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A public library’s refusal to cancel a controversial Palestinian comedian’s booking was influenced by a desire to avoid offending the city’s Muslim community, documents reveal.

Jewish groups raised concerns with the London Public Library in London, Ont. over its decision to rent theatre space for a May 20 performance by comedian Amer Zahr.

“To cancel the program because of concerns raised by a very small, but well-organized minority would be an insult to the London Muslim community (I realize I’m making an assumption that all of the Muslim community is behind this performance, but it reflects the opinions of those I’ve contacted),” said library CEO Michael Ciccone in a May 19 email to the library’s board.

“If we were to cancel, we would be in breach of contract and possibly be in violation of the performer’s charter (sic) rights – both high risk possibilities.”

The library rejected the calls from groups including B’nai Brith and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal and allowed the event to proceed in the library’s Wolf Performance Hall.

While the library claimed it “re-evaluated” the booking when it first learned of concerns about Amer Zahr, documents obtained by True North under freedom of information laws show the library, in fact, sought messaging guidance from Zahr’s manager to counter the cancellation calls.

“Is there a rebuttal statement from the management team of Amer Zahr that we can use to address the concerns listed below?”, wrote library branch operations director Nancy Collister in an email to the event organizer sent May 19.

On May 17, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn told Ciccone that the Jewish community was “deeply concerned about this upcoming event due to Zahr’s concerning views regarding the Jewish people and the State of Israel, as well as his glorification of convicted terrorists and listed terrorist entities.”

Zahr’s past comments include a call to “stop condemning anti-Semitism” because doing so is “playing their game.”

Zahr, who did not respond to a request for comment from True North, also lauded designated terrorist groups in a 2017 speech in Dearborn, Mich.

“We say very proudly that we stand with every resistance against Israel and every resistance against the occupation… whether it’s called Hamas, whether it’s called Hezbollah.”

He also tweeted support for Leila Khaled, who hijacked an American plane in 1969, calling her his “#PalestineValentine.”

The records released by the library do not contain any responses to the Jewish groups raising concerns, though Ciccone did reply to several people who sent in messages of support for Zahr’s show.

The only critics to receive a response were two key library donors.

Fred and Karen Leitner, the son-in-law and daughter, respectively, of the Wolf Performance Hall’s namesake said it was “profoundly embarrassing for the Wolf family to have its name associated with this individual,” urging the library to “consider the impact of this event on the local Jewish community.”

In its reply to the family, Ciccone said the library saw “no clear evidence that a comedy performance by Mr. Zahr would violate the (library’s events) policy.”

Internally, Ciccone worried about losing the family’s financial support.

“While I understand the concerns expressed by the Wolf Family, they have no authority to demand what rentals we allow or deny in the Theatre,” he wrote to colleagues. “That said, if we move forward with this performance, we jeopardize their sponsorship and possibly forfeit a possible $50K donation currently being offered.”

Weeks earlier, the London Public Library had denied a rental request for the same venue from the Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship for a talk by British author and academic Joanna Williams, set to take place the day before Zahr’s performance.

The library said Williams’ talk on “sex, gender, and the limits of free speech on campus,” would pose a risk of property damage or injury and violate its policies on workplace and sexual harassment.

The internal documents show library officials were concerned about how they’d defend the double standard of allowing Zahr but not Williams.

“I’m supportive of proceeding with holding the Zahr event…. I agree that we will need positioning on the differences between the two events are (sic) – namely a performance versus lecture – and which may / may not be more performative,” one board member said.

In reply, Ciccone said London city councillor Sam Trosow, who sits on the library board, had “relayed his support for the approach suggested below.”

Trosow did not respond to a request for comment.


  • Andrew Lawton

    A Canadian broadcaster and columnist, Andrew serves as a journalism fellow at True North and host of The Andrew Lawton Show.