Most parents, or anyone watching the news, are familiar with the latest battle in America’s ongoing culture war: The “book ban” fracas. The “book ban” narrative, propagated by the progressive left, claims that books are being systematically banned by conservatives in schools nationwide.
As a Jewish woman, the issue has been particularly striking because of the frequent allusions to Nazism and references to antisemitism used to attack such “bans.”
PEN America, a nonprofit that purports to defend free speech, stated, “Book bans have an ignominious history—they have been the tools of heinous regimes from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa.”
Indeed, censorship was rampant in Nazi Germany and South Africa (not to mention Maoist China and the Soviet Union), but allusions to some of the evilest governments in history do little to foster a thoughtful conversation on what constitutes appropriate reading material for children. Moreover, such allusions are insulting to the millions of people who suffered and died under such regimes.
On Sept. 13, The Forward printed an op-ed that began: “Bomb threats against libraries have become a growing trend in the U.S., and the Jewish community should pay attention. Violent attacks on books are a sad and dangerous theme throughout Jewish history, and the escalation from book bans to threats of physical violence should not be ignored.”
The piece went on to list various incidents in the Middle Ages when Jewish books were burned. For example, a case in which “more than 12,000 books” were incinerated on the orders of the pope and the king of France. “Additional burnings took place in Toulouse, France, in 1319. In his manual for inquisitors, Bernard Gui specifically mentioned the great medieval commentators … whose work should be condemned.”
The image of sacred Jewish texts burning at the behest of an inquisitor is harrowing, but it is intellectually dishonest to correlate medieval book burnings to the reality of the alleged “book bans” in 21st-century America.
Dr. Jay Greene of the Heritage Foundation and Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute researched the “book bans” and found that of the 1,868 allegedly banned books, “We were able to confirm that 1,378 books, or 74%, are listed as available in the school district libraries from which PEN said they had been banned.” Of the 490 that remained, “203 were from Texas, and 174 were from Florida. Excluding these two states leaves 113 books successfully challenged in a calendar year amongst more than 10,000 school districts.”
This is excellent news for free-speech proponents and book lovers alike: American schools have no widespread book bans.
For those concerned about AEI or Heritage’s right-wing orientation, the relatively mainstream Washington Post recently reported that most calls for book bans in 2021 and 2022 were from a total of 11 people.
So, why the continued uproar over something that essentially isn’t happening? Perhaps the answer is that book ban allegations distract from the reality that reading and math scores in U.S. schools are at their lowest in decades. Unwilling to do anything about this, politicians and activists focus on almost non-existent book bans instead.
Ironically, censorship is indeed rife in the U.S., but it is the censorship of ideas that challenge progressive cultural narratives. For example, Twitter infamously suppressed The New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story right before a presidential election. Federal judges are being shouted down and silenced at prestigious law schools, thus suppressing intellectually serious and meaningful dialogue. Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books are being rewritten to “help identify language and portrayals that could be inauthentic or problematic.”
The reality is that those suppressing free speech, open debate and new ideas are not inquisitors looking for copies of the Talmud to burn. The real threat is the willingness of Jews and all Americans to believe the book ban lies, invoke inappropriate images of Nazi Germany and turn a blind eye to actual censorship.
American Jews have a long and proud history of leading political and cultural change, ranging from neoconservatism to the civil-rights movement. If we Jews are so concerned about censorship, we ought to focus on what our Jewish values tell us to do: Improve education and encourage a culture of healthy debate and an enduring quest for knowledge.