Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Author at VPL "Freedom to Read Week" Denies being "Jew Hater"

Greg Felton says he doesn’t hate Jews. But at the Vancouver Public Library last night, City Librarian Paul Whitney went into damage control mode over the decision to feature Felton and his book, “The Host and the Parasite: How Israel's Fifth Column Consumed America”, during Freedom to Read Week. Whitney explained that the library “must stand by the principal of freedom of expression” and therefore decided not to cancel Felton’s appearance, despite pressure from the public, including many Jews. "Intellectual freedom is not always an easy principal to uphold.”

There was tension in the crowd. One middle-aged man showed me the steel-toed, beige and white, alligator-skin cowboy boots he had worn in case a fight broke out. I sat at the back row near the exit door, just in case.

“The United States has been under Israeli occupation,” Felton stated as he spoke about his book. “Oh f--k off”, a woman in the audience blurted out. She later identified herself as a dosent at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center, when she took the microphone to call Felton “an anti-Semite, a Jew baiter, a Jew hater.”

Felton stayed calm.

He explained that he sees a “fundamental distinction” between Jews and Israel. “I have never spoken ill of the people who died under Hitler,” Felton said. “I have never spoken ill of Jews. It is possible to speak honestly without being anti-Jewish.”

Truepeers, an audience member and writer at Covenant Zone blogspot, was not buying it. When he got home, he wrote, "[I]t was like a parody of a classic libel of the 'enemy within', which Felton now dressed up, most carefully, as "anti-Zionism": here is a man who obviously knows from experience that he must distinguish "Zionists" from "Jews" and profess sympathy for ordinary Jews in order to appear 'respectable'."

Felton was not without supporters though. That was clear from the clapping that drowned out the groans when he said, “Israel was actually created quite illegally in 1948.”

A man who was clearly not a supporter took the microphone and identified himself as having been a professor of American history for 30 years. The VPL’s Freedom to Read Week appeared to have become “an excuse for an attack on Israel”, he said, noting that he was not Jewish. “Just when will you use Freedom to Read Week to mount an attack on Arabs or gays?” Whitney responded that there was “no systemic bias” at the VPL. He also mentioned that he had not been personally involved in the selection of Felton as a featured speaker. The professor shot back, “Do you have an anti-semite working for you?”

A woman took the microphone to talk about how difficult it has become to talk about this issue. Speaking with an accent that sounded East Indian, she said people can criticize India without being called “anti-Hindi”. “You can’t say one thing critical about Israel without them getting defensive.” She was sensitive to the fact, she explained, that Jews had been “persecuted”. A woman called out from the audience: “I think the word is 'killed'." It was the Holocaust Education Center woman again.

A middle-aged man took the floor to say “Jews aren’t perfect”, he had “worked in Jewish sweatshops.” “But why not give them a homeland?, he asked. Felton responded that “Jews from Europe had no business going to Israel displacing 800,000 Arabs.” More clapping.

A woman took her turn at the microphone to suggest that this event be balanced by inviting other speakers such as Irshad Manji. Manji is a woman raised Muslim who has written the book, “The Trouble with Islam Today.” But such a level of freedom of expression was not going to be tolerated by a man with a Middle Eastern accent who had earlier taken the microphone to defend Felton's right to freedom of expression, even though he disagreed with some of his positions. The man began shouting that Manji is a “hate monger”. “She’s your daughter! We don’t want her! We hate her!”

Turned out Felton wasn't crazy about her either: “I have a problem with a Muslim woman who is funded by Zionists.”

A member of the audience pointed out that Manji had previously spoken at the library. Whitney agreed. Whew!

Whitney closed the event as defensively as he had opened it: “The library is not endorsing the views presented by individual speakers.”

Felton got the last word. He thanked “the library for having the courage to stand up to the barrage of insults and intimidation”, adding that the "Israel Lobby" -- a phrase he used repeatedly throughout the evening -- "came here and hurled insults at me.”