Chicago Mideast Librarian suffers retaliation for doing his job

EI’s Ali Abunimah writes: David Williams, a long-time, active and great friend of Palestinian rights, was for many years Middle East history librarian for the Chicago Public Library.

David was transferred from his job, he has learned, primarily in retaliation for his activities to educate the city about Palestinian human rights and a lecture series he helped organize. He also believes that this retaliation was prompted by his informational leafletting of an appearance by Elie Wiesel at the Chicago Public Library. Several years ago, I participated in a film-showing and lecture organized by David about a project to gather oral histories of Chicago Palestinians who were among those expelled or forced to flee from Palestine in 1948, and I know first-hand that David has done very important educational work.

His full account and call for action is below.

He says “I would urge all of you to join with the Librarians & Patrons Public Alert in a protest at the Chicago Public Library Board meeting on Tuesday November 19. Please gather at the State Street entrance to the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State at 10:00AM this coming Tuesday, before attending the Library Board meeting at 10:30.”

David says “for more information call me at 773-244-1480 or e-mail me at”

From David Williams, former Middle East bibliographer of the Harold Washington Library Center

November 13, 2002

As many of my friends and fellow activists know, I was recently involuntarily transferred from my longtime position as a history reference librarian and bibliographer at the Harold Washington Library Center to the Bessie Coleman Branch at 63rd & Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn community. My removal from the main library was part of a larger “re-balancing” of the library workforce by the administration of Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey, whereby some two dozen veteran reference librarians and subject specialists were scattered to faraway branches in violation of the seniority provisions in our union contract. The implications of Dempsey’s downsizing of the reference staff at the central library and “minimalization” of the book collection have been covered in other recent appeals I have sent out (if you have not received any of these appeals, please contact me). In short, the CPL administration’s aims have been manifold: to free-up additional “bodies” to alleviate staff shortages in a library system where new branches are being constructed without hiring additional necessary staff; to drive some older staff into early retirement as a consequence of long commutes to work, uprooting them from the work which they trained for and enjoyed; to break-up informal groupings of library staff who were resistant to administrative dictates, etc.

The “balancing” of the library staff has also afforded Dempsey’s administration a golden opportunity to settle old scores. I have long been a public critic of what I regard as gross mismanagement of the library system by an administration which follows in lock-step with the Daley Machine’s even grosser mismanagement of our City government and municipal resources. But what is relevant to the particular communities to which I address this appeal is my long record of speaking-out publicly on the issue of Palestinian national and human rights and the requirements for a just settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many of you will recall how I was attacked by the Anti Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council after publication by the library of my 1989 bibliography on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and how only timely public exposure of their bullying tactics forced them to retreat and agree to an “updated version” of the bibliography which preserved and even enhanced its credibility and usefulness. Following that memorable clash, I then took documentation on Israeli censorship and human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Territories to the American Library Association and succeeded in placing the ALA officially on-record against these Israeli abuses in 1992. In response, the Anti Defamation League, Hadassah and other hardline Zionist organizations mobilized nationwide and brought overwhelming pressure to bear on the ALA, forcing revocation of ALA’s criticism of Israel in 1993. In the aftermath, I was more or less hounded out of the ALA in 1995, being removed by star-chamber proceedings from my position as an elected member of the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Action Council. At that time, Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey (who assumed her office as Daley’s appointee in 1994) went out of her way to slap me with a formal reprimand and one-day suspension without pay for using library fax and phone lines in my ALA-related activity — something I had been allowed to do openly and without question for the preceding six years, as is customary for library staff who are professionally active.

Dempsey’s unusual interest in my Palestinian-support activity may have been motivated by her close relationship to the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain and other enterprises and among the wealthiest supporters of the State of Israel. As president of the Chicago Public Library Board throughout the 1990s, Cindy Pritzker was a close backer and collaborator of many of Mary Dempsey’s projects (she was also rumored to have been among those in 1989 bringing behind-the-scenes pressure on then-Library Commissioner John Duff over the matter of the offending bibliography). Just as the Daley family and administration maintain very close ties to leading Jewish-Zionist figures in the Democratic Party (note Richard Daley’s heavy-handed support for Rahm Emmanuel in the spring 2002 congressional primary and Bill Daley’s recent chairing of a gala fundraiser for F. David Radler, publisher of the Sun-Times and chairman of the board of the Jerusalem Post), so the library administration has found ways to signal its support for Zionist causes. For example, the celebration of Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” (and of Elie Wiesel himself as icon) as the centerpiece of last spring’s “One Book, One Chicago” may not have been entirely innocent: it coincided with the launching of the Sharon government’s savage assault on the Palestinians in the West Bank, and Wiesel’s impending visit was heralded by a front-page interview in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine in which he duly denounced Arab terrorism. His celebrity appearance in the Harold Washington Library Center’s Winter Garden — for which local Zionist organizations reportedly bought up all the tickets the moment they went on sale — was nothing if not an open advertisement for Israel and Zionism.

So on that day last May, I took a day off and passed out a leaflet in front of the Harold Washington Library Center, taking Wiesel to task for his oft-repeated equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and his having made a career out of using the Holocaust to build support for Israel and Zionism. Three separate times I was threatened with arrest by library security if I did not move to the next block north of the library (in front of Pritzker Park!). Apparently HWLC security had been ordered to thus threaten my First Amendment rights, but were obviously reluctant to do so, as I was on a public sidewalk and obstructing no one. I stood my ground, and in the end was cordially acknowledged by one of the top security supervisors and left alone to finish my solitary leafletting.

In the week before Wiesel’s visit my library “Society in Focus” series hosted Norman Finkelstein, author of the “Holocaust Industry” and other acclaimed books denouncing Zionist propaganda and practices. The announcement of Finkelstein’s upcoming forum prompted a special inquiry by a top administrative aide from Dempsey’s office (the same aide later reportedly oversaw the special security arrangements in the HWLC’s Winter Garden during Wiesel’s appearance there), who claimed unique authority to approve the text of the Finkelstein program announcement! During that month of May I also screened the recent documentary “Tragedy in the Holy Land” by independent Chicago film maker Denis Mueller, prompting a warning from the then-Assistant Commissioner Barbara Ford that my Society in Focus programs would soon have to be approved by a specially-appointed committee! That prophecy came to pass a month later when my new department head (replacing my retiring boss of twenty years) arrived in the Social Sciences & History Division announcing formation of a large departmental programing committee and brandishing an elaborate set of guidelines (drawn-up in consultation with Barbara Ford) to be fulfilled for any future Society in Focus events.

Needless to say, the Society in Focus series as we’ve known it effectively ended with my transfer to 63rd & Cottage Grove. I was later told “off-the-record” by an official in my union that the Dempsey administration had been furious with my daring to leaflet Elie Wiesel and that this was a major cause of my being transferred. I have also been told by at least a couple of other union officials that Dempsey’s administration had actually queried the union about possible ways that I could be legally fired from my job!

This fall, I have worked with Not In My Name, the Chicago Coalition Against War & Racism, and other organizations to present a series on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Chicago Public Library Lincoln Park Branch. I have undertaken this outside of my capacity as a library staffer. Of course this on-going series has been the target of some complaints by hardline Zionists, including possibly organizations which protested my library bibliography in 1989. In the past week or so there have been disturbing reports that the Dempsey administration may be preparing major disciplinary action against me in response to these Zionist-engineered complaints. If this comes to pass, I will call on all supporters of a just Middle East peace and indeed all supporters of the First Amendment to publicly defend me against such an attack.

In the meantime, my removal from the main library is a loss for all supporters of Palestinian rights and a just Middle East peace. Among the other responsibilities from which I was relieved, I am no longer the Middle East history librarian for the central library, and the fate of that collection (as that of all other book collections at the HWLC) is unclear. Nor will there be a Society in Focus series as we have known it to host the plethora of progressive speakers and public discussions of important social issues and historical events which I arranged since 1987. On that basis alone, I would urge all of you to join with the Librarians & Patrons Public Alert in a protest at the Chicago Public Library Board meeting on Tuesday November 19. Please gather at the State Street entrance to the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State at 10:00AM this coming Tuesday, before attending the Library Board meeting at 10:30.

For more information call me at 773-244-1480 or e-mail me at


P.S. November 14, 2002

Today I received official notification that I am to report to Harold Washington Library Center at 12 noon on Monday, November 18, for a pre-disciplinary meeting with library administrators pertaining to my Wednesday night programs at the Lincoln Park Branch Library (that is when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict history series meets). I was also notified that the vacation day I arranged for weeks ago for Tuesday, November 19 has been revoked, their intention being that I cannot attend the entirety of the Tuesday Library Board meeting. Therefore, it will be necessary for other people to speak out during the public question and answer period. If you are interested in attending, please call me as soon as possible at 773-244-1480.