After several days of confusion, scheduling changes and barbed exchanges, author Ali Abunimah spoke about Gaza at Evanston Public Library Aug. 11.
The talk came after a postponement – or cancellation, depending on who’s asked – and subsequent reinstatement of the event raised controversy amongst activists and Evanston residents, many of whom charged censorship by EPL officials, saying they were pressured by community members who were sympathetic to Israel to cancel. The library administration, however, maintained that the snafu happened because of internal miscommunications.
“Some of you may have heard we had a little controversy about this event, and Karen has been nothing but gracious and supportive in making sure this event has gone ahead,” Mr. Abunimah said of EPL Director Karen Danczak Lyons early in the program.
Ms. Lyons, who had been at the center of censorship accusations in the previous week, said in her introductory remarks that EPL was committed to an “open discourse, with the library playing the role of public square” in order to facilitate public dialogue about pertinent issues.” She added that the program was first in a series of discussions about the Middle East.
Mr. Abunimah read an excerpt from his book, “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” in order to provide a context for the conflict presently unfolding in Gaza. The book documents a number of oppressions and human rights abuses against the Palestinians, and maintains, among many charges, that Israel’s policies are turning Gaza into what he called a “neoliberal dystopia, with no economic or political agency of its own.”
Absent from the discussion was EPL Adult Services Director Lesley Williams, who had been coordinating the event along with the organization Neighbors for Peace.
Controversy erupted Aug. 1, when, according to Mr. Abunimah’s website, Ms. Williams contacted him to say that the event was cancelled per EPL’s administration. According to the message from Ms. Williams, which Mr. Abunimah reprinted, she had a few weeks earlier notified EPL administrators that she was having difficulty securing a ‘pro-Israeli’ speaker for the fall. Ms. Lyons, she added, “told me she would be more comfortable if we had that nailed down before your reading. Today she told me that since I have not yet confirmed a pro Israel speaker she want[s] us to cancel your appearance on the 11th. This was of course an enormous shock. … Please accept my abject apologies. I had no idea the program would be cancelled if I didn’t confirm an Israeli speaker before the 11th.”
Ms. Williams then said she was inquiring as to whether the event would continue as a “room rental,” solely sponsored by Neighbors for Peace.
Ms. Lyons told RoundTable that she had issued a suggestion to reschedule the event in order to make it one portion of a broader and deeper discussion, not an order to cancel it. Asked if she had insisted upon a ‘pro-Israel’ speaker, she denied saying it. Instead, she said, she wanted to include, among others, speakers from Northwestern University’s new Middle Eastern studies program to provide historical perspective and overall context for the discussion.
“I never asked, nor would I ever suggest, that it be cancelled,” Ms. Lyons said. “I wanted additional credible voices to continue the discussion. This is a topic that deserves more than one discussion.” She added that, while she did inquire about moving the date, she was willing to move ahead with the talk when it seemed like no other speakers had been scheduled.
But, based on his contact with Ms. Williams, and the subsequent removal of the event from EPL’s calendar, Mr. Abunimah assumed the event was cancelled. An Aug. 2 tweet from EPL said, “We will reschedule Ali Abunimah’s talk. With this complex issue, we now plan to schedule more speakers on other dates too.”
Mr. Abunimah voiced his displeasure on his website, and word about the library’s changing course got out on social media. Numerous posts appeared on EPL’s Facebook page, among other outlets, crying censorship and bias.
By Aug. 4, the program had nevertheless been reinstated. Ms. Lyons, in a statement, reiterated that EPL had not actually cancelled the event: “The statement that the Evanston Public Library banned or censored the work of author Ali Abunimah is false. We are co-sponsors of this event and have been promoting this program through flyers, posters, social media and our electronic newsletters,” she wrote, adding, “The request to reschedule this program was mishandled by the Library.”
Ms. Williams told the RoundTable that she was “flabbergasted” that the issue took off on social media, adding, “I think it’s unfortunate that the library is now associated with censorship. We’ve always considered ourselves a place for all points of view.”
Dave Trippel, who was among Neighbors for Peace members who met with Ms. Lyons on Aug. 4, contends that the library was pressured by supporters of Israel.
The issue of balance had never come up surrounding previous EPL forums on controversial topics, noted Ms. Williams. “We’ve had the Democratic Club in here to speak about Guantanamo, and the GOP here to speak on Israel, and gun control. When ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out, people were here to talk about schools.”
“There is often a false discussion, propagated by people who oppress the Palestinians, and their apologists, about their situation having two sides being perfectly equal,” said Mr. Abunimah. “They oftentimes think it exonerates them from moral and ethical judgments.”
At his Aug. 11 talk, Mr. Abunimah read a message he said he’d just received from Ms. Williams: “When I learned that tonight’s presentation might be cancelled for the ‘lack of a credible speaker with an opposing view committed’ I was devastated, but relieved and delighted that, thanks to the efforts of a great many people, that decision was reversed. I am proud to be part of a community that cherishes and supports intellectual freedom with no qualifications or equivocation. I welcome the chance to collaborate with any local organization interested in library public programs. But there’s no hurry – I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon.”
Ms. Lyons noted, however, that she would be taking a more active role in organizing similar events: “I will be taking responsibility for contacting speakers in the future. I’m going to be personally making these contacts.”
Ms. Lyons added that, after all that happened this month, EPL would be considering how it utilizes social media. “We are going to be looking at, internally, how we communicate, who we communicate with, and what that communication says,” she said.