My talk about my book has been canceled by the Evanston Public Library.
I consider this to be a politically motivated and blatant act of censorship.
It fundamentally contravenes the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights which states, among other things, that libraries “should challenge censorship” and “should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”
I learned about the cancelation like everyone else, from a Tweet from the library’s account that my talk would be “rescheduled,” and from the fact that the event has been removed from its calendar.
To be clear, I have had no discussions with the library or the co-sponsors about rescheduling the event in the future. It was unilaterally canceled by library director Karen Danczak Lyons.
There were however clear warning signs that this act of censorship was about to take place.
The event had been initiated and co-sponsored by a local Evanston group called Neighbors for Peace, which had been working for months to schedule and organize the event.
On Friday, I received an email from Lesley Williams, director of Adult Services at the library:
Dear Mr. Abunimah,
I am very sorry to have to write to you today. A few weeks ago, when I was talking to the Evanston Library administrative team about your appearance here, I told my director that I was looking for a pro Israeli speaker for sometime in the fall. She told me she would be more comfortable if we had that nailed down before your reading.
Today she told me that since I have not yet confirmed a pro Israel speaker she want[s] us to cancel your appearance on the 11th. This was of course an enormous shock. I am hoping she will allow us to still have the program, but sponsored by Neighbors for Peace and not as a library sponsored event, but merely a room rental.
Williams said that members of Neighbors for Peace were discussing that option, and added:
Please accept my abject apologies. I had no idea the program would be cancelled if I didn’t confirm an Israeli speaker before the 11th. I explained to her [the director] that re-scheduling a high profile writer and speaker like yourself will not be easy, but she is firm on the notion of “balance.”
I will keep you informed of what gets decided. Let’s hope for the best.
As noted, I learned from the library’s Twitter feed today that the event has now been canceled.
Originally, the event had been scheduled for 4 August, but it was changed to 11 August at the request of Williams because the original date coincides with the eve of the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, which in Jewish belief commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
In a 26 June email, Williams had asked if I would be open to changing the date so that my friend, the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council member Rabbi Brant Rosen could introduce me – otherwise his pastoral duties would have kept him away.
I had no problem with that at all. But in a more troubling statement that reflects the political pressure the library is under, Williams wrote to me that Tisha B’Av is seen as “a day of great disasters for the Jewish people” and to “host a program on Israel and Palestine on that day could be seen as an intentional provocation and might antagonize some of the people we hope to reach.”
On the alternative date of 11 August, Williams wrote, “there are no conflicts on either the library or the Jewish calendar.”
I believe Williams has good intentions and was reflecting what she was told by others.
That is partly why, at the time, I kept my concern over her statement to myself and I agreed to change the date out of a desire to ensure that the event would be, and be seen to be, as inclusive and welcoming as possible.
It seems, however, that despite my efforts, I am the only person who is not welcome at the Evanston Public Library.
I had planned to read from my book a section providing context on the situation in Gaza as well as speaking about Israel’s horrifying, ongoing massacre there which has killed more than 1,650 people, the vast majority of them civilians, including 300 children.
Thanks to director Karen Danczak Lyons’ censorship edict, I won’t have the chance to do that at the Evanston Public Library. But I will continue to do so everywhere else.