Kansan Public Library officials recently expressed outrage over the arrest and indictment of a Jewish man who asked pointed questions about Israel during a diplomat’s speech in May. A librarian who came to his defense also faces charges.
Dennis Ross, a former diplomat and adviser to George H.W. Bush, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State, was speaking at a public event at the Plaza branch of the Kansas Public Library system on May 9.
Ross, who is staunchly pro-Israel has urged American Jews to be advocates for Israel — not Palestinians — was giving the “inaugural Truman and Israel Lecture, established by the Truman Library Institute and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City,” the Kansas City Star reported.
After Ross was finished speaking, the Q&A portion of the event commenced.
Activist Jeremy Kushel-Roth took the opportunity to ask critical questions about Israel.
As summarized by Haaretz, an Israeli publication that often covers Jewish-oriented issues in the United States:
“Issues arose after Ross finished speaking and took a question from Jeremy Rothe-Kushel concerning whether Jewish Americans like Rothe-Kushel should be concerned about actions by the U.S. and Israel that amount to ‘state-sponsored terrorism.’
“[B]oth the countries that operate in our name have used terrorism way too long, including against [their] own citizens, to project power at home and abroad,” he said, asking, “When are we going to stand up and be ethical Jews and Americans?”
Following a brief back-and-forth between Ross and Rothe-Kushel, the head of security hired by the Jewish Community Foundation reportedly motioned to librarians to cut Rothe-Kushel’s microphone.
At that point, the head of security, along with an off-duty cop, approached Rothe-Kushel and grabbed his arm. Steve Woolfolk, director of public programming for the library, attempted to intervene. He was also arrested. Though there is video footage of the incident, it has not yet been released.
According to the Kansas City Star, “Woolfolk said he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee when a police officer kneed him in the leg.” The library paid for his medical treatment.
KCUR, Kansas City’s public radio station, reported Kemper was “charged with interfering with the arrest of Rothe-Kushel, who was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.”
A police report written by the arresting officer claims Rothe-Kushel resisted arrest by “tensing up and bracing himself” and eventually pushing back against the security guard, who was also grabbing him. The report indicates both Woolfolk and Roth-Kushel resisted their attempts to escort them out and arrest them.
“The library tried to defend my person and my God-given rights of the First Amendment. We believe the charges should be dropped,” he said.
Kansas City Public Library Executive Director R. Crosby Kemper III, who was not present for the incident but bailed both men out of jail that evening, believes the arrests that evening were unnecessary.
Though the Jewish Community Foundation approached the event with a sensitivity to security matters because of a shooting at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, last year, Kemper maintains the guard and officer’s responses were unfounded.
“They over-reacted. We’ve had hundreds of events, with much more raucous disputation. Nobody’s ever put their hands on a questioner,” Kemper said, as noted by KCUR. Library officials said they had specified that “no one was to be removed for asking uncomfortable questions and not without permission of library staff, unless there was an imminent threat.”
“At no point is it clear why they would arrest someone in this situation,” Kemper said in a separate interview with KCUR’s Central Standard .
Kemper’s frustration grew when the city pressed forward with its charges against Roth-Kushel and Woolfolk.
“I assumed they would want this to go away,” he said, but “the police and the prosecutor’s office aren’t talking to us. They’ve just gotten into a defensive mode.” He also expressed frustration that the incident occurred in May and is still not resolved.
The Jewish Community Foundation said it was not consulted about charges against the two men but implied Rothe-Kushel posed a physical threat to others at the event.
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the cases, citing concerns they were ongoing.
Unfortunately, criticisms of Israel are frequently stifled in the United States. The University of California system, which includes UCLA and UC Berkeley, has clamped down on criticisms of Zionism, moving to label such critiques “anti-semitic.” Last year, a Palestinian student at George Washington University, located in Washington D.C., was reprimanded for displaying a Palestinian flag in his dorm room. The state of New York has demonized the Boycott, Sanction, Divest (BDS) movement, a nonviolent effort intended to discourage Israel’s actions through trade and free market measures. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order earlier this year vowing to strip state funds from companies and institutions that support BDS. “If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you,” he said in an op-ed for theWashington Post in June.
The power of the Israel lobby is difficult to overstate, as is Americans’ support for Israel. But the willingness of police, private security, and the event’s organizers to allow the arrest of an individual for asking questions — and a librarian who came to his aid — is particularly unsettling.
As Woolfolk said, “For anybody, a police officer or someone else, to take it upon themselves to silence a person they disagree with, it’s not appropriate.”