The following article was supplied to Scragged by Howard Rotberg about a startling series of events that changed his life. He has asked us to publish it.
A quiet Sunday afternoon at the Chapters store in Waterloo, Ontario. (Chapters is Canada's monopoly book retailer with 73% of the retail book market - ed) A nice, relaxed informal lecture to a small group about The Second Catastrophe, my new novel.
I had just started talking about why I had written the book - about how, after the failure of the Oslo process, and Arafat's rejection of Barak's generous offer for a two-state solution at Camp David II, the Palestinians had started the Second Intifada. I mentioned how disappointed a lot of us were to see that Arafat apparently did not want a state alongside Israel, but one in place of Israel.
That was a mistake.
I now realize that I was in Canada, where only politically correct speech is protected.
I was in Canada, the land of cultural relativism, where the most important value is tolerance. Criticizing any other country or culture is a breach of the now distorted policy of multiculturalism. Now, I would pay the price.
If I had only known how big a price.
A young man came in and sat in the second row. He picked up a copy of my book from the table, took a perfunctory look at it, and started interrupting me.
"You think all Muslims are terrorists," he asserted.
"I do not," I replied, as categorically as possible.
"Well, that's what your book says," he retorted.
It looked to me as if he had just taken a few glances at it, so I replied: "Have you read my book?" He paused and then said, "Part."
I decided not to take him seriously and I continued. Another mistake.
Suddenly a man appeared, standing off to my left, and started into a rant. It was something about how the Americans and the Israelis are the real terrorists, and that democracy is really fascist. He was scary.
University of Waterloo Professor Dennis Stoutenburg was there and tried to calm the man.
"Sir, this is a lecture. Why don't you sit down and listen?"
The first man identified himself as a Palestinian, and the second as a Kurdish Iraqi.
Then they took turns talking - and talking. It was apparent that they were not going to let me speak any more. They had decided to take over my lecture.
The Palestinian was shouting something about how the Israelis kill five Palestinians a day. Some audience members had heard enough.
"Be quiet and let the author continue with his lecture; he has the right to give his lecture," said one audience member.
"He has no right to lecture if he is going to say things in support of Israel," said the Palestinian. His words cut me like a knife.
Then the Iraqi started in. Again someone pleaded with him to be quiet so I could lecture. Then came the words that still ring in my ears: "He's a f****** Jew."
Up to this point there had been no store employees sitting in on the lecture. A couple had earlier come by and stood at the periphery of the seats for a few minutes each. One of them, a young woman, was wearing a hajav, the head-covering worn by many Muslim women.
That was the end of the lecture. I said something to the effect that I would not be called a "f****** Jew" at my lecture. The store manager came over to me and told me not to swear. I told him that I was the one being sworn at; he said that it didn't matter. He gathered up the books on the table and escorted me to his office at the back.
"I want you to call the Police." I said.
"What for?" he replied.
"Because these totalitarians just stopped my right to lecture, and are swearing at me, and who knows what they will do next?" I said.
"I don't have the number," he claimed.
I couldn't believe this. "Try 911," I suggested.
Professor Stoutenburg and his wife Laura, who teaches English at Conestoga College, came by to see if I was all right. I wasn't. I was in a state of shock.
Stoutenburg said he had just finished talking to the store employee with the hajav. "She is a Palestinian," he added. "I think she knew the protestors."
Finally, the police officer indicated he was ready to talk to me and any witnesses. He had been interviewing the protestors outside.
"Do you know that one fellow stopped my lecture, and then called me a "f****** Jew," I said.
Apparently he didn't know, because he began to jot down the derogatory expression.
"I hope you are going to charge them," I said.
"Well, I have investigated, and the only thing I could really charge them with would be causing a disturbance, but I decided to let them go, with a warning not to come back to this store."
I was incredulous. He had let them go before talking to me and some of the witnesses, like the Stoutenburgs.
"Do you mean that it's not a crime to use Gestapo tactics to break up a lecture and tell the author that he is a "f****** Jew?" I said.
The constable looked as if he would rather be somewhere else. "Well, we get 2 or 3 racial slurs a day in Kitchener-Waterloo; I can't charge everybody," he replied.
"But don't you see a difference between a racial slur used in a dispute over a traffic accident, and one used to silence an author at a lecture he was invited to give by Chapters?"
"I can't give you any special treatment because you are an author," he said with what sounded a lot like sarcasm.
I was in shock. I said to him, "Don't you understand what it is like for a Jewish author whose grandparents were gassed in Auschwitz to be called a 'f****** Jew' at a lecture?"
He looked at me blankly.
Then I understood. I said, "You don't know what Auschwitz was, right?" He didn't say anything.
I asked him to escort me to my car, for my safety. When we got outside, there was a man milling around, who looked to me like he might be of Middle Eastern background. The officer just climbed into his cruiser.
"Aren't you going to escort me to my car?" I asked.
He started his car. "I can see what happens from over here," he replied.
That evening Mantua Books, my publisher, issued a press release saying they regretted to announce the cancellation of my speaking engagements at Chapters/Indigo, including the previously advertised events at the Ancaster store on May 30 and the Ottawa store on June 13.
The release went on to say that Mantua was NOT giving in to inflammatory tactics, but were trying to protect the author from physical harm and not inconvenience and annoy Chapters/Indigo and its customers when it came to heckling and racial/religious slurs.
In the meantime, Mantua Books said they would endeavour to find more secure forums for me to lecture, where they can provide the necessary level of security for my physical safety, and where they can provide personnel who can eject those whose purpose is not to engage in free and open debate but to silence those with whom they disagree.
Another mistake. My publisher had not precleared the wording of the press release with the director of public relations at Chapters. Sorya Ingrid Gaulin, the PR director, went ballistic.
She called me and said it was improper for my publisher to issue a media release before going over it with her. I said that it was up to my publisher, and that I didn't think my publisher's release had been in any way critical of Chapters.
Then she lowered the boom: "I heard you said some things at the lecture just as objectionable as what was said to you. We are going to issue our own press release, and you may not be happy with what it says."
"What are you alleging that I said?" I was shocked, to say the least.
"What do you mean, exactly?" I asked.
"I heard that you said that all Muslims are terrorists!"
I was sinking deeper into my state of shock. All I could say was: "I definitely did not say that. If you put out a press release with such nonsense, I will sue to protect my reputation." I hung up.
She issued her press release all right. Suddenly, I was in an Orwellian world where the victim of racism was now the racist. The press release apologized for any "inappropriate behaviour and. racist comments both from the guest author and some of the attendees at this particular event."
Two months have passed. I have written to or spoken with most of the civil rights organizations in Canada, most of the Jewish organizations in Canada, and the organizations that serve the interests of authors. Some ignore my letters, some call back with messages of empathy, some even say they are investigating. But to date, not one organization has published a statement, in a newsletter, in a press release, or by verbal statement to the media, expressing dismay at what has happened to me, at what has happened to freedom of expression, at what has happened to someone who dares support Israel, at what has happened or not happened in the police investigation.
I have had a lot of support from individuals on Internet sites. I have had no official support from any organizations to date, Jewish or non-Jewish, except from PenCanada (which says it wrote a letter requesting Chapters to reschedule the lecture - which letter Chapters President Heather Reisman denies receiving) and the Canadian Coalition for Democracies. Three newspapers saw fit to report the incident. One (the Kitchener-Waterloo Record) portrayed it as a "scrap" with competing claims of who was the racist. Until this article in the Jewish Tribune, only one newspaper (the Globe and Mail) has thus far carried an opinion piece (by Professor Emeritus Herbert Lefcourt) warning that allowing this to happen unchallenged is conducive to the "slippery slope" where it is much easier for the next incident to happen.
Professor Lefcourt was right. In June, someone wrote in to the Public Forum message board of the website for the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, a message board where quite a few people had posted messages of concern over the incident. This person used the name of a reputable Jewish family in Waterloo, and in broken English, wrote that he/she was in attendance at my "reading" (if he had been there, he would have known it was a lecture not a reading), that he was Jewish, and that I am a "hypocritical evil little bigot," a "rascist (sic) scum" and then the clincher; he claims that in response to my being sworn at, I had said, "This just proves that all Arabs and Muslims deserve to die."
The Canadian Coalition for Democracies, to its credit, is undertaking a court application to require Rogers, the Internet provider for the computer from which this message was sent, to disclose the name of its customer.
The awful irony for me is that my book, The Second Catastrophe, is in part about a Canadian professor who writes a book about Israel, and then gets in trouble after giving a lecture at his university. Most of the lecture is completely unassailable, but in one small portion he gets a little loose with his wording. The lecture takes place in early 2002, the peak of the suicide bombings. He asks what are Israel's options when faced with these almost daily attacks. I have him state: "(One) suggestion is to create a series of impenetrable fences and buffer zones, essentially to keep the animals in the zoo."
Of course, the next day, the novels Anti-Israel student newspaper runs a big headline: "Zionist professor calls Palestinians (animals in the zoo)."
The poor professor pays dearly for his slightly inappropriate wording. He is charged with offences against the university's Human Rights Code, which makes it an offence to demonstrate bias against an ethnic, religious or national group, and an offence to make statements that would reasonably cause some students to think a professor is biased against them.
However, as much as I think about what I have said, or what I have written, I can never find the words that are inappropriate or find any words that are racist. Maybe I should not have repeated the 'f' word, even to admonish someone else for using it. But a racist I am not.
I have met my Waterloo, and I don't like it.
After this article was written, we continued with the Court Application. I was aided by Alastair Gordon of the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, who was quite upset that his organization's internet public message forum should be used for the posting of the message with the terrible allegation against me.
The family name used by the person making the post was the name of a reputable Jewish family in Waterloo, who were well known to me. In fact the gentleman is the son of Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivors. I asked him if he knew of anyone in his family with the first name given on the posting. His response was interesting. He was sure that there is no such person in North America with that name. He said that since his family had been mostly wiped out in the Holocaust, he had made it a hobby to look for other people with his family name, in the hope of someday finding some relatives. With the internet of course it is far easier to make these searches than it used to be. He told me with some confidence that there could not be a person with that name in Canada, and that the name was probably made up.
Thanks to the footprints that everyone unwittingly leaves in cyberspace, and the pro bono legal services generously provided by Toronto law firm Weir Foulds LLP, the Court Order referred to above was successfully obtained.
What we found out when Rogers made disclosure was truly fascinating, and enlightening. At the same time it was truly frightening. The Internet subscriber from whose computer the posting originated was identified as Ms. Howaida Wahdan of Waterloo at an address listed in directory assistance under the name of Mr. Elsayed Khedr. The address was a few doors away from the Jewish family whose name appeared on the posting!
The Jewish family whose name was "stolen" for purposes of the nefarious internet posting were well acquainted with the Wahdan/Khedr family. In fact, up until recently, their children had played together! For some reason, the Jewish family told me, the Khedr child had stopped coming around to their house, just about the time of the posting!
The Jewish family told me that Ms. Wahdan is the wife of Elsayed Khedr, that they are well-to-do Palestinians, and that Mr. Khedr is an Engineer, working often in Egypt, while Ms. Wahdan looks after the children in Canada.
In today's world, there are some Islamists who will riot and kill over a political cartoon. I am not pleased that Chapters has falsely accused me in print of making anti-Muslim "racist" comments. I am even more upset when it is alleged in print that I said "all Muslims and Arabs must die". This could be dangerous to my life.
Does anybody care about all the lying going on? Does anybody care about the danger to Canadian authors?
In the meantime, Mantua Books brought a Court Action in Small Claims Court claiming damages as a result of Chapters' actions and words, based on their employees actions and words, which hurt their author's credibility and damaged Mantua financially.
Something very odd happened during the course of the litigation. Chapters/Indigo had returned all of my books shortly after I demanded a retraction from them for calling me a "racist". They had been carrying 7 copies per store, and some stores in the bigger cities had already sold out their allotment. Yet the vice-president who wrote Mantua Books said they were returning ALL of the books due to "slow sales". This was a bit odd, because normally they would first reduce their inventory down to 1 or 2 from 7, or would carry it only in the stores where it was selling well. The really odd thing that happened was that during the Israel-Hezbollah War, the flagship Indigo store at Bay and Bloor in Toronto suddenly ordered 30 copies from the publisher, perhaps not knowing about the "ban" on the book. Usually orders from Chapters/Indigo are done centrally, but it seems individual stores have the ability to make their own orders. The publisher mentioned the order to the lawyer for Indigo, but did not hear anything right away, so went ahead and shipped the 30 copies.
These were not placed as part of a special display, but rather all placed back in the stacks of fiction indexed by author's last name. Mantua then advertised in a newspaper ad that the book was available at that store. But by the time purchaser's came to the store, someone at Indigo/Chapters found out about this order of the "banned book" and instructed someone at the store to remove all copies, so that when purchasers inquired, first store staff had no idea what happened to all the books, and then they were told to offer customers coupons if they wanted to buy a different book.
Anyway, later, after legal threats, Indigo put the books back on the shelves, but the original customers who were attracted by the ad, were not aware of that. But regardless, of the 30 books, ordered, and without any further advertising, at least 25 were sold. This was despite Chapters' website stating that the book was unavailable at any of their stores, which was of course, untrue. Obviously there was a large market for the book, especially during that war.
As part of the law suit we finally got to see the written statements of Chapters' staff. Here is the original 2004 statement of the part time employee at Chapters Book Store in Waterloo:
"I went to see the author signing fifteen minutes into it and when I got closer to the area, I heard voices that became louder and louder. I saw two people in the audience, one calmly stating basic facts to the author, the other yelling out, 'What are you . a f***ing Jew?' only to have the author yell back, 'A f***ing Jew? This only proves that Middle Eastern people are terrorists.' From there the yelling progressed, eventually reaching a point where the managers asked the audience members to leave, and the author gave up and stepped into their office.
"For a person to come into my workplace and insult and judge me in such a manner without him knowing anything about me is absurd. According to him, when walking down the street, I should be avoided at all times because my skin is darker and I wear a headscarf. I am aware that the man in the audience should not have cursed at all given the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the author, as a professional and as a representative of what books the company holds should have controlled himself against saying such piercing words. It was uncalled for, rude and worst of all it was racial discrimination.
"What frustrates me most about this whole scenario is the fact that both customers and employees alike had to witness something so hateful towards those of Middle Eastern descent. At one of the most difficult times to be of a visible minority for Arab and Muslim people, it was completely unjust for him to generalize the way that he did. I also noticed that he kept repeating the word 'they' and 'them' like we were some vicious robots that act, think and speak alike with one brain. Even if it was for a split second that someone looked at me and thought, 'So she's a terrorist?' that is one split second too much. I have never in my life done anything to intentionally hurt anyone, and to be accused of being one that intentionally inflicts pain upon others is hurtful and untrue. It seems as if my genetic makeup caused him to automatically make an unfair assumption. And that is racism at its worst."
Note that the allegation made against me verbally at the beginning of all this was that I said that "all Muslims are terrorists", but by the time the part time employee had to reduce it to writing it was changed to "this only proves that all Middle Easterners are terrorists". Of course, I did not say that, but even had I done so, a claim that all "Middle Easterners" are something or other would be not racist, but just plain stupid, since Middle Easterners include white Jews, brown Jews, black Jews, Coptic Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, Bahais, Druze and various Muslims.
Here is the bookstore clerk's retraction obtained just prior to the start of trial, this week. I have agreed to only post it and not make further comments:
1. At the presentation given by Mr. Rotberg on Sunday, May 16, 2004, I observed two individuals arrive part way through his presentation and commence interrupting him, to which he responded. The Iraqi Kurdish individual then called Mr. Rotberg a "f*****g Jew", which was completely inappropriate and very offensive.
2. Mr. Rotberg stated that he would not be called that slur and he repeated this slur several times himself, as if he could not believe it had been used. I then heard him say something further, in response, concerning Middle Easterners and terrorism.
3. I cannot say with certainty that my written statement contained a completely verbatim transcription of Mr. Rotberg's comment, which he would have made in the heat of the moment. I wrote down my belief and understanding of what I thought I heard him say. He was understandably upset at the time and these comments all happened in a matter of a few seconds. It is possible that I may have misunderstood what he intended to say.
4. Any dispute between Mr. Rotberg and myself as to the precise content and meaning of his words, and the beliefs they reflect, could easily be attributed to our respective life experiences and built-in biases, as people of Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds. The events of that day are not evidence that either one of us is racist. Well-intentioned people of different backgrounds occasionally mis-communicate.
5. In exchange for the Terms of Settlement dated August 27, 2008, between me and Mantua Books, I disclaim any and all legal rights against Mantua Books and Howard Rotberg that have arisen to date.
And so, by the time of this settlement, the allegation was further downgraded to the allegation that I said "something further, in response, concerning Middle Easterners and terrorism."
So, the monopoly book chain in Canada called me a racist, then banned all my books because I said "something" concerning Middle Easterners and terrorism in response to hecklers taking over my lecture with no protest by their employees and in response to being called a "f*****g Jew".
The actual Small Claims Court proceeding was a farce, because the rules of the Small Claims Court allow the defendant to file affidavits of people who do not have to appear in Court and be cross examined before the Court. We were successful in collecting the money owed for the books sold (Indigo paid up after the Claim was started) but in Court the Judge would not hold Indigo responsible for the actions of its employee who stood by smiling as the lecture was taken over by Islamists.
While the Court had some adverse things to say about Indigo and we achieved payment of the amount owing to us, which Indigo had withheld for a year, incredibly blaming "computer problems" for non-payment, the Court rejected the most important matter of Indigo's liability in negligence for actions and non-actions of their employees.
Unfortunately, the Court absolved Indigo from anything that happened before the Manager came back to the lecture after hearing the commotion. The Court said that "what occurred was a rapid escalation, a sudden conflagration which culminated within a matter of minutes". It appears that we did not make our case that Indigo was negligent in allowing the take-over of an author lecture by extremists who announced, in the presence of at least one Indigo employee, that they would not allow the author to talk. We did not make our case that this take-over of the lecture happened before the "rapid escalation", which, in the view of the Court, Indigo managers handled properly in their conduct to the guest author.
The result was that Indigo was held not to have breached a common law duty to protect its guest author from verbal assault and racist taunts.
While the Court found that the guest author "presented as an intelligent man with a passion for civic and community involvement", with "many commendable civic and community activities", the Court found that the guest author, in yelling out that he would not be called a "f*****g Jew" was as blameworthy as those who called him a "f*****g Jew" and stopped his right to lecture at a location where he had been invited to speak. Perhaps it was a waste of time to sue the bookstore. Of course, we wouldn't have bothered if the police would have agreed to charge the hecklers with the offense of causing a disturbance.
One of the things that bothered me most was that no civil rights organizations would honour my request to ask the police to reconsider their quick determination not to lay criminal charges for "causing a disturbance" (easier to prove than a charge of hate crime). When I was quoted in the Canadian Jewish News bemoaning that fact, the director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, who I had known for years and had unsuccessfully asked for assistance, got angry. He then in print said that he had no knowledge of what happened in the store, that the Congress was not an "investigative" organization (notwithstanding that I had offered him written and sworn affidavits from audience members, and most immorally of all, that he had "every confidence" in the Waterloo Police Force.
This was after I requested an investigation by a detective. The detective assigned, a woman named Detective Dietrich, treating me with the utmost sarcasm and finally told me that I should stop bothering the police about the incident or she would find something to charge me with!
I no longer feel that I have freedom of expression in the country to which I have given so much. I practiced law with a stellar record for 20 years, I participated in community and volunteer organizations, often in a leadership position, I donated money to charities, I wrote for a number of different newspapers and magazines, wrote four books, set up a publishing company for authors whose works were too politically incorrect for mainstream publishers, raised three children, and I am an award-winning developer of affordable housing for low income working people in converted heritage buildings in various cities in Southern Ontario, and lecture widely on the topic of affordable housing. But when I think of myself as a Canadian citizen, all I can think about is how I am a "f*****g Jew".