‘Stranger Things’ Star: Book Soup Cancellation Is Due to ‘Anti-Semitic Harassment’

Book Soup, West Hollywood’s legendary bookstore, has become the third stop on the debut book tour of “Stranger Things” actor Brett Gelman, who canceled his appearance after receiving pushback and outraged messages protesting the event.

Book Soup’s cancellation, which called it “entirely a matter of safety,” follows similar moves by San Francisco’s Book Passage and the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. The former said it objected to “intemperate and unwise comments that [Gelman] made against some other ethnic and social groups,” and the latter cited security concerns — but Gelman said he senses an undercurrent of anti-Semitism.

Gelman has become one of Hollywood’s loudest supporters of Israel. In addition to advocating for Israelis on his social media accounts, Gelman also spoke at the November “March for Israel” rally in Washington, DC, and has made several solidarity trips to Israel.

His debut collection of short stories, “The Terrifying Realm of the Possible: Nearly True Stories,” which he calls “a critique of my own Jewish neurosis, self-loathing and identity,” will be released on March 19 by HarperCollins imprint Dey Street.

After receiving intense threats in recent months, Gelman said he believed Book Soup’s security concerns were justified. But he also assumed those concerns would be addressed if he hired personal security for the event.

“I really wonder if there is a direct threat,” Gelman said, adding that Book Soup did not share the exact content of the messages it received. “Is this bookstore pulling out because they don’t want to be seen as a company that would welcome me?”

In a statement about the cancellation, Book Soup said it “believes very strongly that a free society must protect individuals’ freedom of thought and expression. In the same vein, we respect the rights of individuals not to support people or books they disagree with, but we also believe in the foundations of democracy that allow individuals to decide those things for themselves.”

“We made every effort to ensure the event went ahead (requiring tickets, security, evaluating venues),” the statement continued, “but ultimately the safety of the author, our staff and attendees took priority. The resistance and concerns raised had persisted, and in today’s charged environment the event became a risk we were not prepared to take.”

Book Soup’s move is part of a larger pattern of institutions canceling appearances by Jewish and Palestinian authors, or by authors speaking out about the war between Israel and Hamas, for fear of stoking controversy.

In October, following Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, a German literary association canceled one award ceremony that was intended to honor Palestinian writer Adania Shibli for her novel ‘Minor Detail’, which tells the story of the rape and murder of a Palestinian girl in 1949 by Israeli soldiers. A few days later a cultural center in New York stopped his literary reading series after being criticized for canceling an event with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was openly critical of Israel.

Earlier this month, demonstrators from the Writers Against the War on Gaza coalition “dedicated themselves to the liberation of the Palestinian people” disrupted a PEN America event with comedian Moshe Kasher and actor Mayim Bialik, an outspoken supporter of Israel. One of the demonstrators is Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar, was physically removed from the room.

“As a free speech organization, we defend and uphold the right to protest,” PEN America said wrote in a statement about the disruption. “However, we firmly believe that protesters – even though they have the right to be heard – should not be allowed to shout, remain silent or obstruct the speech of others.”

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Civil Liberties Group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, warned in an October interview of the potentially chilling effect of recent postponements and cancellations the New York Times.

“It enables the heckler’s veto,” Terr said, “where people are able to disable speakers just by threatening to cause disruption.”

Gelman said he believes Book Soup perpetuated this narrative by “giving in to anti-Semitic harassment.”

“If they’re really scared,” he said, “I feel for them. But if they do this because they are afraid of what their reputation as a store will be, or how they will be perceived on the side [of social justice] what I have always stood for and now feel betrayed by, shame on them. Shame on you for that. They should be ashamed of themselves for blocking the conversation.”

In the age of social media echo chambers, which “erase empathy in real time,” Gelman said, it is up to institutions to resist the urge to avoid polemical topics like the war between Israel and Hamas and promote civil dialogue that breeds understanding instead of further division.

“We should amplify the voices – humanist voices, not extreme voices – who want to have a conversation about this,” he said, whether they are Israeli or Palestinian.

By having those conversations, Gelman said he hopes that “we can really help advance the representation of both groups of people much further, and not see both of our cultures as dangerous cultures to interact with.”

Gelman is working to reschedule the canceled book events at local Jewish community centers and temples.

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