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Controversy over Bethlehem speaker shows again how public libraries have become speech battleground

What's Next for Palestine? Miko Peled - Bethlehem Public Library - December 05, 2023
What's Next for Palestine? Miko Peled - Bethlehem Public Library - December 05, 2023

A pro-Palestinian speaker's visit to give a talk last week put Bethlehem Public Library policies under the microscope.

Miko Peled, a self-styled Israeli-American human rights activist, spoke about "What's Next for Palestine?" Peled is the son of an Israeli general who served in the 1967 war and the grandson of a signer of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Peled was a special forces Red Beret soldier in the Israeli military and now lectures internationally.

He is the author of "The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine." Peled's December 5th appearance at the Bethlehem Library in Albany County was preceded the day before by a packed Board of Trustees meeting where members of the public debated about Peled's appearance, ranging from calling him "fake news," "an avowed anti-Semite" to "like the city of Bethlehem in Israel, here in Bethlehem we can coexist with everybody."

"My name is Rabbi Greg Weitzman. I am the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Emeth, the largest and oldest Jewish community in the Capital Region. I also serve as a police chaplain, as well as an active member of the Capital Region's board of rabbis and cantors. My family and I live in Slingerlands. And today, I stand before you to express my concern about having a speaker at the Bethlehem public library that has used inflammatory remarks and hate speech as a major part of his platform."

"My name is Mansoor Rafiq Umar. I'm the Imam of the mosque located in Bethlehem; we just opened about a year ago. If the library has a policy, and the policy is that certain things are defined as hate speech, and it shouldn't be spoken, then that's the library's policy. And that's that. But if the library doesn't have that policy, and their policy is we accept the First Amendment, wholeheartedly carte blanche, then anyone can speak. "

Peled spoke for nearly two hours about the Israel-Hamas war and took questions from audience members, who were at times, rambunctious.

Peled posted on X, formerly Twitter, that a library administrator interrupted his lecture to say he couldn't use the term “from the River to the Sea” at the library. That phrase has been interpreted as a call for Jewish genocide and is used extensively by Hamas.

"The speaker was warned several times that that was inching towards and crossing the line of our patron conduct policy, which is separate from the library policy, as opposed to the First Amendment of free speech. But we're committed to free speech. And I think we're also committed to behavior. So in the moment, it was my call that that the behavior crossed the line," Library Director Geoffrey Kirkpatrick said.

Peled's talk was moderated by David Banks, the Program Director of Global Studies at the University at Albany.

“It's my understanding that many particularly Zionist Jews and Israelis interpret the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ to mean, the end of that usually chant is ‘Palestine will be free.’ The idea, this is seen as sometimes anti-Semitic, because people will equate anti-semitism and anti-Zionism and so the removal of the modern state of Israel is considered to be anti-Semitic, and therefore the chant ‘river to the sea’ is as well,” said Banks. 

Banks says he was satisfied with the way that the event went, with the exception of a handful of people upset with the talk.

In recent years, public libraries have become a battleground for public speech with events including drag queen story hours and debates on abortion and migrants.

“There's a difference between programs that the library puts on under the long range plan as voted on by our elected trustees, right? So those are things that are library programs. And then the other resource, one of the resources we offer to the community is we have these rooms at the library, and they are available to nonprofit groups, community groups who want to use the space to hold their meetings. And that was the case, in this particular case, the local, a local group called Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, booked a room here at the library, and, and they chose to bring in the author," Kirkpatrick said. 

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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