By Lisa Kava
A local rabbi and a local bookstore have clashed over a children’s alphabet book called “ P is for Palestine.” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (SWFS) on West 68th Street sent an email last week to the co-owners of Book Culture on Columbus Avenue, who partially funded the book and hosted a reading for the author, Dr. Golbarg Bashi, on November 18th.
In the letter Rabbi Hirsch asked Book Culture’s owners to publicly rescind their support of this book. He said that if Book Culture continues to support the book they will not be allowed to participate in an upcoming book fair at the synagogue’s preschool scheduled for early December.
“P is for Palestine” is an ABC book for young children written in English that aims to teach young children about some of the basic ideas and traditions in Palestinian culture. The book includes pages such as “A is for Arabic my native tongue, a language that’s the fourth biggest ever sung” and “E is for Eid it means festival …when we eat enticing eats.”
The page in the book that Rabbi Hirsch strongly objects to reads “I is for Intifada. Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or a grown up!” The Rabbi said “The Intifada is about murder, killing of innocent Israelis not all Jewish, that makes it impossible to host Book Culture if they continue to sponsor this book. There are other more subtle issues with the book but the specific most egregious issue is the page about the intifada. This is a specific reference that promotes murder. We can’t take a book that is geared towards young children that has certain elements in it including the most offensive part of promoting the intifada, we simply can’t host either the author or the bookstore that has subsidized and supported the author in our synagogue during a Jewish book fair.”
SWFS announced the details in a post on their Facebook page and on the synagogue’s website.
Book Culture’s owners responded to the Rabbi’s email and they are planning to meet with him this week in person to discuss. The date and time for this meeting has not yet been set.
Rabbi Hirsch told West Side Rag in an interview, “We (SWFS and Book Culture) are both part of the same community on the Upper West Side. We are supportive of the concept of Book Culture. We both occupy a progressive social sphere. I am actually pained that we don’t see eye to eye on this issue and I am eager to hear from them as to what is motivating them and for them to hear from us as to why we have taken such great offense.” When asked if he would be open to speaking to the author as well, the Rabbi responded “I would be happy to meet the author. I believe in dialogue I believe in reason and hearing people out I believe in tolerance. But the immediate issue is not about the author, it is between us and Book Culture.”
Rabbi Hirsch was not the first to be offended by “P is for Palestine.” A post by the author in a Facebook group of Manhattan moms caused such acrimony that the group was shut down. The author of the book was a member of the Facebook group UES Mommas and she posted in that group to promote her book along with her Nov 18th reading at Book Culture. Her post sparked such heated arguments and verbal attacks among members that the administrators of the group deactivated the page last week. The group was since reactivated with new rules for posting (no politics allowed) and additional admins.
Chris Doeblin, one of Book Culture’s co-owners, spoke with us about his reaction to the rabbi’s letter. “Our view is taken from the context of bookselling and ideas in general. Our openness to a broad range of ideas, even those we do not agree with is essential. Censorship of books is a very grave thing to propose. As owners of the store we may each have differences in our point of view on ‘P is for Palestine’, but we are obligated to the First Amendment.”
“In spite of my own belief in the First Amendment, there are books we would not carry because they are so offensive to us. While there are strong sets of arguments on both sides of this particular book, the book is quite a long way from the borderline of becoming inadmissible,” he added.
Since the Rabbi’s objection went beyond Book Culture selling the book and focused on the fact that the store helped fund the book and hosted a reading for the author, we asked Doeblin his thoughts on that. He explained that the author of the book is married to a man he has known for 30 years and that the author and her husband together have been friends, neighbors and supporters of the store. “When his wife asked me to buy 100 copies of the book to help get it off the ground and to have a reading at the store I did not feel that I needed to vet the book. This was about community-based support of children’s books.”
Doeblin told West Side Rag that he believes it is essential to have books that portray the various ethnicities, genders and points of view in our community and that the store is open to promoting a broad range of opinions. He noted that difficult conversations are happening all over the country and said “there is a lot of shutting people out of conversation. The solution cannot be to shut down the other side left or right. Words matter. Words have the power to change people’s minds. We need to be able to listen to different viewpoints.”
Doeblin says the store tries to represent many different viewpoints in its readings and selections. Tammar Stein, the author of a book called “The Six Day Hero” which is published by an Israeli publisher, will be reading from her book at Book Culture Columbus Avenue on December 10th. “The Six Day Hero” is a book geared towards middle grade readers about an Israeli family’s experience during the Six Day War. The story is told from the point of view of a 12 year old Israeli boy in the family.
We asked Doeblin how he felt about the page in the book “P is for Palestine” that references the intifada. “People have written to me that the use of the word intifada is offensive enough to be censored,” he said. “I am not in a position to make a claim as to if that is valid or invalid. I do not want to be involved in a discussion about the word intifada. I can have a discussion about censorship and the First Amendment.”
Dr. Golbarg Bashi, the book’s author, is an Upper West Side mom. She told us that her book is about empowering children of Palestinian background to feel good about who they are. She said that it is the first children’s alphabet book about Palestine written in English. She said it is not an anti Israel book and that she is not anti Israel. She also told us that she has had positive reactions to her book. “I have received letters from all over the world thanking me for writing ( the book.)”
When asked how she felt about Rabbi Hirsch’s letter to Book Culture she said “I am dismayed that a religious institution would interfere with the freedom of expression of writers and publishers in this country.”
“People should not threaten the livelihood of progressive independent bookstores. This is saying ‘Burn the book.’ I am shocked. Since the Rabbi’s email I have received a volume of hate mail and death threats.”
When we brought her attention to the controversial page referencing the intifada, the author responded “I think it is very important to keep in mind that when you have an occupied people they will have resistance. The resistance has multi-faceted representations, most of which are creative, artistic and peaceful. Intifada in the Palestinian context also has the manifestations of peace. The illustration on the page is of a father and a child holding a peace sign. I am against violence towards any human being. In my book the intifada stands for the peaceful and the artistic resistance to occupation.”
Rabbi Hirsch said that he is looking forward to meeting with the owners of Book Culture to discuss the issues. “I am eager to meet with them,” he said. “I’ll learn more from them as to what they are thinking and I want them to hear from us as to why segments of the New York population have responded this way.” Rabbi Hirsch is hopeful that he and Book Culture’ s owners will have a productive conversation. But he remains firm in his stance. “There are parts of this book that are particularly offensive and not the right message to send to anyone, let alone young children. We simply can’t host either the author or the book store that has subsidized and supported the author in our synagogue during a Jewish book fair organized by our preschool. So for those reasons we are extending our hand to meet with them.”
We asked the author if she would be willing to talk to the Rabbi and she said “I would love to. I would be happy to be a part of the conversation between Book Culture and the synagogue.”