'P Is for Palestine': A controversial Sunday story time

Barhim Benmbark, 39, from Morocco was asked to do the reading of children’s book P is for Palestine by Golbarg Bashi, an instructor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. The public reading was held at the Children’s Community School of West Philadelphia, Sunday, December, 17, 2017.

It was a perfect Sunday activity for toddlers: story time, followed by games and food.

And while the kids assembled at the Children’s Community School of West Philadelphia were all about the Cheddar Bunnies and mini-jungle gym, for the parents it was a celebration of inclusion and resistance.

P Is for Palestine, written by Iranian-born Golbarg Bashi, an instructor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, was chosen as much for the colorful photos and rhymes as it was for the controversy it has created.

Camera icon JOSE MORENO / Staff Photographer
Rabbi Alissa Wise listens during a public reading.

“We are trying to figure out how to respond to the negative publicity,” Alissa Wise, 38, a rabbi and deputy director at the Jewish Voice for Peace. She organized the small group of about 20 preschoolers and their parents who gathered for the Sunday activity.

It wasn’t “A is for Arabic, my tongue, a language that’s the 4th biggest ever sung” or even that “B is for Bethlehem,” or “C is for Christmas,” that stirred the controversy. It was “I is for Intifada, Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or grownup!”

The book has created a backlash in the Jewish community, where some see it as anti-Semitic.

Two Palestinian uprisings or intifadas against Israel in the 1980s and 2000s killed an estimated 1,000 Israelis and 5,000 Palestinians combined, according to the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper.

The 27,000-member Facebook group “UES Mommas” was temporarily shut down when posts about the book turned into a “hateful debate,” according to the Forward.

The colorfully illustrated book was published using the crowd-sourced fund-raising platform LaunchGood.com; it is reported to have sold out of the initial run of 2,000 copies, according to the site

Wise hoped that the Philadelphia reading, set to coincide with a similar activity in New York City, would bring more understanding to the meaning of intifada and to the Palestinian culture.

The word can also mean “uprising,” “resistance,” or “rebellion,” which is what many middle-class Americans are taking part in when it comes to opposing the Trump administration, she said.

The book, which also includes pages about foods, markets, holidays, and geographic names, does justice to Palestinian culture, said Brahim Benmbark, 39, of West Philadelphia, who was asked to do the reading.

“It is a wonderful experience,” said Benmbark. “This is the way it should be in my mind.”

Benmbark, who is Muslim and originally from Morocco, came to the gathering with his son, Ilyas, 3, and wife Shaina, who is Jewish. The family celebrates the Muslim and Jewish holidays and a bit of Christmas as well, he said.

“We are very open to all traditions,” he said.

The timing of the gathering coincided with the news that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were being told not to use certain words or phrases in official budget documents, including diversity, ‘transgender and science-based.

That struck at the core of the issue with Benmbark.

“Words are debatable. We can discuss them,” said Benmbark. “Nobody should give themselves the right to tell people which words to use.”

Fascist and dictatorial regimes “start by banning words, then paragraphs, then entire books and newspapers,” said Benmbark. “Before you know it, you will be living in a dictatorship.”