the Jewish community of Highland Park will exercise its constitutional right of assembly and protest to make sure their voices of opposition to the horrific indoctrination of children set to occur in their backyard are heard.”

In a Facebook Live video Bashi posted about the controversy prior to Wednesday's decision, the author said it was important for her to include “Intifada in the Palestinian context.”

Palestinians have for 71 years resisted peacefully, beautifully, [with] dance, [by] calling themselves Palestinian, telling their children the stories,” she said, making no mention of the violent uprisings. “How could I possibly not include that?”

However, Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg from nearby Edison posted on Facebook: “This book is anti-Semitic and does not belong in the Highland Park Library.” Rosenberg has vocally opposed the book over the past month on social media as well as in appearances on local media.

The Zionist Organization of America had also come out against the book reading.

“There are many programs that the library can host for children that will truly educate them and build community, instead of destroying it,” ZOA said in a statement. “A book reading of 'P is for Palestine' is not one of them.”

It added that the book’s description of intifada was “false and misinforms children. In fact, an intifada is a murderous campaign of terrorism that wreaks devastation and fear on innocent Israelis and Jews, including children.”

Bashi said in a social media post that efforts to cancel her reading had been harassment by “bullying Zionist vigilantes.”

“They are just a loud, self-entitled, racist minority who think they can actually ban book readings at a U.S. library in 2019 and get away with it,” she said. “And people wonder why there are virtually no children’s book in English about Palestine.”

Bashi was unable to attend Wednesday’s planned meeting due to “family obligations” and claimed the library’s board was aware of this when they initially arranged the hearing.

The Central New Jersey chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace organization applauded the decision to hold the book reading on a new date.

“Palestinian stories deserve to be told,” said JVP member Marion Munk. “As a proud Jewish member of this community, I’m thrilled that my local library won’t be censoring stories about Palestine.”

Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath also praised the library's decision to proceed with the book reading. “That said, the event should never have been canceled in the first place,” she said.

“Children have the right to hear about Palestinian culture without fear of government censorship,” Sainath added. 

This article was updated on June 5 at 21:10 to reflect the library's decision to cancel the meeting on "P is for Palestine."

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