The Free Library of Philadelphia. Credit: Tupungato/Shutterstock.
by Dmitriy Shapiro
(JNS) — A public library system in Philadelphia is promising to make operational changes after drawing criticism for what some community members are considering an effort to indoctrinate children and parents against Israel through books, videos and resource links that show a biased pro-Palestinian agenda.
The issues were first discovered by members of the Jewish community, who contacted the Philadelphia Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America to express their concerns. ZOA Philadelphia’s executive director, Steve Feldman, a former reporter for The Jewish Exponent, looked into the concerns and said that he was disturbed by what he found on the website of the Free Library of Philadelphia — the country’s 13th-largest system of public libraries.
He found out that the 55 branches of the library system had individual Facebook pages where librarians would often post book suggestions and readings for children and their caretakers.
“I started looking, and I kept finding more and more disturbing content that was first of all directed at young people — children, middle-school age or maybe even younger frankly — and that it was all of an anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist nature,” said Feldman. “There seemed to be a campaign going on to indoctrinate young Philadelphians, or whoever else uses the websites in the library or the branches of the library, to indoctrinate young people and their parents to be anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, anti-Israel.”
The concerning posts first began during the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group that runs the Gaza Strip in May, when a children’s librarian at the FLP’s Lillian Marrero branch posted a video on its official Facebook page of her reading the illustrated children’s book, “Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine” by Rifk Ebeid, as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The librarian, Kayla Hoskinson, in a series of videos she calls “Storytime with Kayla,” introduces the books she is about to read. Hoskinson tells viewers of a video posted on May 18 that that week’s program is going to be more of a discussion and review, as well as a sharing of additional resources on the subject.
Hoskinson says that it is important to bring attention to the book because “we all see that the children in our lives do see and hear what is happening in the world, including the violence committed by Israel.”
“I’m sharing it because the struggle for liberation and total freedom is interconnected across cultures and communities. So when children, young people, see and hear about what’s happening to Palestinian people today, and for many decades, they will probably see and notice that Zionism looks a lot like racism,” she said. “And it’s important as the adults in their lives to name it and say it out loud. We should be highlighting and showing that support for the Palestinian struggle is global and rooted especially with support among black and brown people. And as we’re seeing right now, people across the world are rising up to reject Israel’s attempt to erase Palestinian people.”
In the book, a girl asks her father what her name means and then goes on an imaginary adventure through the various cities of Israel, which in the book are given Arabic names.
Hoskinson shows a picture from the book that omits the current nation of Israel, making the whole territory — not just the Gaza Strip and West Bank — Palestinian territory and calls Jerusalem by its Arab name, Al-Quds, which Hoskinson said is what she will call the city for the video.
After the library received complaints, the video was removed from the branch’s Facebook page.
The book’s official Instagram page calls Israel an apartheid state and accuses it of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing.
‘Libraries are not neutral’
On June 18, Hoskinson is featured in another Facebook video where she reads from a book of poetry geared at older children, “Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye,” the Poetry Foundation’s 2019-21 Young People’s Poet Laureate. Hoskinson describes Nye’s father in one of the poems as longing for his “lost homeland.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it lost. That’s what it feels like. It was stolen,” she said when introducing a poem.
Hoskinson, along with adult and teen librarian Erin Hoopes, co-wrote a blog post on June 21 that was posted on the homepage of the library, as well as linked to posts on the library’s main Facebook page and the Facebook pages of some of its branches.
The post contains a list of three books by Palestinian authors with its stated aim of helping children make sense of what they hear on the news and develop empathy for young people throughout the world. A link at the end of the blog forwards readers to a more thorough catalogue of books, all from the Palestinian perspective and aimed at children. A keyword at the bottom of the blog post was “Black Lives Matter,” allowing the blog post to appear in a Black Lives Matter keyword search of the library’s website.
A repost on the Lillian Marrero Facebook page included a link to additional resources for parents and children to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with each link associated with a pro-Palestinian perspective.
On her personal Twitter account, Hoskinson complains numerous times about the lack of action from libraries in supporting the Palestinian cause, interspersed with other radical causes, including keeping police and police-related imagery from libraries.
“Thinking a lot about that refrain we hear so often — ‘libraries are not neutral ’ —and the near total silence about Palestine in library spaces. Didn’t we all pivot together to build up anti-racist programming in 2020? And yet… ,” Hoskinson wrote in a pinned tweet.
She follows that tweet, saying that she commended the Free Library materials management team that “immediately recognized the dearth of Palestinian voices in our children’s collection and are already buying new books to fill it.”
“I think there is a deliberate effort to delegitimize Jewish self-determination and even dehumanize the Jewish people to young Philadelphians, particularly of other minority groups,” said Feldman. “Out of all of the conflicts in the world, all the situations in the world, why have there been multiple programs and activities focusing on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, and not, for example, what’s going on in China, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela or any places where there actually are human-rights violations?”
Hoskinson posted another, less offensive video on July 26, reading another children’s illustrated book by Nye, “Sitti’s Secrets,” about a girl visiting her Palestinian grandmother from America. Hoskinson again says that she believes it’s imperative for parents, caregivers and educators to use picture books as a tool to instill empathy and a sense of justice in young people before saying that her first video was deleted from the branch’s Facebook page because of outside complaints and directing viewers where to find that book.
Hoskinson speaks in a calm, child-friendly voice, like a teacher reading to a class of children.
“The librarian in a couple of those videos comes off like a female Mr. Rogers, which intensifies the impact of the propaganda that she is delivering,” said Feldman. “Why isn’t she the following week promoting a book about Zionism or about Israel or about the Jewish longing to return to [the Jewish] homeland? About what it’s like to be a young person with rockets, thousands and thousands of rockets fired at you frequently? Nothing like that is there. So it indicates that there is a deliberate, one-sided campaign, and it’s all based on lies.”
Hoskinson and possibly Hoopes, whose name appears as “Eel Hoopes,” both were signatories to an open letter of solidarity with Palestinian liberation from the children’s book industry, which accused Israelis of “lynching” Palestinians with the participation of Israeli police, genocide, ethnic cleansing, stealing land and targeting children.
Library staff are employees of the city of Philadelphia with the city providing $46.3 million of the library’s operating budget in Fiscal Year 2019-20 and another $7.8 million coming from state grant funds.
“You’re also talking about a government agency, and you’re talking about an institution that people, I would say, let their guard down about,” he said. “You know, who would think that a public library would be trying to indoctrinate young people to hate another people? It would be the furthest thing that anybody would think of. A library is regarded as a safe space — maybe one of the safest spaces. If you’re going to sit your kid down in front of a website to watch videos, who would suspect anything untoward at the library?”
According to Feldman, ZOA reached out to library leadership and were assured that the posts had been approved by supervisors.
Susan Tuchman, an attorney who is also director at the ZOA Center for Law and Justice, said that she followed up on Feldman’s email to the library’s interim director, Leslie Walker, making it known that the issue not only concerns the local ZOA chapter but the national organization.
“You had staff members propagandizing on the library’s webpages and promoting their personal agendas, which we said was not just anti-Israel, it crossed the line into anti-Semitism,” said Tuchman.
She said that ZOA urged the library staff to remove the offending posts, instructed the staff not to use library resources to express their personal political opinions and admonished staff members who engaged in that kind of behavior.
According to Tuchman, the library said that it would be auditing its social-media posts, which with all its branches was going to be time-consuming; update its blog guidelines and social-media policy; and meet with members of the Jewish community to help guide the library in the future.
“It is frightening to learn that a respected, neutral group at the Free Library is putting out anti-Israel lies and propaganda that [former PLO head] Yasser Arafat would be proud of. It’s just unbelievable. I’ve watched these videos — just incredible lies about Israel,” said Mort Klein, ZOA’s national president and a resident of Philadelphia, adding that Hoskinson’s narrations are worse than the books themselves. “I mean, the Free Library would never allow propaganda lies against blacks or gays or Muslims. Why do they allow it against the Jewish state?”
‘We were glad that they reached out to us’
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs of at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was contacted a few weeks ago about the situation by library board chair Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis. Olanipekun-Lewis was referred to Schatz by a member of the community.
Schatz said that she had met Olanipekun-Lewis before, when Olanipekun-Lewis worked for the city of Philadelphia, though they didn’t know each other well.
Schatz said that the library asked for input from the Jewish community because they “realized that there had been some missteps, and they wanted to gain a better understanding of what the issues were.”
Schatz said that she found the May 18 video disturbing.
“Some of it bothered me a lot, and some of it I thought was not too terrible,” she said. “Because in one of the videos, it was clear bias, based on misinformation; I thought to some extent it was revisionist history.”
A meeting was held on Aug. 19 between Schatz, Olanipekun-Lewis, Walker and Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council director Laura Frank.
Schatz said that the library leaders agreed to hold another meeting at the end of August to include the federation and ZOA to further discuss the issue. The meeting was scheduled for the afternoon of Aug. 31.
They also discussed future programming collaborations between various groups of Jews in the community, including collaborating with other groups that may not have a working relationship or understanding of the Jewish community.
According to Schatz, the library has over the years hosted programs with Jewish or Israeli authors.
“Our position is that we were glad that they reached out to us. We’re happy to work with them,” she said. “We are big believers in education as they are, and I think it’s going to be the start of a really nice collaboration with the library.”
In a statement to JNS, the Free Library outlined the steps that it is undertaking to make corrections, which were similar as to what was told to Tuchman.
This includes auditing the social-media accounts of its neighborhood libraries, which so far includes it removing two videos with language that is not endorsed by FLP. With 75 accounts associated with the library, a full audit will take time, according to the statement.
The library has also convened its website and communications teams to update its blog and social-media guidelines, and its supervisors have been charged with addressing and reinforcing those guidelines with staff to prevent the production of inflammatory programs and content produced in the name of the library. Finally, representatives will meet with partners and leaders in the Jewish community to discuss and help guide the library on culturally sensitive issues and concerns.
“The language used in social-media posts is not endorsed by the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the posts have been taken down,” Olanipekun-Lewis said in a statement on Aug. 19. “We are reviewing the guidelines for our content so that we can continue to give our employees platforms to share resources and voices from many cultures and perspectives grounded in our programs and collections, while ensuring it does not denigrate any members of the Free Library community or become an outlet for individual political or personal views. We will also be meeting with leaders in the Jewish community to discuss their concerns.”
FLP public-relations manager Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy said the library would not comment on whether the posts would lead to repercussions for library staff.
An email to Hoskinson offering her an opportunity to comment did not receive a response.