By Lisa Kava
A rift between a local synagogue and a bookshop over a book on Palestine appears to be over.
The rabbis at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (SWFS) and the co-owners of Book Culture came to a mutually agreeable resolution after meeting earlier this week, both sides said.
Following the meeting, Book Culture’s co-owners issued a statement, clarifying their views on the book “P is for Palestine” by Dr. Golbarg Bashi, that will enable SWFS to move forward with hosting Book Culture at the synagogue’s preschool holiday book fair scheduled to begin on December 7. The three rabbis at SWFS (Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Rabbi Diana Fersko and Rabbi Samantha Natov) and the three co-owners of Book Culture (Chris Doeblin, Annie Hedrick and Rick MacArthur) all participated in the meeting. Book Culture’s statement below was posted on SWFS’s website along with a letter to synagogue members.
Book Culture’s statement says:
- We regret that we did not fully appreciate the political or communal ramifications of the children’s book P is for Palestine by Dr. Golbarg Bashi, nor did we anticipate the pain and distress it has caused in our community. We now understand these much better.
- We oppose terrorism or other forms of violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians during the intifada or thereafter. Any impression from the book to the contrary is not our view.
- We support Israel’s right to exist.
- We do not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
In a follow up interview with West Side Rag, Chris Doeblin, one of Book Culture’s co-owners, said “We issued a statement that we already believed in but had not made clear. We believe in Israel’s right to exist as a nation and we are opposed to terrorism and violence of any kind. We do not support divestment from Israel, which is something the author has been associated with.” (On Dr. Bashi’s Instagram profile, she identifies herself with the BDS movement.)
When we asked Doeblin if his view of the word ”intifada” has changed since the meeting at SWFS he replied “Definitely. I see that it was hurtful. To use hurtful words is not the way to a peaceful future. The Rabbi made it very clear that to him personally the intifada was nothing but an extremely horrible murderous event with Palestinians directing violence towards the most innocent Jewish people and Israelis they could find including women, children and those in hospitals. He added “ As a bookseller we try not to be offensive. But there is no way we can be ahead of every single thought and idea in every book that comes into our store. If I was careful and cautious enough that I never carried a book contentious in any way I think I would be doing a disservice to publishers and authors. Yet we want to be respectful. We are neighbors. If thousands of people in the community are hurt I think we are obligated as a neighbor and a community member to listen and to make a change.”
Doeblin said that he has not spoken with the author since his meeting at SWFS. He said “ We are not going to remove the book from our shelves but want to make clear that we do not support terrorism and violence against Israel and we do not support divestment from Israel.”
Rabbi Hirsch was pleased with the outcome of the meeting and told us that he had three goals going into the meeting, all of which were accomplished. His first goal was to resolve the issue to the mutual satisfaction of both SWFS and Book Culture. His second goal was for Book Culture to clarify for the general public their views on Israel and their views on the intifada. “They have now acknowledged that the intifada was terrorism. This was important to us.” said Rabbi Hirsch. Dr. Bashi has said that “In my book the intifada stands for the peaceful and the artistic resistance to occupation.”
The third goal, said Rabbi Hirsch was “for us to have another opportunity to explain to a broad audience what the intifada really was and that nobody should be supporting that kind of terrorism against anyone, let alone innocent Israeli citizens including children and babies. It gave us an additional opportunity to counter the Palestinian effort to undermine Israel’s moral standing.” Rabbi Hirsch explained “it was important to me to counter the authors suggestion that the Palestinian national movement is peaceful and I am glad that Book Cultures’ owners agree. That is substantial progress from our perspective.”
Rabbi Hirsch wrote in his letter that he did not consider the issue to be one of free speech (he did not ask Book Culture to pull the book from the store) or one about Palestinian national culture or rights (he and the synagogue support a two state solution). His letter states “The issue is, are we obligated in the name of free expression of ideas, no matter how absurd or offensive such ideas are…to host an entity that showcases an author who glorifies violence against innocent Israelis?”
Looking ahead, Doeblin is currently working in partnership with Tehilah Eisenstadt, the Director of Education and Family Engagement at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) on West 86th to organize a “restorative process” event to be held at Book Culture’s 112th Street store. Eisenstadt, who conducts weekly readings of various children’s books at Book Culture told West Side Rag that she is organizing this event outside of her capacity as a representative for SAJ but as an individual who wants to offer the opportunity for dialogue around difficult issues. “Chris and I are looking to host a restorative process, a conversation where people can listen and understand what motivated the different and passionate reactions around the book “P is for Palestine” and the book reading,” Eisenstadt said. “This is an opportunity to restore community conversation instead of shutting it down.”
Eisenstadt is working on finding a highly skilled restorative practitioner to act as a moderator for the event. She is hoping for the event to take place on December 11th (it may be delayed until January if she cannot find the right facilitator) The event will be open to the public. Eisenstadt welcomes anyone who is interested in learning more to contact her through direct message on Facebook.