After the war in Gaza broke out, Brookfield resident Katherine Vallera was upset because she felt that the Palestinian viewpoint was not being heard. She decided to put together a panel to educate the community about the wider issues behind the fighting.
Vallera then reached out to staff at the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library about hosting the panel in the library’s basement public meeting room Oct. 29. She called her event Pathways to Peace.
But just six days before Vallera planned to have the event, Library Executive Director Kimberly Coughran told Vallera that the library would not host the event due to safety concerns.
“In these completely divided times we find ourselves in, we simply are not willing to risk the safety of any of our staff members nor the safety of those in the community who might attend,” Coughran wrote to Vallera in an email sent Oct. 23.
In her email, Coughran said that she hoped Vallera could find another location for her event.
In general, the library meeting room is available free of charge to non-profit community groups and residents wishing to hold events there, subject to availability.
The move comes as the area grapples with how to talk about the complex, divisive issue.
Vallera, who spent a week on the West Bank in 2018, had organized a panel that would have featured three people: one from the group American Muslims for Palestine, another from Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a Christian-focused group that raises money to support a university on the West Bank, and a third who is member of the group Jewish Voice for Peace.
“We have a very diverse panel,” Vallera said.
Despite her intent, Vallera’s panel did not have much ideological diversity. On its website, Jewish Voice for Peace identifies itself as “the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world.” As an anti-Zionist organization, Jewish Voice for Peace does not believe there should be a Jewish state. Some believe it is an anti-Semitic group. The Landmark asked Vallera if she had reached out to any pro-Israel groups.
“I don’t know where to go to find pro-Israel that is also pro-peace, diplomatic solution,” Vallera said.
Vallera said that she intended to feature a discussion in which people could learn about the situation in Gaza, Palestine and Israel, including basic facts. She said that she favors a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the war in Gaza.
“I wanted to create, like, a safe space where people can come and ask questions and get answers,” Vallera said.
Vallera said that she believes that the Palestinian viewpoint is not presented in American mainstream media, adding that she believed many Americans are not educated about the basic facts of the conflict.
“I believe we’re only hearing one side of the story and I want to elevate other voices that we are not hearing,” Vallera said.
Coughran told the Landmark that library officials encouraged Vallera to create a diverse panel, but ultimately declined to host the event because of concerns about safety.
Coughran said that she was influenced by violence that erupted at a pro-Israel rally in Skokie, where counter-protesters confronted some of the pro-Israel attendees and a pro-Israel attendee fired a gun into the air. A man who fired the gun was initially detained but not charged with any crime.
“Safety was our primary concern as we watched in the local media the different disturbances surrounding various programs that were taking place in the metro Chicago area,” Coughran told the Landmark. “I certainly was concerned about safety and putting both our staff members and the public at any kind of risk.”
In her email to Vallera telling her that the library would not host the event, Coughran attached a story in the Chicago Tribune about how local Muslims were facing violence and backlash following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people. The story quoted, among others, State Rep. Abdelnasser Rashid.
Coughran cited Rashid in her email to Vallera. But Rashid, a critic of American aid and support for Israel, also was quoted in the Tribune story saying that there is “a one-sided narrative about Palestinians.” Rashid said that his words should not have been construed to suggest that he supported the decision by the library not to host the event.
“I do think it would be a misreading of my statement to say that my statement implies that organizations, including libraries, should cancel discussions on Israel and Palestine,” Rashid told the Landmark. “That would be a misreading. However, I have not spoken with the library and don’t have enough information to provide further comment.”
Vallera had reached out to Rashid’s office to see if Rashid could be part of the panel, but she said Rashid told her he a scheduling conflict.
After getting the email from Coughran, Vallera also reached out to the Village of Brookfield about having the event at the village hall. She met with Assistant Village Manager Stevie Ferrari Oct. 24. Vallera said that she thought her conversation with Ferrari was fruitful, and that Ferrari offered suggestions about how to guarantee safety at the event. But a couple of days later, Vallera said she received a voicemail from Ferrari telling her that the village could not host the event because it didn’t have enough time to prepare for it.
“It felt like a punch in the gut,” Vallera said.
Ferrari told the Landmark that lack of staff on a busy pre-Halloween weekend was the main reason that the village hall could not host the event Oct. 29. and that Vallera would not consider hosting the event at a later date.
“Ultimately the decision to not move forward with her hosting the event here was that tight turnaround and just that lack of resources to be able to offer her staff wise,” Ferrari said. “Hosting an event on a Sunday during non-Village working hours requires staff to open and close the building as well as assist with set up, oversee the event.”
Vallera said that she thought that the library was an ideal place to hold a discussion about an issue of great importance.
“I’m just a member of the community who wanted to use the community space to have a community event,” Vallera said. “That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”
Coughran said that the library would be interested in hosting a discussion about events in Israel and Palestine sometime in the future when things are calmer, and passions have subsided.
“Should things calm down in the future and the environment and time prove itself to a be more conducive time for a civil discussion I think we may revisit the topic,” Coughran said. “I admire her passion on the issue, and I invite her to maybe come back in future years where this is not at the height of civil discourse and disagreement.”
Correction 11-15-23: This story was updated to reflect the correct name of a panelist group. It is Bright Stars of Bethlehem. It also corrected the name of the organizer. She is Katherine Vallera. We apologize for the errors.