Sacramento rabbi questions a display at the public library
By Reuven H. Taff
I have always been infatuated with libraries. As a young child, growing up in Albany, N.Y., I loved visiting our public library. I have fond memories of sitting on the multi-colored alphabet carpet listening to the librarian read classics, which in those days consisted of “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.” Those experiences not only motivated me to read books, but to use, enjoy and appreciate the library’s resources.
Sadly, my appreciation for my local library has been diminished because the Arden-Dimick Branch of the Sacramento Public Library has allowed a display that caused pain and anguish for many in the Jewish community.
I am referring to a December display sponsored by an organization called “Sacramento-Bethlehem,” which was granted approval in 2009 by the Sacramento City Council to establish Sacramento as a sister city to the town of Bethlehem, governed by the Palestinian Authority.
My issue is not with Sacramento and Bethlehem being sister cities. My concern is that the display, which was taken down in early January, was replete with false statements and propaganda.
For example, while the display stated that the sister city relationship “was founded in friendship” with “interest in developing connections and friendships with the people of Bethlehem,”the display also contained several accusatory statements against Israel. It claimed that Bethlehem is “under foreign military occupation” and that “its people are increasingly isolated, suffering land confiscation, obstruction of their economy, and a diminishing future.” It also said, “Trees are planted in areas threatened with land confiscation by the Israeli military occupation and settler violence.”
These inflammatory statements are not only misleading, but are absolutely false. The facts are that after the Six-Day War in 1967 until the 1990s, Bethlehem was ruled by Israel through a military administration. That all changed in the mid-1990s, after terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, when Israel negotiated to give the Palestinians parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords, resulting in Bethlehem governed solely by the Palestinian Authority.
When I brought my concerns about the display to Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library, I was disappointed at her reply.
Here is an excerpt of her email response: “Although there may be different viewpoints regarding the nature of displays, we feel that each display employs discourse befitting the role of the library as a ‘public square.’ In fact, there is a notice posted in the window that reads, ‘By providing public access to library facilities, the Sacramento Public Library Authority does not endorse the views of the users.’ I recognize that my response may not ease your concerns, but we do stand by our role as an institution that encourages civic and civil dialogue as protected by the 1st Amendment, even when we personally disagree at times…”
It has always been my understanding that discrimination laws in our country also protected Jews from anti-Semitism. And, yes, false statements against Israel do cross the line as anti-Semitism.
But it appears, according to Sacramento’s library director, that the First Amendment trumps Jew hatred. With the upsurge of incidents of anti-Semitism in our country, this display feels eerily like those days in Germany when such propaganda pervaded libraries, museums and other public places.
As someone whose taxes support public libraries in my community, I have to ask: Will our libraries now permit similar displays to be allowed (but “not endorsed”) if they are sponsored by organizations such as the KKK, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists and other hate groups?
I shudder to hear the answer to my question.
Once again, statements questioning Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians and the confiscation of their land, are being incorrectly interpreted as being anti-semitic. All too often, the biased person confuses criticism of a government with hatred for a people.
In the mid 1980’s, a group of Sacramentans tried to establish a sister city relationship with the Moldavian city of Kishenev, in the old USSR. It was modeled after the Sacramento Jinan (communist China) organization. After submitting a resolution for the city council to adopt, copied from the Jinan resolution, the Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council, represented by Darrell Steinberg, objected to the resolution unless the city council included language addressing Moldavia’s alleged human rights violations against Jews. No such language regarding China’s human rights violations, including the mass murder of over 100,000 Tibetans, including monks and nuns, was required of the Jinan resolution. But hey, they weren’t caucasian Jews, so who cares. And now that one of Sacramento’s sister city organizations is calling out Israel for it’s violations of human rights and international laws, they don’t like it. Irony?
None of the statements Rabbi Taff complains about are false. They don’t say that Bethlehem is under Israeli authority. Bethlehem is ostensibly under Palestinian authority, but is still under Israeli military occupation, illegally. And Bethlehem’s people are increasingly isolated, suffering obstruction of their economy and a diminished future. Their land is being confiscated by Israeli settlers protected by Israeli forces.
Statements criticizing the state of Israel are not antisemitic because (1) Israel is a political entity, not a religious or ethnic entity or person; if I criticize the government of Italy, or the mafia, am I being anti-Italian? No. (2) It’s not anti-anything if it’s true. (3) Most Israeli Jews are of European origin or ancestry and are about as semitic as Elizabeth Warren is Native American. All of this is easily verifiable. And yes, Rabbi Taff, the First Amendment does in fact protect speech you don’t like.