Updated December 4, 2017: On November 29, Book Culture's co-owners were forced to put out a statement which says that they do not endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns for Palestinian rights, that they support Israel's right to exist and that they oppose terrorism. The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has now allowed the store to participate in an upcoming book fair.
Last week, a popular independent book store in New York’s Upper West Side, Book Culture, received calls to censor and denounce a children’s book, P is for Palestine, after the book’s author, Professor Golbarg Bashi, publicized an event at the store on an Upper East Side mother’s blog. Bashi also received death threats.
According to Book Culture’s owner, Chris Doeblin, the last time the store faced such threats was decades ago, after Iran issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for Satanic Verses. The call comes just two months after Book Culture celebrated Banned Books Week, an annual event educating the public on the problem of book censorship.
“The freedom to create literature and exchange ideas is vital to a free society,” said Palestine Legal Staff Attorney Radhika Sainath. “Writers should be able to humanize Palestinians without fearing for their safety.”
Bashi’s book 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.”
Israel advocates complained about the use of the word “Palestine” in the book’s title. A local synagogue also opposed the use of the word intifada to illustrate the letter I, threatening to ban Book Culture from an upcoming book fair if it did not denounce the book. The book states: “Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what’s right, if you are a kid or a grown up!” and depicts a Palestinian girl on her father’s back raising peace signs behind barbed wire.
Intifada is used to describe the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation and means “to shake off” in Arabic. Bashi said she used the word to describe daily acts of nonviolent resistance, from “carrying a Palestinian flag” to “wearing a Palestinian dress” and “protecting a Palestinian olive tree from being bulldozed.”
Israel advocacy groups have also pressured public libraries, museums and other institutions to alter, censor, or cancel university lectures and even plays, concerts and art exhibitions that they believe reflect poorly on Israel.
“As a new mother, I really notice the dearth of diverse children’s books,” said Sainath. “Book Culture and Bashi should be commended for standing up to censorship.”