The Wisconsin Library Wars
By James M. Ennes, Jr.
The first blows were struck in 1979 when supporters of Israel in Milwaukee decided to flex their political muscle. In a test of power (some would say to flaunt it), spokesmen for Israel renamed the library at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee after an Israeli political leader.
"Let this place be known forever as the Golda Meir Library," they proclaimed.
To no surprise, a great hew and cry developed almost overnight as students, faculty, and local citizens recorded their outrage.
Golda Meir, born Goldie Mabovitch in Poland in 1898, had lived in Milwaukee between her 8th and 21st year. She studied at the Milwaukee Teachers Seminary of Milwaukee, later taught school briefly in Milwaukee, and then moved to Palestine in 1919 to join the growing Jewish community there.
Golda Meir was respected by her fans, not for charm, tact, or diplomatic skill, but for her stubborn Israeli intransigence.
When she became prime minister in 1969, Time magazine said of her: "The essence of the woman is conviction, without compromise, and expressed with all the subtlety of a Centurion tank. She seldom loses an argument...."
Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jew, described her as "a tough, obstinate, unintelligent woman, without discernment, wisdom or poise."
Yet, among Arabs and many Americans, Golda Meir is best remembered and often despised for her hard line against the Palestinian population, and for her insistence that Israel had no "Palestinian problem" because, she said, "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
The First Great Library War
Opponents of the Golda Meir name argued that this was a public institution created with public money and should not be named by special interests or for a foreign leader. The existing name, "The University of Wisconsin Library," was more suitable, they said, and should be kept. Otherwise it should be named for an American.
"The Golda Meir name should not be used because it is controversial and offensive to a large segment of the population," they argued to deaf ears. "Golda Meir is a symbol of hate in the Arab-American community and to many Americans," they said.
Others said privately that they were opposed to the name but were afraid to speak out because the Israeli partisans were "powerful in the community."
Arab students complained that the partisans lack sensitivity, ignore Arab feelings, and regard Arabs as less than human.
Students picketed in protest. A meeting of Regents held to formalize the name was disrupted by student protesters, and at one point a Jewish professor attacked the pickets, beating them with a cane.
The pro-Israel faction, however, withered their opponents with their ultimate weapon. "All opposition to the name comes from anti-Semites," they said. "Arabs and anti-Semites object to the name," they said, "because of their hatred for Jews and Israel. We can never yield to anti-Semites."
The argument was picked up and echoed everywhere. Soon everyone opposed to the name became increasingly seen as zealots, racists, nazis, and unthinking radical extremists. The argument, though apparently without substance, was effective. It won the war. The name sticks.
Arab students report that they wince whenever they enter the building.
The Second War
Just 18 miles due north of the Milwaukee campus on the shore of Lake Michigan the town of Grafton, population 8,500, decided recently to replace the aging and overcrowded town library. Jim Grant was elected president of the town council on his pledge to work toward creating the new library.
Unlike the Golda Meir library, the Grafton library was to be built almost entirely with private donations. Soon the new library committee had pledges for well over half the $1-million cost, including an $83,000 federal contribution and a $250,000 pledge from the brothers Ted and Ben Grob, who own a Grafton machine tool business.
Since the Grob's contribution was the largest single gift, the library board offered the Grob brothers the opportunity to name the new library--expecting them to name it "Grob." But that didn't happen.
The Grobs, who had recently read a book about the Liberty and a transcript of a speech by a survivor, surprised everyone.
"Name it The USS Liberty Memorial Library," they said, "in honor of the 34 Americans who died when Israel attacked the USS Liberty in 1967."
Surprised, the town council and the town library board considered the name. Members who hesitated were asked to read the book that the Grobs had read. And soon both the council and the board gave their unanimous approval to the new name.
A few days later an angry letter arrived from one Gideon Goldenholz, rabbi of the Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue in nearby Mequon.
Sharpening a weapon that had served well in the Golda Meir library skirmishes, Goldenholz called the proposal "a cynical act" which carries "a hint of anti-Semitism" and is therefore "insulting to Jews."
"The USS Liberty incident has become a rallying point for anti- Israel and anti-Semetic (sic) people and groups," wrote James Fromstein for the Milwaukee Jewish Council, an umbrella group that represents Goldenholz's synagogue and 21 other Milwaukee Jewish organizations. "As such, it is...considered offensive...to Jewish people everywhere," he said, raising a trusted bludgeon from previous wars.
A few days later Fromstein appeared at Grant's door with two television trucks, three newsmen from Milwaukee, and an aide. Grant, however, would not be intimidated. "We are very comfortable with the name," he said.
"The name caters to Arabs and anti-Semites," Fromstein insisted. After all, his aide added, Arabs are "only nomads," while anti-Semites must be opposed on principal. After an hour of fruitless argument, Fromstein departed amid promises of "further action" and some lightly veiled threats of economic and other sanctions. "We can never yield to anti-Semites," he insisted.
"The name sticks," Grant said.
A Combined Media Blitz
Soon Jim Grant discovered that someone was checking into his background, verifying his military record, and otherwise searching for some fodder for a scandal. Librarian Kathy Kafka learned that persons unknown were attempting to verify her academic record.
Almost immediately Grant learned that the $83,000 federal commitment had been "postponed" because of complaints about the "anti-Semitic" name.
Phone calls and letters from Israeli spokesmen in Milwaukee urged local donors to withdraw their contributions because of the "anti-Semitic" influence.
Next, a solid barrage of stories about the library appeared in five area newspapers and the Chicago Tribune, along with frequent and highly caustic mention on area television news and talk shows.
The Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle set the tone early with a headline that proclaimed, "Jews battle extremists on library name." "Rename the library," demanded a Chronicle editorial. "New Library divides Wisconsin town," wrote the Tribune. Milwaukee Magazine complained editorially about "The Gift of Grob."
"Library name rightly condemned," editorialized the Milwaukee Journal. "Where is the outrage in Grafton? Why is there no outcry?" complained the Journal when the first editorial failed to spark an outcry. "The Grafton library has aligned itself with the bigots and hate-mongers," the Journal complained, recycling another battered tool from the Golda Meir trenches.
"Why," survivors asked, "is it OK to have memorials for USS Stark, Maine, Arizona, and a hundred other ships without protest from the countries that attacked them, while any mention of the USS Liberty brings an avalanche of organized protest from Israel?" No one could answer the question, but the protests continued without pause.
Journal reporter Michael Krenn, asked by town officials to interview a survivor of the attack, declined. "That is not my story," Krenn insisted. Krenn was interested only in bashing devils.
Rarely did anything favoring the library become part of "Krenn's story." Supporting statements came in from Rabbi Elmer Berger, Reverend Humphrey Walz and Admiral Thomas Moorer, among others, but none of this ever made it into "Krenn's story." Articles about the Liberty by experts on the subject including Admiral Moorer were submitted for publication, but none were printed or acknowledged.
When survivors Joe Meadors and John Hrankowski visited Grafton with former congressman Pete McCloskey to answer townspeople's questions, the Journal did not find the event worthy of coverage until forced to do so days later when readers complained. The well-attended event displayed nearly total support for the new library name, and it was covered by reporter Krenn, but this was "not his story" so he chose not to write about it.
And the reports that did appear typically failed to mention the most noteworthy details, such as public support for the library name by Grafton's State Assemblywoman Susan Vergeront and McCloskey's spirited denunciation of the "anti-Semite" charge.
"How can a memorial for American sailors who died in the service of their country possibly be anti-Semitic?" McCloskey demanded to know as the crowd roared its approval.
Even an account by the Journal's ombudsman, while acknowledging that their coverage was badly done, continued to ignore Grafton's viewpoint and reasserted the "anti-Semite" influence.
At last count the Journal was on record with nineteen heavily slanted "news" stories, five angry editorials and one incomplete ombudsman's report, all suggesting that the library, the ship, the town council, and everyone involved is somehow allied with or unwitting stooges of anti-Semites and other loonies.
"This is the most outrageous, egregious, biased, and unprofessional reporting I have seen in 20 years in the business," remarked a California editor of a major newspaper who was sufficiently moved to call Krenn and tell him so. But still the smears and innuendo continue.
When two spokesmen from Grafton responded to a request for a television interview in Milwaukee, they were unexpectedly confronted on camera by two spokesmen for Israel, prepared to debate. Although Grafton emerged victorious, it was a tense hour.
"You were set up," whispered a sympathetic station employee, clearly pleased with the unexpected outcome. "This was to have been an ambush."
When library board chairman Carol Schneider agreed to a television interview, she found herself confronted by a hostile interviewer who did his professional best to humiliate her on camera.
Complaints Come From Outside
Most of the blitz, however, comes from outside the town. For instance, one of the first shots fired was a paid advertisement in the Ozaukee County Guide signed by 17 clergymen, all from outside of Grafton, which appealed to the fair minded citizens to rise up against their leaders and demand a new name. The clergymen were concerned, they wrote, about "harassment of minorities, hate letters and phone calls to rabbis and desecration of synagogues" which, they said, "have once again raised their ugly heads." "Neo Nazis and other hate groups use the symbol of the USS Liberty to promote their cause," the clergymen wrote.
No matter that no harassment, hate letters, phone calls or desecration had occurred. No matter that no sign of anti-Semitism or "extremist" influence had been uncovered. No matter that none of the clergymen knew anything about the case except what they had been told by spokesmen for Israel who persuaded them to lend their names.
In another attack from the hinterlands, two churches in nearby Mequon circulated petitions in Grafton seeking opposition to the library name. After several days work, they collected 79 signatures, including only seven from Grafton. Library supporters easily collected 616 signatures in an afternoon, all from Grafton.
In a rare protest from within the town, the pastor of the Grafton Catholic Church issued a statement. A new name must be found, he said, because "the incident is used by extremists to further anti-Semitism. The USS Liberty has become a symbol of hate."
Asked later for his source of information, the good father confessed that he knew only what he had read in the Journal and been told in a phone call from an out-of-town Rabbi. Without checking further, he urged his parish to oppose the library because he felt he should respond to the influence of "anti-Semites."
"I may have been hasty," he confessed later.
To the dismay of most Grafton schoolteachers, two teachers living outside Grafton attempted on their own to cancel a teachers' commitment to raise money for the library. Two teachers then circulated questionnaires to their classes asking, "Should nazis be allowed to name our new library?" No matter that no nazis could be found.
"No, no, no," chirped the cherubs.
Soon, prompted by guidance unknown, the Grafton High School Valedictorian publicly articulated the reasons nazis and other weirdos should not be allowed to name the town's temple of knowledge.
Phony Radicals, Phony Issues
These things are reported in all the area newspapers, usually in a way that suggests that a small band of extremists controls city hall in defiance of a majority who would, if they could, unseat the radicals. Despite their spirited search, however, no radical has ever been identified.
That does not deter the opponents, however. Anti-Semitism is the most effective weapon in their arsenal, and it must be continually dragged out and fired whether any proper targets can be seen or not.
In a frantic search for anti-Semites, one reporter learned that a magazine that the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith considers anti- Semitic sometimes writes about the USS Liberty. Worse, he learned that one of the Grob brothers has seen the magazine.
Proof at last! To the Milwaukee Jewish Council, the magazine's interest in the Liberty is enough to justify their entire campaign. No matter that dozens of esteemed journalists, at least five Pulitzer prizewinners, scores of leading newspapers, and at least 30 book authors have also written sympathetically about the Liberty. No matter that Liberty survivors have no connection with the suspect magazine and actively shun its attentions. To spokesmen for Israel, the USS Liberty has become a "symbol of hate" and "must be opposed" because people they consider "anti-Semites" have written about it.
Suddenly what looked like a "genuine" anti-Semite appeared. A man driving a car with Illinois license plates spent a day marching at Grafton's main intersection with a large sign reading, "Support the USS Liberty - Israel is America's enemy." That evening the man went from door to door spouting offensive anti-Jewish rhetoric and appealing to Grafton residents to support the name because they shouldn't take any more guff "from the Jews."
When Grafton citizens investigated, they found that the man was actually opposed to the library. The entire performance was a carefully orchestrated charade designed to make library supporters appear to be anti- Semitic radicals.
"They will never give up!"
The library now looks certain to go ahead on schedule.
"But they will never give up," warns a war-weary veteran of the Golda Meir conflict. "A year or five years or ten years from now they will be back to try to change the name. Sooner or later they will win. And if Grafton is not careful they will probably change it to something like 'Menachem Begin' or 'Ariel Sharon.'"
"They persist in throwing stones from their glass house," he said, "so the best defense is a counter-attack. Start a drive to change the Golda Meir Library back to its original name."
BIO: Ennes was a lieutenant on the bridge of the USS Liberty when the ship was attacked. His book about the attack, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980; Ballantine, 1987) has been called the most important book of the year by two leading reviewers, and was named "editor's choice" when reviewed in the Washington Post. It is routinely removed from bookshelves, however, when area spokesmen for Israel complain to booksellers that they have stocked a book that is "anti-Israel" and "offensive to Jewish people everywhere."
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors