Blatant Antisemitism at the Columbia Missouri Public Library
On May 17th, a group called “Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation” hosted an event titled, “The North American Nakba Tour: The Exiled Palestinians,” at the Columbia Missouri Public Library.
The event, according to the Columbia Tribune, was to feature “Palestinian refugees Amena Ashkar and Mariam Fathallah [describing] what they say is the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Jewish occupiers.” Before the event, I found an interview on YouTube in which Ashkar explained that earlier on the tour she had been scheduled to speak at Stanford University, but her hosts warned her not to say that Israel has no right to exist. Ashkar responded firmly, “I came here to say that Israel has no right to exist.” Ultimately, she cancelled the presentation, rather than capitulate. When I became aware of this information, I organized a group to urge the public library to cancel the room reservation. I made sure the library was fully informed that Ashkar’s stated goal was to call for the destruction of Israel, and that given her past stops on the tour, her message was likely to be delivered in a particularly offensive manner.
I wrote a letter in the Tribune, explaining that “the US State Department defines antisemitism as: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.’” I also consulted a lawyer, who sent a letter to the director of the library, Melissa Carr, as well as to its board of trustees. The letter stated, “This is hate speech that implicitly calls for the genocide of the Jews… hate speech has no place in a tax-funded institution.” In addition, we started a letter-writing campaign calling for the room reservation to be cancelled.
To no avail. Though fully informed, Director Carr allowed the event to proceed.
The event had a very large crowd. Fathallah, 86, told her story about fleeing her Arab village, and how she eventually ended up in Lebanon. Ashkar told her story about growing up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. I grant them their historical narrative; what matters is whether the event called for the destruction of Israel, and thereby constituted a public institution hosting an event consisting of hate speech.
First, Ashkar apparently realized that she might generate trouble if she openly denied Israel’s right to exist. In fact, the Tribune asked her beforehand whether she would retract her earlier statement. “Reached by phone Thursday, Ashkar seemed unwilling to court further controversy,” it wrote. “She said she would share her thoughts during the event. ‘Anyone who has any concern can go to the event,’ she said. ‘I would be happy to answer any questions.’”
I took her up on this offer. During the Q&A, I approached the microphone and asked, “Does Israel have the right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people?” Well, it turns out, Ashkar was not “happy to answer any question.” She refused. Instead, she repeatedly tried to change the subject, and to ask me questions. The Tribune reported our exchange:
Daniel Swindell, a self-described Zionist who attended the event, asked Ashkar if Israel has a right to exist. “Do I have the right to go back to Palestine?” Ashkar asked Swindell. Swindell again requested an answer to his initial question. “You answer my question so I can answer your question,” Ashkar said. “I have the right to exist. Palestine has the right to exist.” She emphasized that she didn’t say “no” to Swindell’s question.
Immediately after my question, however, one of the hosts took the microphone, and the Tribune reported what he said: “Jalal El-Jayyousi, a Palestinian-American, said it was immoral to ask such a question of a refugee. ‘You don’t ask a rape victim if she recognizes the rights of her rapist,’ he said.”
So, technically, the answer did not come out of Askar’s mouth. But the host answered for her, suggesting that simply recognizing the Jewish right to a nation is like asking “a rape victim if she recognizes the rights of her rapist.” Which means, that not only did one of the hosts deny Israel’s right to exist, he even claimed it was immoral to ask if Israel has a right to exist.
Second, one of the primary messages of the presentation was that the sole solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is to implement the “right of return.” The right of return is the belief that all Palestinian “refugees,” now numbering more than five million, have the right to “return” to Israel, even though most have never lived there. Ashkar referred to Israel as the property of Palestinian refugees, and the hosts distributed a flier that claimed that the right of return was binding international law. The right of return would of course mean that millions of Palestinians would flood into Israel, and overwhelm the Jewish population. What this means was expressed by President Obama, when he stated, “The right of return as they have understood it historically, would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state.”
Third, the hosts were aware that we planned a protest. In response, on the Facebook page of the Palestinian Nakba Tour, they shared this comment, “We’re in Columbia, MO tonight at 7pm. There’s a Zionist protest scheduled at 6:30 pm in front of the library.” They shared the following hashtags: #fromtherivertothesea, and #freepalestine. Generally, the full statement is, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” This statement means that the borders of Palestine will extend from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This expression has been used for many years to deny the Jewish right to sovereignty in any part of the region. It, too, is a call for the destruction of Israel.
And thus, by the State Department’s own definition, it was indeed a night filled with the public expression of antisemitism. But the Columbia Missouri Public Library, fully aware in advance of what was coming, still felt it appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to host the event.