A New York City bookseller faced threats of violence from Israel supporters before it caved in to demands to sign a statement repudiating the nonviolent BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.
The statement, written by a local rabbi, also declares that Israel has a “right to exist.”
Columbia University Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace are reaffirming a call to boycott the bookseller, Book Culture, unless it rescinds the statement.
Book Culture issued the statement in the wake of threats and intimidation because it was promoting a children’s book called P is for Palestine.
The petition, signed by 18 faculty members and almost 200 students, alumni and community members, accuses Book Culture of “bowing to pressure from pro-Israel groups that seek to silence literary representations of the Palestinian right to resist.”
“Book Culture’s suppression of literary freedom is profoundly demoralizing, especially given its stated allegiance to free speech and progressive values,” the petition adds.
Many students from Columbia and other area colleges order their course books through the independent bookseller.
The student groups liken Book Culture’s capitulation to the recent retreat by the New Orleans city council, which repealed a human rights measure due to concerns it could be used to hold Israel accountable. They also compare it to the United Nations’ suppression of a report on Israeli apartheid.
Such cave-ins “embolden Zionist organizations agitating against Palestinian human rights; they come to learn that violence, blackmail and censorship tactics work,” student groups stated in affirmation of the boycott call.
“People could get hurt”
Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Book Culture, said that as soon as news broke that one of the store’s branches would be hosting an 18 November reading by Golbarg Bashi, author of the children’s alphabet book P is for Palestine, “a terrific and virulent storm” ensued.
“We, the staff and the store in general, received threats of mayhem, violence, obstruction, boycotting and the like from emails, in person and phone calls,” Doeblin told The Electronic Intifada.
“On the day of the event itself, the owners of the store came and stood together to proclaim in person that we would not be cowed into removing the book or refusing to host the presentation of P is for Palestine,” he said.
“Following the event the onslaught of opinion and the effort to censor the book continued,” Doeblin added.
Asked to describe the threats, Doeblin said, “they were, for example, ‘you better watch out’ and ‘some people could get hurt.’”
The store was concerned enough to notify the New York Police Department, though Doeblin said they did not send an officer to watch the event as requested.
Asked if he would characterize the people making the threats as pro-Israel, Doeblin responded, “Yes, absolutely.”
The store attempted to appease the anger.
Doeblin told The Electronic Intifada that at the request of a “group of young mothers” who were attacking P is for Palestine, his store hosted a reading of a children’s book glorifying Israeli combatants in the 1967 War which marked the beginning of Israel’s brutal, ongoing occupation and its illegal colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Syria’s Golan Heights.
P is for Palestine author Golbarg Bashi told The Electronic Intifada that all hell broke loose after she posted an announcement about her planned reading on Upper East Side Mommas, a Facebook group with more than 27,000 members.
Bashi was taken aback by the level of vitriol she encountered, with attacks not only mischaracterizing the book, but denigrating the Iranian-Swedish author because of her ancestry.
“I was immediately slandered and threatened in that forum. In a page for mothers, I saw naked racism and class-based prejudice in the eye,” Bashi stated on Facebook.
All this over a children’s book: as the civil liberties group Palestine Legal explains, P is for Palestine “features a Palestinian girl with black curly hair who takes a diverse group of children through an illustrated ‘alphabetic adventure to Palestine’ with phrases such as ‘B is for Bethlehem,’ ‘F is for Falafel’ and ‘J is for Jesus.’”
But what raised the ire of Israel supporters, according to Palestine Legal, is “the use of the word ‘Palestine’ in the book’s title” and the “use of the word intifada to illustrate the letter i.”
For this, one member of the Upper East Side Mommas accused Bashi of “inciting death.” Another declared, “Nothing more racist than Muslims!!!!!!!”
Such was the hostility that the moderators had to temporarily shut the group down.
But that was not the only online forum for incitement against Bashi and her book.
Incitement and intimidation
On 20 November, the Facebook page “United With Israel” posted an attack on P is for Palestine, exclaiming, “We cannot believe that such a disgusting children’s book that supports violence is being sold right in the USA!!!”
Almost 2,000 Facebook users “liked” the post slamming the “sick book” and dozens chimed in with calls to boycott anyone who sold it.
The thread quickly devolved into open bigotry against Muslims.
Online incitement morphed into real-life aggression: when a group of progressive Jewish parents in New York City decided to show support for P is for Palestine by holding a reading for their children at a Hanukkah party, it was invaded by a violent right-wing group.
“As our kids settled down to hear P is for Palestine, four uniformed members of the Jewish Defense League moved into position behind them and started filming and harassing them,” parent and anti-racist activist Emmaia Gelman recounted.
But the hatred and incitement came not just from the Jewish Defense League. Supposedly progressive quarters were arguably even more effective in their hateful attacks.
Written by rabbi
In November, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the nominally progressive Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York’s Upper West Side declared that the book’s inclusion of the word “intifada” meant that it “promotes murder,” and as a result Book Culture would be barred from taking part in the synagogue’s upcoming book fair because it sold P is for Palestine.
That is when Book Culture’s owners were called in by the synagogue.
“We were asked to agree to a statement that is now public record written by the rabbi,” Doeblin wrote to The Electronic Intifada. “Some of that statement puts us in a pro-Israel light and anti-BDS.”
Doeblin insists he was never asked to remove the book from sale and would not have agreed to do so, although according to Palestine Legal, the bookstore for a time “hid” the book “behind the cash register.”
In early February, Book Culture’s stores on 112th Street and at Broadway and 114th Street both said they had copies in stock. The book is published and sold online by Bashi’s own company, which bills itself as a “diverse children’s educational start-up, focused on regions and languages with the Arabic and Persian scripts.”
In the statement published on the synagogue’s website on 29 November, Book Culture expresses “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.”
Book Culture also states that “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,” the statement adds. “We do not endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).”
“Under the bus”
For Bashi and supporters of Palestinian rights, the statement caused shock and dismay.
“It was very sad reading it – I’ve known Chris for a very long time — you know, the way he threw me under the bus,” Bashi told The Electronic Intifada.
According to the student groups, the statement “elided the structural violence enacted on Palestinians by the Israeli state.”
It made “a racist conflation between the term ‘intifada’ and terrorism” and “insinuated that the book promotes terrorism by mentioning the intifadas” – the successive Palestinian uprisings against Israeli military occupation.
The student groups also note that the statement includes repudiation of BDS and an affirmation of Israel’s “right to exist” even though P is for Palestine makes no reference to either.
Following the publication of Book Culture’s statement by the synagogue, students and faculty signed the petition calling for a boycott of the store until it rescinds the statement.
Students engaged with the store in an effort to persuade it to do so.
“In the course of several meetings with co-owner Chris Doeblin, we outlined the issues we had both with the content of the statement and the precedent set through the decision to release it,” Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace stated in early February.
According to the student groups, Doeblin “initially showed interest in releasing a public statement acknowledging the issues with the [Stephen Wise Free Synagogue] statement,” but then backed off, telling them in an email that he had “concluded that the best course is not to make any further statements now.”
Doeblin told The Electronic Intifada that during the meetings, “we had a great deal of difficulty finding language that I was comfortable with, because I didn’t want to retract what we had gone on the record saying, as it was just going to cause more confusion.”
Yet Doeblin also seems now to acknowledge – without saying it explicitly – that signing the statement was ill-considered.
“I don’t want to be offensive to anybody but it was a statement for what we thought was a limited group of congregants,” Doeblin said.
“If we had sat in the room with the rabbi and he said, look we’re going to create a public statement together to be released to the world, we maybe would have been a lot more cautious and been a lot less open to him writing anything and not editing it.”
Doeblin also said that BDS was “not something we were even aware of.”
Unwilling to back down, Doeblin now presents Book Culture as the hapless, well-meaning victim caught between two warring and unyielding sides.
He emphasizes that the store actively supported P is for Palestine by pre-ordering 100 copies and promising to promote it.
“We refuse to be used and politicized by any side,” Doeblin added. “Our goal is that one continues to find books that both support and oppose any and all of one’s ideas in our stores.”
He told The Electronic Intifada that it was “distressing” to hear threats of boycotts from “both sides.”
Yet this effort to equate two “sides” is misleading – though it is the type of position Palestinians have become accustomed to in much mainstream and liberal commentary.
Asked if Book Culture or its staff received any threats of violence from people he would characterize as pro-Palestinian, Doeblin responded succinctly: “No.”
He acknowledged that the reading of the children’s book glorifying Israel’s 1967 attack passed off with “no obstruction, no threats.”
Doeblin acknowledged that supporters of Palestinian rights have not asked him to make any statement endorsing their views, but simply to rescind the statement he signed to appease the anti-Palestinian groups.
“While the [Stephen Wise Free Synagogue] and other Israel supporters in the community seek to compel Book Culture to take a political stand, our demand has always been to maintain Book Culture as a neutral space,” the student groups state.
They add that they are not asking the bookseller to take a position on BDS, or to endorse or condemn particular books.
“All we ask is for Book Culture to assert its role as a community space for education and dialogue, to take no stand on Palestine and Palestine literature, just as it does with its books that span the entire political spectrum.”
Doeblin insists that whatever people make of his position, “I think it’s very important to have and to support bookstores, and an open free media.” He said that it is wrong for “anyone to try and boycott or shut down a bookstore.”
That position will undoubtedly find instinctive support among some liberals.
But boycott campaigners point out that while pleading for open discussion, Book Culture is colluding with longstanding Israel lobby bullying tactics that have systematically shut down free discussion by smearing Palestinians and their cause as inherently violent and “terrorist.”
“We choose to boycott because we know that, in years past, community mobilization has proved an effective strategy for holding Book Culture accountable to its progressive vision, as in the case of Book Culture’s prior union-busting,” the student groups assert.
“The main reason why progressive faculty have opted over the years to order their course books for students from Book Culture was on account of the bookstore being independent and progressive compared with the Columbia Bookstore, which is part of the Barnes and Noble empire,” Joseph Massad, one of the Columbia faculty who signed the petition, told The Electronic Intifada.
“Unlike Barnes and Noble though, Book Culture decided to take a public and unequivocal position in support of settler-colonialism and in support of the violent suppression of Palestinian rights,” Massad added.
“We chose Book Culture over other book stores because we believed it to be a more progressive alternative; with its new position it has become even more objectionable than the others,” Massad said.
“Its being the last independent bookstore in the Columbia neighborhood can in no way be used as a counterweight to its right-wing support of violence against the indigenous Palestinians.”
Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.