Evanston Library reschedules pro-Palestinian speaker amid protests over cancelation

After a flurry of criticism through social media, Evanston Public Library officials have reversed their decision to cancel a talk by Palestinian-American author Ali Abunimah.

Abunihmah confirmed in a posting Monday on his website, “The Electronic Intifada,” that he had been in contact with Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons who said his speech has been reinstated.

Abunihmah is scheduled to give a reading and discuss his book, “The Battle for Justice in Palestine,” at 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 11, in the community room of the library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

“I have no doubt that this reversal owes much to the many people – including a number of professional librarians – who wrote to Evanston Public Library to express their concern at the cancelation.” he wrote. “I am truly grateful to everyone for their support. Gone are the days when institutions could quietly push aside the question of Palestine.”

When Abunihmah posted Saturday that he’d learned of the cancellation through a tweet by the library, it triggered criticism of censorship and a pro-Israeli bias on the part of the library.

The tweet described the need “to find more speakers on other dates, to discuss the complex issue,” as a basis for the talk being rescheduled.

Abunimah also attached an email he received from a library staffer, involved in the planning of the event.

In the email, the staffer indicated Lyons wasn’t comfortable proceeding with the reading until the staffer nailed down details on a “pro-Israeli” speaker the staffer had spoken about bringing in for fall. The library director also expressed concern about balance, according to the staffer.

Abunihmah charged that the cancellation was politically motivated and “a blatant act of censorship, contravening the American Library Association’s position that libraries should challenge censorship and should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”

Lyons, on the library’s website as well as in an interview Tuesday, acknowledged that she would have liked the library to have handled the issue differently. In the future, she said communications confirming event details will go through her to spare any confusion.

She called “blatantly false,” however, the notion that the library was banning or censoring the work of the author.

The library served as co-sponsor of the event and had promoted the program through flyers, posters, social media and its electronic newsletters, Lyons noted.

“The intention all along was to make the talk “part of a deeper and broader conversation,”Lyons said.

Under Lyons, the library has engaged in a number of multi-level discussions of sometimes-provocative topics, including one a four-part series on youth violence.

“When the opportunity to host Ali Abunimah was first brought to me, the first thing I said was, ‘yes,’” she said. “But the second thing I said was ‘This is a bigger topic and deserves more consideration than one author, one voice, one evening. And so I wanted to have plans for a series of other opportunities to come together and to discuss this and to consider this, created in advance, so that no one could say, ‘Oh, the library is just responding to criticism, you’ve brought one voice.’

“I wanted it to be intentional because I think it’s a difficult topic and there are strong feelings, strong beliefs, but part of what a public library does is help critical thinking by presenting multiple points of view. I never said that I was looking for a pro-Israeli speaker. What I said, and what I still believe, is we need credible speakers to present different points of view.

She said she plans to reach out to Northwestern University, which has a new Middle Eastern studies program, and other outlets for speakers on the issue.

About 20 members of Neighbors for Peace, an Evanston-based justice and peace group, rallied near the entrance of the library Tuesday, protesting censorship.

“We believe public pressure on the library caused them to reverse their position,” said Neighbors for Peace member Dale Lehman.

Another speaker Andy Thayer, said the actions show “how peace voices get shouted down,” referring to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have once again pro-war censorship seeping into our community, into the allegedly liberal bastion of Evanston,” he said.

The group also raised concern over the manner of notification made to postpone Abunimah’s talk, with Abunimah learning of the decision through social media.

In this case, “the communications should have come through me,” Lyons acknowledged.

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5 Comments

  • Doremus

    Outrageous. Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons must resign after such a blatant violation of American Library Association principles of free speech and intellectual freedom. I've never heard of =any= venue who sought to include in a book talk speakers who =oppose the views of the author=. The next time Michael Moore gives a book talk at EPL will Director Lyons seek out a spokesperson from General Motors to speak to have a " deeper and broader conversation? Shame on her

    2014-08-06 15:38:11 | Reply
    • Benjamin Dover

      Oh, give it a rest. Why are there always calls for someone to resign?"He did this, I didn't like it, he should be fired." or "She 'violated' something, so she should resign!"The ship is righted. Move on.

      2014-08-11 09:47:51 | Reply
  • Terri

    I want to register for author Abunihmad's book discuss/lecturer on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, at Evanston Public Library on Orrington St., Evanston, IL.I am a longtime monthly book discuss group participant.Also, I am a fan of many of your community outreach programs for Evanston.Thanks to the talented Ms. Leslie WilliamsT. Cameron

    2014-08-06 15:03:26 | Reply
  • Terri Cameron

    I would like to join Neighbors for Peace Evanston Group

    2014-08-06 14:48:40 | Reply
  • Rosalie Riegle

    Neighbors for Peace is the co-sponsor of this August 11 event. Because of the size of the room and the immense social media storm the cancellation engendered, the library now requires that attendees register in order to attend. Within yours of announceing the reinstatement on the library website, registration was closed. Neighbors for Peace wants no one to be turned away so they are working to secure an additional venue near the library with a live video feed. Stay tuned for further developments and plan to come to the library by 6:30 at least on August 11 to hear one of the premier speakers on the Nakba and the current Palestinian crisis.

    2014-08-06 09:43:42 | Reply
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