April 19, 2018

Contentious Crowd in Vancouver for Author Claiming U.S. “Under Israeli Occupation”

By Norman Oder

  • 80 people hear Freedom to Read Week presentation
  • Library defends “open debate”
  • Critics raise question of library standards

The presentation Monday night at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), BC, by controversial author Greg Felton, called anti-Semitic by critics, drew a mixed and highly contentious crowd of some 80 supporters and opponents, but did not, according to a representative of the British Columbia Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) appear to change any minds. Some observers, who criticized both the library and Felton, author of The Host and the Parasite: How Israel’s Fifth Column Consumed America (Dandelion, 2007), weren’t expecting that.

One blogger reported that Felton asserted, “The United States has been under Israeli occupation” and was in turn denounced profanely by a member of the audience. Tory activist Robert Jago wrote that his effort to bring a camera was stymied by the author’s request, and Felton “gave the bigoted anti-Israel boiler plate.” 

Given that Felton said dual citizenship raises issues of loyalty and treason, Jago wrote that he considers that hate speech under Canadian law and, though he won’t file a charge, he’d write the library “to find out what action they are taking against Felton.” The library’s Jean Kavanagh told LJ that, while staffers weren’t lawyers, they didn’t believe Felton broke the law.

Librarian’s introduction

VPL provided LJ with City Librarian Paul Whitney’s opening remarks:

Freedom of Speech and Intellectual Freedom can be difficult and complicated subjects… And we know there are community members, and particularly from the Jewish community, who are angry, hurt and offended that this event is taking place. For that I am very sorry.

Intellectual freedom is not always an easy principle to uphold, but libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of this principle. For this reason, librarians have the reponsibility to acquire and make available a wide range of books and materials, including those which express controversial or unpopular ideas. This responsibility means that librarians recognize the right of individuals and groups to criticize their selection. However, freedom of choice within the library cannot be limited by the personal views or any group or individual.

Upholding the principle of intellectual freedom can also, at times, put you in the position of appearing to support points of view that you do not believe in. The role of the public library, however, is to provide a forum for an open and public exchange of contradictory views and to make available materials that represent a wide range of views. 

This is especially true during Freedom to Read Week when libraries often present books that people might not feel free to read. The Vancouver Public Library felt this could be the case with local author Greg Felton’s new book The Host and the Parasite and under the auspices of Freedom to Read Week scheduled this evening’s presentation.

Diverse takes

However, Whitney “really wasn’t able to provide a convincing rationale for the choice of speaker,” contended the anonymous blogger behind Covenant Zone. Whitney said he “felt the library had to stand by its decision to provide a venue to this controversial speaker. Just why this controversial speaker, and not another, was not explained.”

“The question period saw a number of people attack City Librarian Whitney, as well as Felton, in very blunt terms,” the blogger wrote. “The most memorable questioner was a man who said he was a history professor for thirty years. He was less interested in talking history with Felton as asking Whitney why the library had a history of inviting Israel-bashers… In the heat of the audience attacks on Whitney, a diminutive and hippyesque woman in yellow neon tights jumped up to stand by Whitney in his defense of free speech at the front of the room.”

The IFC blogger commented, “In my mind, there is no question that the library should have gone ahead with this event, despite the high profile opposition to it… Freedom of expression means standing up for everyone’s right to free speech, whether it’s something that’s easy to defend personally, or views that I consider puerile or repugnant.”

The commenter noted the irony that, while VPL is “holding an author-initiated event that’s nominally given the Freedom to Read Week tag, the library is hosting a provocative, topical series called Speak Up! that’s full of the kind of open-minded debate that gives intellectual freedom a good name.”

Alex Youngberg, president of the library union, CUPE Local 391, commented that the union was not consulted: “The Union does not endorse the event and would strongly condemn any anti-Semitic writings which constitute hate literature.” VPL’s Kavanagh said that “the event went well and diverse opinions were expressed.”

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