Libraries: the New Mideast Battleground

Posted: 1/24/2006 10:02:00 PM
Author: Mark Ballon

When members of a local Jewish advocacy group offered the Beverly Hills Public Library three pro-Israel DVDs free of charge, they expected to meet little resistance. After all, Beverly Hills is located in the heart of one of the most affluent and powerful Jewish communities in the world.

The pro-Israel group, called the Library Project, is on a mission — to counter negative portrayals of Jews and Israel. And its members believe that false, injurious messages are permeating U.S. libraries and ultimately shaping minds.

The reception they received made them more certain that the problems may be worse than they ever imagined: The group sparred with librarians for months over which, if any, DVDs the library would accept.

Such encounters are playing out in libraries across the nation. Library Project, based in Los Angeles, is one of two groups that have formed recently to spread a pro-Israel message. Over the past year and a half, it and the Boston-based Adopt A Library Project have helped place thousands of pro-Israel books, CDs and DVDs in branches around the nation.

Some libraries are receptive to their materials; others less so.

At the same time, pro-Arab and Islamic activists have long been making their own approaches to libraries to make sure their own messages are getting across. These groups say they need to tell their story to cut through the pro-Israel and sometimes anti-Islam attitudes that pervade both the Western media and the West’s libraries. Too many books and newspapers, they argue, stereotype Muslims and Arabs as little more than one-dimensional religious zealots at war with the West.

“As the Muslim community in the United States grows in size, I think it’s more important than ever for non-Muslims to understand Islam and to have accurate information about a religion whose central message is monotheism and justice,” said Nayyer Ali, chairman of the board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an L.A.-based public policy group.

Advocates on both sides are convinced something vital is at stake. They increasingly view as urgent their efforts to educate Americans and, as needed, to thwart the competition.

“Libraries have become the latest battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Andrea Rapp, a Judaica librarian at the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, who has compiled examples of alleged anti-Israel bias appearing in children’s books.

Winning the struggle for bibliographic primacy, advocates believe, could help shape American public opinion, and, with it, American foreign policy, including the U.S.-Israel relationship.

On the battlefront in Beverly Hills, the Library Project wanted the DVDs “Holy Land: Christians in Peril,” “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East” and “The Road to Jenin” added to the permanent collection. In varying ways, the works show Israel in positive shades.

“Christians in Peril,” (2002, Contre-Champs) for instance, details the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land and largely attributes their migration to persecution by Arab Muslims.

“Relentless” (2003, HonestReporting), which film critic Michael Medved called a “stunning new documentary,” gives an overview of the search for peace in the Middle East from the Oslo accords until the present, portraying late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a wily manipulator who talked peace in English with Western media, while simultaneously calling in Arabic for holy war and the martyrdom of children on Palestinian television.

“Jenin” (2003, Contre-Champs) tells the story of Israel’s incursion into the Jenin refugee camp to fight Palestinian terrorists. In the process, the film debunks claims made by some Arabs that Israelis massacred civilians.

The Beverly Hills Library, after discussions with Library Project over several months, agreed to add “Jenin” to the permanent collection but declined “Christians in Peril” and “Relentless.” Fine arts services librarian Suzy Chen said she passed on the two DVDs because of space constraints and because the films had yet to be reviewed by major library trade journals. The respected library, which features scores of Jewish and Israeli authors among its many tomes, also accepted a pro-Israel book donated by Library Project.

“In Beverly Hills, we strive not to present a particular point of view but to include representative viewpoints, especially on controversial questions or issues,” said Beverley Simmons, director of library services.

The library’s explanation has failed to appease some Jewish advocates.

“I did not anticipate the obstructionist nature of the response from Beverly Hills Library,” said Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, the pro-Israel national educational organization that formed Library Project. “An educational institution that claims to be about educating should be presenting a cafeteria of viewpoints, and, when they’re not, people aren’t getting educated.”

Rothstein’s organization hasn’t, in fact, conducted a systematic study of the Beverly Hills collection. She said her group lacks the resources to do so, preferring to focus instead on purchasing and donating library materials.

Telling Israel’s Story in a Hostile World

There are aggrieved parties in every direction when it comes to this war over words. For their part, Jewish advocacy groups claim Israel’s reputation has taken a beating in the stacks as never before. Books from Noam Chomsky, the late Edward Said and other staunch anti-Zionists weigh down library shelves, they say, while works that present Israel positively are scarce. The efforts of pro-Arab and pro-Muslim governments and organizations have made works critical of Israel readily available.

Until recently, the organized Jewish community has paid scant attention to the library issue, Rothstein said.

“I don’t think anybody has been minding the ship,” she said. “Our story isn’t being told.”

The Library Project has raised more than $250,000 since its inception in late 2004, including a $50,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The group has used the money to buy such books as “The Case for Democracy” by Natan Sharansky and “Israel in the World: Changing Lives Through Innovation” by Helen and Douglas Davis. Through the efforts of one full-time and two part-time workers, Library Project has placed books, CDs and DVDs in 1,000 libraries nationwide.

Tennessee library worker Derek Schaaf — a non-Jew — accepted the book, “Israel in the World,” and several DVDs for the Clarksville-Montgomery County Library. “Working in a library, I think, the more information, the better,” said Schaaf, an audiovisual supervisor.

His view is hardly unanimous. Library Project estimates that librarians reject at least 60 percent their offerings. Sometimes, librarians relent only after being reminded of their ethical obligation to present all viewpoints in their collections, Library Project officials added.

The East Coast-based Adopt A Library Project, launched in spring of 2004, is run by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. CAMERA’s other projects include educating Jewish college students about how to respond to anti-Israel propaganda on campus and monitoring the news for fairness.

Like Library Project, CAMERA wants to rectify what members perceive as a growing lack of accurate and balanced information about Israel in the nation’s libraries. The group encourages supporters to donate selected books to public and college libraries. CAMERA has promoted its work through e-mails, the CAMERA Media Report magazine and its Web site. Members have “adopted” more than 220 libraries so far.

“When the Jewish state is cast as a pariah state and cast falsely as a huge human rights abuser in the media, in films and in books, this certainly misinforms the public and could potentially lead to misinformation about Jewish values and ethics,” said CAMERA’S Lee Green, who oversees Adopt A Library. “And, of course, the concern is that this could lead to anti-Israel policies or even anti-Jewish sentiment.”

Sam Ehrenhalt responded to CAMERA’s call to action by raising $1,500 from congregation members at the Young Israel of Flatbush, his Brooklyn-based Orthodox shul. Ehrenhalt, an 80-year-old retired economist then phoned area acquisition librarians to gauge their interest. In the end, he bought 160 books and placed them in the permanent collections of 60 libraries.

“I want people to see Israel in its full-dimension as a democracy,” Ehrenhalt said. “It is very central to how Jews are perceived throughout the world. So if Israel looks bad, that’s bad for the Jews.”

Among the 23 works recommended by CAMERA’s Adopt A Library are “The Case for Israel” by Alan Dershowitz, which takes on common misperceptions about the Jewish state; Donna Rosenthal’s “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” which explores Israel’s religious and ethnic diversity and “Militant Islam Reaches America” by Daniel Pipes, which examines the difference between Islam the faith and militant Islam.

Mark LeVine, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, said he had no opposition to pro-Israel advocacy groups trying to disseminate their viewpoints. However, he said some of Adopt A Library’s choices perplexed him, especially the Dershowitz work.

“There are too many good books by Israelis and Jews that are considered pro-Israel that are based on good, original scholarship,” said LeVine, himself Jewish. “However, Dershowitz is not a recognized scholar [on this subject] and doesn’t know the language or use the relevant primary sources. His book is not based on serious scholarship, so I would do my students a disservice by assigning it.”

Critics charge that groups like Library Project and CAMERA have whipped up unfounded fears about rampant anti-Zionism in libraries. If there’s any bias, it cuts the other way, said Sara R. Powell, the book club director for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. In her opinion, newspapers and other periodicals typically gloss over Arabs’ legitimate grievances against Israel and the West and draw wrongheaded conclusions, such as that violence and hatred are intrinsic to Islam.

To counteract what the publishers of Washington Report see as a pro-Zionist bias, the group’s nonprofit wing has donated 3,200 free subscriptions of its magazine to libraries nationwide. Through donor contributions, the organization has also given away scores of books from its approved list.

While Powell is hardly alone in her views, others cite her own publication as one that’s guilty of frequent factual distortions. The Washington Report, they say, is not merely a corrective, but an unrelenting polemic against Israel.

Powell makes no apologies for her views or the publication’s advocacy, calling Israel, “an apartheid and colonialist state” run by a government that ought to be portrayed as a victimizer of Palestinians.

Correcting Negative Images of Muslims

Some Arabs and Muslims clearly see the situation from a viewpoint that is nearly dead opposite of the pro-Israel groups. But Muslims are not uniformly anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. Instead, many worry about popular novels, for instance, that portray Arabs as plot devices or stock villains. And they tire of storylines that stereotype Arabs as corrupt and untrustworthy and that include portrayals of Islam that are inexpert, inaccurate and without nuance.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) decided to do something about it after Sept. 11 because of the American public’s sudden hunger for information about Islam, organization spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said. The proliferation of books penned by so-called experts misrepresenting the religion created a need to counter the distortions with “credible information from mainstream sources,” she said.

Of all the interest groups vying to get their message into libraries, CAIR has succeeded like no other. Through member contributions, CAIR has placed a total of 153,000 books, DVDs and CDs in 8,500 libraries.

Under the heading, “Bringing Islam to Your Library,” CAIR solicited on its Web site donations of $150 to purchase a package of 18 group-approved works. Among them: “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?” by John L. Esposito, which the Wall Street Journal called “informed and reasoned”; “Gender Equity in Islam” by Dr. Jamal Badawi, a book that gives an overview of the status and rights of Muslim women according to the Quran; and Paul Findley’s “Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Image of Islam.”

CAIR's library initiative has proven so successful that the group met its ambitious book goals and recently suspended the initiative to focus on other programs such as distributing Qurans to Americans free of charge, Ahmed said. She added that CAIR might soon revive the library project to focus on universities.

Still, critics said CAIR's approved books underplayed or ignored the growth of radical Islam, an important oversight, said Robert Spencer, adjunct fellow at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington and director of Jihad Watch, a nonprofit that tracks jihadist activities worldwide.

“You get no sense from the books CAIR presents that there are elements in Islam that terrorists use to justify violence,” he said. “But these elements do exist and must be confronted by non-Muslims and moderate Muslims in order to neutralize them.”

Spencer said he especially took exception to the Findley book, which he faulted for errors of omission. In the hardcover edition, for instance, the former congressman discusses American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi without mentioning his self-proclaimed support for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. In 2004, a federal court sentenced the Muslim activist to 23 years in prison for his participation in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

CAIR’S Ahmed said Spencer’s criticism is unfounded, and that Spencer’s own work, notably his book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” has been accused of anti-Muslim bias. She said she had faith Americans would recognize the high quality of CAIR’s offerings.

While outside groups often pursue agendas — be they Arab or Israeli, or Jew or Muslim — it would be wrongheaded to accuse libraries themselves of taking sides, said a number of observers with varying loyalties.

“I’ve never seen a library push an agenda,” said James J. Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab American community. “They’re not pushing books, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this pro-Arab literature. Come and read it.’”

So who’s winning the battle of the books?

That’s not clear. To get an accurate picture, you’d have to examine the content of books, as well as the numbers — and look at novels, as well as textbooks, and at the identities and viewpoints of the authors. To date, though, Washington Report and CAIR have succeeded in placing more materials in libraries than Library Project and CAMERA — but then, they’ve been at it longer.

Some defenders of Israel have long argued that the American Library Association (see story on page 17) has an anti-Israel bias. And they also call attention to the proliferation of Arab-funded Middle Eastern study centers at universities. Ultimately, the side with the better argument will likely prevail in the fight for the hearts and minds of Americans, said CAIR’s Ahmed.

“The beauty of America is there’s a great marketplace of ideas,” she said, “and, in the end, the American public can decide.”