Planned speech at Columbia Public Library draws strong protest

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COLUMBIA – Melissa Carr, the Daniel Boone Regional Library director, announced Thursday night that the library will allow the controversial presentation on Palestine to take place in a library meeting room.

The presentation, set for Tuesday, includes the story of Amena Ashkar and her grandmother. Ashkar’s grandmother survived what is called Nakba.

George Smith is a member of Mid-Missourians for Justice in Palestine, one of the groups sponsoring Ashkar’s presentation.

The word Nakba means “catastrophe” in Arabic, according to Smith. He said it’s also the word Palestinian Arabs use for their expulsion from Israel.

But Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom in Columbia, along with others, is upset that Ashkar has previously stated Israel has no right to exist.

Feintuch said Ashkar’s words are hate speech that have no place in a building taxpayers fund.

“When you call effectively for the elimination of a sovereign state that is a member of the United Nations, you basically perpetrate antisemitism,” Feintuch said.

Smith said he cannot say what exactly Ashkar meant, but he explained the issue from his own perspective.

“What I mean by ‘Israel doesn’t have a right to exist’ is that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist as a specifically Jewish state because the Jews of Israel rule over an equal number of Palestinian Arabs,” Smith said.

And for Smith, it’s also a free speech issue.

“I mean the library has apparently already made its decision and it’s made its decision on principled grounds,” Smith said.

Feintuch said he doesn’t mind Ashkar sharing her narrative, but he wants the library to keep her from advocating for the elimination of Israel. He said allowing Ashkar to speak would set a dangerous precedent allowing other forms of hate speech.

“The library must make it clear and explicit: you cannot engage in hate speech,” Feintuch said.

Before announcing her decision Thursday night, Carr said she reviewed the application for using the meeting room and determined it met criteria set forth by the library's policy.  

Daniel Swindell was in attendance at the meeting.  He was there to speak out against the event, and he said he was disappointed by the decision.  Although there was talk of it, he said he won't pursue any legal action.

Carr said she wanted people to understand the presentation is not sponsored by the library, but by an outside group. She also said she welcomes any questions or concerns others might have about anything library-related.

"We're very interested in what the public wants to tell us about the library because it is the public's library.  It is the community's library," Carr said.