A Library's Middle East

Posted: 2/12/2003
Author: Professor Fern Kupfer

Librarians are some of my favorite people. Smart, resourceful and brave. Most people don't think of librarians as brave, but they are. Librarians stand up to small minds who want to ban "The Grapes of Wrath." They stand up to big government that would use the Patriot Act to trample civil rights. Some of my best friends are librarians. All of which is why what I'm about to write saddens me so.

The public library in my small town in Iowa is one of the sponsors of a film festival, which opened (ironically) on Sept. 11. The three- month series, "Palestine Unabridged," includes more than a dozen films, all purporting to show "the other side" of the Middle East conflict. You know, the side we never see on Fox and supposedly have only glimpses of on public radio. The side that is pro-Palestinian.

This is also the side - the politically correct view of many campus liberals - that views Israel not as the only democracy in the Middle East but as an oppressor, responsible for the suf- fering of millions. Understandably, the Jewish community here was upset that the library was a sponsor of what they considered anti-Israeli propaganda.

"Was it propaganda?" I asked my husband last week after we saw a film about the life of ordinary Palestinians - one very nice young family with an adorable baby the age of our new granddaughter. The family lived every day with the endless humiliation of checkpoints thwarting their every move. The film showed Palestinians whose homes had been bulldozed into rubble. Another film showed a prison for political detainees. There was plenty of barbed wire - and suggestions that the Israelis had created a concentration camp.

My husband is not Jewish: He was born in Lebanon and went to Catholic school for most of his childhood. "Of course the films are propaganda," he said, "for what was not shown."

What was not shown was the necessity for the checkpoints, the reasons for destruction and detention. Also not shown - in any of the six other films I've seen so far - were pictures of suicide bombers revered as heroes. Or interviews with Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

As a secular Jew who passionately believes in free speech, I am trying to think clearly about this. And while I can't presume to have answers for the Middle East, I do have answers for a public library here in the heartland.

I believe the library - which defends the decision on free speech grounds - made a mistake that has divided our town. Instead of education and enlightenment, there has been dissension and pain. People who have been co-workers and friends have had relationships sorely strained. Simply put: A public library should not have sponsored this film festival.

I tried to explain this to someone by way of an analogy. Would the library have sponsored a three-month "Right to Life" film festival, with film after film depicting abortion as murder? Would the library ever support such a one-sided, inflammatory film series?

The more disquieting result of the library's decision has to do with anti-Semitism - hugely on the rise in ways I could have never envisioned again in my lifetime. Children's schoolbooks in the Arab world are filled with hatred of Jews. Synagogues are bombed the world over. Journalist Daniel Pearl is killed because he is a Jew. The prime minister of Malaysia gets a standing ovation when he says Jews rule the world. At my school, Iowa State University, Amiri Baraka (the poet laureate of New Jersey) gets a standing ovation after he reads a poem implicating Israel in the 2001 terrorist attacks. And at my public library in Ames, Iowa, film after film after film depicts Palestinian suffering as a result only of Israeli policies.

Of course, you can criticize Israel and not be anti-Semitic. Jews do it all the time. But, you know, Israel is a really tiny country, surrounded by millions of people, some who would like nothing more than to see Jews obliterated. Jews have been there before. So it makes sense that we're a little touchy about this sort of thing.

One of the reviewers of one of the films in "Palestine Unabridged" talked about the "delusional paranoia" of the Jewish people. But being paranoid doesn't mean people aren't really after you. In too many places, it is increasingly uncomfortable to define yourself as a Jew. One of those places should not be the public library of a Midwestern college town.

Fern Kupfer is a novelist and professor of writing at Iowa State University. Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.