The saga of a newly published ABC children’s book that has had adults up in arms just may have a happy ending after a summit this week between New York rabbis and an independent bookstore chain’s owners.
Once upon a time in mid-November, the launch of “P is for Palestine” was immediately met with controversy. The picture book was written by Iranian-born, part-time Pace University professor Golbarg Bashi, the founder of a gender and race conscious educational materials company that focuses on Arabic and Persian.
No sooner had Bashi announced online a November 18 reading at a Manhattan book store than some New York Jewish parents accused her of promoting hatred, violence and anti-Semitism.
In particular, the book’s “I is for Intifada” page enraged Jewish and Zionist parents. “I is for Intifada, Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or grownup!” reads the page illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi
with a child and father wearing keffiyahs standing near barbed wire and flashing V-for-victory signs.
Whatever Bashi may have intended, to Jews, “Intifada” connotes two separate bouts of prolonged Palestinian violence and terror from 1987-1991 and 2000-2005, during which some 1,300 Israelis were killed. Around 6,000 Palestinians were also killed during the Palestinian uprisings.
“That’s whitewashing violence,” said local parent Daniel Schwarz, whom The Times of Israel asked to locate and read a copy of “P is for Palestine.”
Schwarz said the book is arguably Palestinian propaganda in that it “advocates for the Palestinian right of return” while acknowledging neither Israel nor Jews.
Bashi refused this publication’s requests for a review copy of the book and an interview, but told JTA that she rejects the idea that the word “intifada” refers primarily to terror attacks, saying she sees intifada as referring to a broader cultural and nonviolent Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. Western media, she said, tend to emphasize Palestinian violence while not covering peaceful protest.
“Of course, absolutely, violence is wrong,” the author told JTA, emphasizing her opposition to terrorism. “I think that when you’re talking about an occupied people and you have an alphabetical book about that people, intifada is part of Palestinian life, to resist occupation. That resistance is overwhelmingly peaceful.”
However, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue announced it would bar Book Culture from participating in a book fair at the synagogue’s preschool scheduled for early December in light of its decision to carry the book.
“Of particular concern to me is the glorification of the Palestinian intifada — a cruel, murderous, and terroristic campaign that purposely targeted innocent Israelis, including children, in restaurants, buses, hospitals, schools and shopping malls… The intifada was not ‘a rising up for what is right.’ It was a mass descent into immorality,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch wrote in a letter to Book Culture co-owners Annie Hedrick, Chris Doeblin, and Rick MacArthur.
Chapter 1: What’s in a name?
Some readers suggested that if Bashi were really as progressive and interested in diversity as her company’s website claims, she should have used Israel for the letter I. Instead, in addition to “I is for intifada,” the book also employs miftach the Arabic word for “key,” to represent the letter M. “M is for Miftah… Key of Return, Mama’s Mama and My Jiddah’s Mama’s for which I yearn!”
To some Jewish ears, the desire for refugees to return to pre-1967 Israel represents an existential demographic threat for the Jewish state, and the outcry against the book mirrors Israel’s attempts to get the Palestinian Authority to crack down on Palestinian text books that deny Israel’s existence and incite to violence against Jews and Israelis.
However, for Palestinian parents living in the Palestinian diaspora, these terms have a different resonance. Furthermore, they have been happy to learn of this first English-language resource for connecting their children with their Palestinian culture and heritage.
“I would have bought the book if my kids were a younger age. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy the book for my future grandchildren,” a mother of Palestinian heritage raised in the UK and living in Bahrain told The Times of Israel.
In addition, some Jewish parents, while not necessarily on the same page politically with Bashi (who has been quoted by The New York Post as calling Israel “a racial and religious apartheid state”), are disturbed by the vitriol spewed, and want to turn the controversy into an opportunity for a community-wide cross-cultural dialogue.
Chapter 2: A Facebook post pits moms against moms
Bashi’s post on the UES (Upper East Side) Mommas Facebook page about her “P for Palestine” reading at Book Culture, an independent bookshop near the Columbia University campus, led to a temporary shutdown of the 27,000-member group.
According to group member Shira Kohn, Bashi’s original post received about 100 comments, mainly from a small but vocal group of opponents. Many were angry about what they perceived as Bashi’s politicizing of the parenting page for the sake of publicity and personal gain. (The book’s first printing of 2,000 copies was reportedly sold out as of November 20 — thanks in part to the widespread media coverage of the controversy.)
One mother concerned about anti-Semitism tagged the Anti-Defamation League, inviting it to weigh in. (The ADL did not respond to a Times of Israel request for comment.)
In an interview with Israeli left-leaning daily Haaretz, Bashi denied an anti-Semitic agenda.
“The charge of anti-Semitism is a very severe one and it is not something I take lightly,” Bashi told Haaretz.
“This is a book written from a place of love not a place of hatred. It is a book celebrating Palestinians and empowering their children without an iota of animus towards any other people — Israelis included,” she said.
In response to what Bashi termed “vulgar intimidation tactics” and “bullies,” she posted a statement on Facebook last week hitting back at “self-proclaimed powerful neighborhoods of New York City” who she claimed “racially-profile and incite hatred and violence against my person and my social-impact start-up.”
Things started to get out of hand after Bashi, feeling attacked, tagged her friend Palestinian-American leader and BDS supporter Linda Sarsour, bringing her and her Facebook followers into the conversation.
“After Bashi tagged Sarsour, the floodgates opened,” said Kohn, who has a doctorate in Jewish studies and history.
Then came threats against Book Culture, the bookshop that hosted the “P is for Palestine” event. The parent who sought out the book at the behest of The Times of Israel could not find it on display in the store’s children’s section.
“The book is only available from behind the counter. When I asked why, two cashiers told me that the store had received threats for carrying it,” Schwarz reported.
The owners, who contributed $650 towards the book’s production in a crowd-funding campaign, told the West Side Rag on November 28 about a planned meeting with Rabbi Hirsch to discuss their decision to support the book. However, they said they were loathe to ban books in general, and saw no reason to ban this one.
“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,” said Doeblin.
“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 said.
Chapter 3: Making room for other voices
Tehilah Eisenstadt, director of education and family engagement at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, unwittingly got caught in the fray when she advertised her upcoming “Pela” early childhood storytelling program at Book Culture.
Eisenstadt posted the announcement on the UWS (Upper West Side) Mommas Facebook page on November 19, the day after Bashi’s reading, and inadvertently stepped into a political minefield.
“Individuals wrote declaring Book Culture as being anti-Semitic and hating Jews. I noted my confusion and disagreement as a Jew who represents a synagogue [there] weekly,” said Eisenstadt, who has cooperated with the book store for over a year.
With the support of SAJ Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Eisenstadt is working with local religious leaders, Book Culture and the moderators of the UWS Mommas and UES Mommas Facebook groups toward convening a community dialogue as soon as possible to deal with the divisions highlighted by the publication of “P is for Palestine.”
But not everyone is interested in talking.
“I’ve been reading about Jews who want to sit and talk with the author and see the book from her perspective. Blah, blah, blah. Her book is darned clear… No acceptance of the grooming of young children to be the next generation filled with lies and hate,” wrote Facebook poster Shari Ungar in support of Hirsch’s letter to Book Culture.
In contrast, UES (Upper East Side) Mommas Facebook page member Kohn would welcome some civil discourse. As a liberal Zionist, she is deeply concerned by what she perceives as right wingers’ highjacking of discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among American Jews — even when it comes to a picture book.
“Honestly, it was vicious. I was disgusted at the tone of the comments hurled at Bashi,” said Kohn.
“I personally don’t agree with her politics and consider myself a Zionist. However, there was no room for my liberal Zionism in that debate. A very vocal group of Jewish women mocked Bashi’s book, saying that there was ‘no such thing as Palestine’ and asking for proof of either ‘Palestinian people’ or a ‘Palestinian language,'” Kohn said.
Kohn was particularly alarmed that many Jewish commenters on Facebook had not even read the book before sharing their views. She found some Jewish posters’ remarks to be in some cases outright “racist against Palestinians and Muslims,” with the equation of “Palestinian” with “terrorism.”
“The very idea of a Palestinian children’s book was horrifying to several Jewish mothers,” she said.
Kohn wished the angry Jewish parents would try to see things from the other side’s point of view and keep things in perspective.
“Seeing the hate by Jews being hurled at a children’s book was just so incredibly sad… Part of the Zionist in me died seeing what [some] Jews could write about others. That was not the Judaism or Zionism I knew,” she said.
Chapter 4: The Palestinian perspective
Iranian-born Bashi, who considers herself “Palestinian at heart,” penned the book as a way of connecting Palestinian youngsters living in the US, UK, Canada, and other English-speaking countries to their heritage, and to introduce Palestinian culture to other children.
In speaking with Haaretz, Bashi said that for Palestinians, Intifada is as much as part of their culture as Arabic, Bethlehem, Christmas — and that only those who demonize Palestinians associate it with violence.
“Intifada is an aspect of Palestinian life just as Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Wearing a Palestinian thob [dress], cooking a Palestinian dish, celebrating a Palestinian holiday, protecting an olive tree from being bulldozed… is a form of ‘Intifada,'” Bashi told Haaretz.
Areej Masarwa, coordinator of reading programs at Bidayat Early Childhood Centers and Programs at Al-Quasemi Academic College of Education in Baqa in northern Israel, agreed that “Intifada”— popular resistance — is a natural part of Palestinian life.
“There are even stories for children about Palestinian parents in Israeli prisons. Every Palestinian family has a member who was involved in one of the Intifadas. It’s part of Palestinian identity,” she said.
However, she stressed that west of the Green Line the term is not used in Arabic-language children’s literature.
A Palestinian-American mother of four who was raised in the UK warned that negating references — including more loaded ones — about the Palestinian experience is to negate the reality of the experience.
She charged those who claim that “P for Palestine” politicizes the Palestinian issue with fundamentally misunderstanding the Palestinian experience.
“When you are of Palestinian heritage you bear the burden of the past and of the highly tenuous political present… You have become a politicized human being with a convoluted identity that can be very challenging. This book is an honest attempt at helping parents or grandparents navigate that cultural white water,” she said.
For Masarwa, a book strengthening a child’s ethnic identity or sense of national belonging is something positive, but its crafting and choice of language must be approached with deliberation.
Masarwa said she would be careful about exposing young children to a book that emphasizes the conflict. She prefers stories recognizing and promoting respect for the identities and perspectives of all the different people living in the Holy Land.
“We shouldn’t forget our story and rights as Palestinians, but children feel more secure and confident in their own identities if they are exposed to those of other people,” she said.
“It is deeply important for children to see mirrors of themselves in their books, and children need to have windows into the lives of children whose experiences or appearances are different from their own,” echoed Eisenstadt, who works half a world away with Jewish families in New York.
The Palestinian mom in Bahrain thinks developing empathy is the key.
“There are two stories in the Israel-Palestine experience and we cannot deny either one of them. Instead, we must work to find a common understanding for a chance for peace,” she said.
Conclusion? A bridge over troubled waters
In what could be the final chapter of this saga, New York rabbis and the bookstore chain’s owners came together earlier this week to draft a document of mutual understanding.
A December 3 West Side Rag article reports that rabbis at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (SWFS) and the co-owners of Book Culture came to a “mutually agreeable resolution,” which will allow the synagogue to proceed with hosting Book Culture at its preschool holiday book fair on December 7.
According to the report, Rabbis Ammiel Hirsch, Diana Fersko and Samantha Natov represented the synagogue in the meeting with Book Culture’s three co-owners, Chris Doeblin, Annie Hedrick and Rick MacArthur.
After the meeting, Book Culture released a statement on the synagogue’s website, which was also mailed to synagogue members:
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).
According to JTA, the synagogue did not demand that the store pull the book from its shelves.
“We are fierce believers in the right of free expression,” a statement signed by the synagogue clergy said. “Bookstores have a critical role to play in free societies, and in particular, in our increasingly polarized country. If Book Culture wants to carry and promote Dr. Bashi’s book, it is for them to decide.”
“This is also not about Palestinian national culture or rights. We support a two-state solution,” the statement continued. “We believe that it is important for American Jews to hear the views of Palestinians.”
Hirsch, the former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, told JTA: “We do not want to host people who have anti-Israel, anti-Zionist views. I don’t know what the current or future relationship of the store is to the book. We didn’t want to get into the business of telling the bookstore what books to carry.”
Bashi, however, who lives in New York, feels the synagogue inappropriately pressured the bookstore to take a position, and that the incident could have a chilling effect on other bookstores, which could become scared to carry the book. She called the synagogue’s opposition to the book, and its initial criticism of Book Culture, “mob-like behavior.”
“By doing so, you’re basically saying don’t you dare hold a reading, don’t you dare stock this book,” she said. “I’m an Upper West Side mother myself, and I find it dismaying that a religious institution can force businesses in that manner.”
JTA contributed to this report.