A is for activism
The first page of the book reads, “A is for Arabic, my tongue, a language that’s the 4th biggest ever sung!” A young girl sits on the belly-like swing of an Arabic character, as others dance around her. She lifts her arms up as if to grasp the fat dot which completes the character, nūn. The page is thick with color, much like the rest of the book.
The book is called P is for Palestine. It’s a children’s book on sale at Book Culture written from the perspective of a Palestinian child that has become a subject of interest and controversy among adults and university students.
At Columbia, it is the impetus for a boycott of Book Culture on behalf of two student groups: Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. SJP and JVP make up Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a student group that advocates for Columbia’s divestment from companies that profit from doing business in Israel.
Columbia activist groups that are concerned with issues thousands of miles away from the stone steps of Low Library, like SJP and JVP, have to bridge the geographical gulf between the locus of their activism and the spaces and people they want to impact. Taking this into consideration, the question becomes: How does this local activism illustrate the fight over the Israel-Palestine narrative? And how did Book Culture become its unexpected arena?
B is for boycott
B is for boycott. B is also for Book Culture. Before there was a boycott, however, there was a book launch. In addition to displaying the book in its children’s section, the Columbus Avenue location of Book Culture helped fund and promote P is for Palestine. The store helped finance the publication of the book via a crowdfunding campaign and hosted a reading on November 18 last year.
P is for Palestine was written by Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi. Bashi, who received her doctorate in Near and Middle Eastern studies from Columbia in 2010 has said that one of her primary motivations for writing children’s books is to diversify the genre. “Every time my children and I are standing in front of a table full of books for children in a bookstore, in my mind I start imagining the books I wish were there and are not.”
So, Bashi wrote a book that would resonate with Palestinian children. P is for Palestine is an alphabetical exploration of what it is like to grow up in Palestine. Take, for instance, the “E” page, “E is for Eid,” or the “Q” page, “Q is for Quds.”
The crux of the controversy surrounds the “I” page. There, Bashi writes: “I is for Intifada. Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or a grownup!”
Intifada is an Arabic word which directly translates in English as “tremor,” “shivering,” or “shuddering.” Lecturer Rym Bettaieb, who teaches Arabic language at Columbia, tells me the root of the word is “nafada,” which refers to the act of shaking something off. When describing “nafada,” Bettaieb uses the examples of shaking off dust from dirty clothing and shaking a palm tree. “When you want to get the dates from the palm tree, you have to shake it—nafada.”
More commonly, however, intifada is translated into English as “uprising” and is often associated specifically with two periods of violence that occurred between Palestinians and Israelis. The First Intifada lasted from 1987 to 1993, and the Second Intifada lasted from 2000 to 2005. According to B’Tselem, an anti-Israeli occupation human rights group, 421 Israelis and 1,551 Palestinians died during the First Intifada. According to the BBC, during the Second Intifada, 950 Israelis died and 3,223 Palestinians died.
For certain Israelis, the word intifada brings up memories of terror. In an op-ed for Spectator in 2016, Amalia Reich, an Israeli student and current General Studies junior, wrote, “Intifada represents war, hate, violence, civilian attacks, and fear. In my mind, it mostly represents blood.” Reich also claimed that “intifada” translates to “armed uprising,” even though the word does not contain references to violence in its etymology.
In a conversation with Dalia Zahger, a junior in General Studies and the president of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University, I learn that her understanding of “intifada” is similar to Reich’s. Zahger grew up in Israel where, she tells me, she “experienced terror.” When I ask about the use of the word in P is for Palestine, she says, “[Intifada] maybe literally translates as one thing, but at the end of the day, intifada means a very specific thing, and that’s a lot of acts of terror, one after the other. Thousands of people died in my country because of the Intifada.”
The book quickly stoked controversy. In November, Bashi posted about her book in a closed Facebook group for New York mothers. The post became a site for disparaging comments which claimed the children’s book was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
On November 29, 2017, three rabbis at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue published an open letter about the controversial “I page.” In their letter, the rabbis write that they met the owners of Book Culture, Chris Doeblin, Annie Hedrick, and Rick MacArthur, to discuss the book. Following the meeting, the Book Culture owners agreed to sign a statement addressing the rabbis’ grievances that was published on the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue website and included in the rabbis’ letter.
The letter opens by saying the synagogue “reached a resolution with Book Culture that allows the synagogue to move forward with the Early Childhood Center Book Fair.” Book Culture supplied books and toys for the fair, which took place on December 7, 2017.
In their statement, the Book Culture owners regret that they did not fully understand “the political or communal ramifications of the children’s book,” and they write that they “oppose terrorism or other forms of violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians during the intifada.” They also state that they support Israel’s right to exist and that they do not endorse the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement. The BDS Movement is “a form of non-violent pressure” that is being exerted against Israel by Palestinian civil society groups until their demands are met.
On December 18, 2017, just under three weeks later, SJP announced on its Facebook page that, along with Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, it had officially launched a boycott against Book Culture in reaction to the bookstore’s statement. It also published a boycott petition, which, as of March 3 this year, has been signed by 214 Columbia affiliates—18 faculty members, 38 graduate students, 81 undergraduates, 45 alumni, and 32 “other community affiliates.” Approximately 100 other people in the broader Upper West Side community have also signed the petition.
SJP and JVP took issue with Book Culture’s conflation of intifada with terrorism in their own statement. The goal of the SJP and JVP boycott is to impel Book Culture to rescind its statement in which it makes this conflation. When I speak with Jeff Jacobs, a doctoral student and a member of SJP, he explains, “We’re literally just asking them to not call Palestinians terrorists or say that a Palestinian children’s book that talks about issues that are salient to Palestinians is promoting terrorism.”
In an email exchange about the meanings of the word “intifada,” professor Rashid Khalidi of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies stresses that understanding the history of Israeli military occupation in Palestine is essential to understanding the motivations behind the Intifadas and argues that only without historical contextualization is Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation liable to be depicted as terrorism. This is the same sentiment SJP and JVP voice in their boycott petition. The groups write, “The term ‘intifada’ cannot be provincialized to acts of violence, nor can it be reduced to ‘terrorism.’ Such a notion is better suited to describe decades of state-sanctioned terror and colonization that have characterized the Palestinian experience of Zionism.”
Jacobs believes, however, that this understanding of the word has become normalized by those who oppose Palestinian uprising. “The standard narrative of [intifada] meaning, ‘terrorism; kill all the Jews possible,’ is somewhere in the hegemonic discourse of the word,” he tells me. The idea that a predominantly Israeli interpretation of an Arabic word now acts as its “standard narrative” brings up questions of language ownership. “Just saying it leads to investigations, and putting it in a children’s book leads to condemnations.”
C is for community space
Book Culture styles itself as a community space. If you scroll down its website’s homepage, you’ll find three subsections. The first two are “bookshop” and “gifts.” The third is “community.” Not only is Book Culture a community space for the Upper West Side, but it is also closely woven into Columbia campus life.
Wandering into either Book Culture on Broadway or their location at 112th Street, it’s not uncommon to see Columbia students browsing the stacks or in line to buy a boxed set of used Literature Humanities books. The staff are warm, and they welcome both the determined customer with a syllabus in hand and the Sunday afternoon browser; it is what has made Book Culture a community space for Columbians since 1997 when the bookstore first opened with the help of Columbia’s then-provost, Jonathan Cole.
This feeling has lingered and grown for two decades. Now, at the beginning of each new semester, it’s commonplace for professors to bypass Columbia’s official Barnes & Noble-operated bookstore and order their books through Book Culture.
Although the nature of a boycott is retaliatory, Book Culture and student group boycotters mostly maintain good will toward one another. “We like Book Culture,” Jacobs tells me. “We view it as an ally of Edward Said, who was a famous Columbia professor and Palestine advocate,” referencing the donation of some of Said’s texts by his family to Book Culture following his death. Likewise, in an email, Doeblin also uses the language of alliance to describe the store’s relationship with SJP and JVP. The close relationship between the student groups and Book Culture led to multiple meetings before the groups’ boycott and following the release of the Book Culture statement on the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue website.
SJP and JVP visited Doeblin and the other owners of Book Culture multiple times to explain their point of view. They spent hours in meetings, revising the language in various drafted statements of retraction, attempting to arrive at one that Book Culture would be comfortable signing. The store’s owners and the students never reached a mutually agreeable conclusion. Eventually, the meetings petered out, and the boycott began.
For Doeblin, putting out another statement would extend and complicate the issue at hand. He prefers to focus on the future of the store and its mission to provide a platform for diverse voices and viewpoints. Doeblin’s devotion to diversity echoes Bashi’s own commitment to diversifying children’s literature.
Students of SJP and JVP say they don’t want Book Culture to issue a pro-Palestinian stance, but for the institution to remain neutral in the Israel-Palestine debate and serve as an open forum.
At this point, however, it seems impossible for Book Culture to adopt that role again. In its attempt to maintain its relationships with customers on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide, Book Culture has been pulled into the Israel-Palestine maelstrom, from which no individual or institution usually emerges unbattered. Even the absence of action—the refusal to rescind the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue statement—has caused backlash and resulted in a boycott. Of course, rescinding the statement would result in backlash, too.
But walking into Book Culture after the boycott was launched feels like walking into Book Culture before the boycott was launched. The staff are just as chummy, and the book selection is just as varied.
Jacobs concedes that SJP and JVP “don’t view the statement as something inherent in how Book Culture is as an institution.” However, he argues that when Book Culture issued the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue statement, it politicized its community space and took a stance that troubled customers and community members who are against the Israeli occupation.
This is true for those who are pro-Israel as well. Zahger told me she also isn’t comfortable shopping at Book Culture anymore because of the store’s initial decision to sell P is for Palestine. “I’m not boycotting Book Culture or something like that,” she said. “I just don’t feel comfortable being there. ... They alienated me.”
Book Culture’s status as a community space, therefore, is bruised on both sides of the debate. Book Culture has become a locus for how Upper West Siders engage with the Israel-Palestine conflict. The initial Book Culture statement and the consequent student group boycott illustrate the efforts taken by various groups to mold the Israel-Palestine narrative in Morningside Heights.
In Jacobs’ words, “The reason why we fight is that, at the very least, [Palestinians] will be able to tell their stories.” This is how SJP and JVP hope to make an impact on the Palestinian struggle, even while they are hundreds of miles away. They are fighting for the Palestinian right to voice their own interpretation of events, whether that be in Hebron or Morningside Heights.
SJP and JVP’s claim about the Palestinian exception to free speech is complicated, however, by the fact that Book Culture is still selling P is for Palestine. It’s available both online and in stores for purchase.
Community spaces look no different from regular spaces. You only know a place is a community space from the feeling that you get when you walk inside it. The feeling that a community space engenders is intangible, but it matters. For members of SJP and JVP, when Book Culture issued its statement, the store lost its status as a community space.
And as long as Book Culture refuses to rescind its statement, SJP and JVP say the boycott will continue.
Have fun leafing through our sixth issue!