In the Shadow of Pittsburgh: Intellectual Freedom to Defend the Jewish People
By: guest blogger Emily Schneider
Like many Americans, but especially Jewish Americans, I am still in a state of shock following the slaughter of 11 people, with six more injured, while worshipping in a Pittsburgh synagogue. (Four of the injured were courageous first responders to the incident.) Perhaps my reaction was misplaced, given the overwhelming inundation of hateful words and actions which have been seemingly encouraged by the presidency of Donald Trump and the subsequent empowerment of white supremacist, anti-LGBTQ, and specifically anti-Semitic groups. After the deadly attack on an African-American church in Charleston and the domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, it is clear that the safety of many targeted groups is in peril in our country. At least, when I logged on to my computer after the Sabbath was over, and turned on cable news, I saw thorough and even passionate coverage of this latest atrocity, and witnessed the sincere and heartfelt empathy of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, people of color, neighbors of the victims or simply fellow citizens. Yet the response of the community in which I am active, advocates and professionals in children’s literature, has been relatively silent.
The reason I consider this absence of response on the part of librarians, journalists, and bloggers in the field to be related to intellectual freedom is that I find it difficult to believe that so few of them recognize the dangers of antisemitism. In a recent interview on NPR, George Selim of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that antisemitic incidents in our country have increased 60% in 2017 over the previous year, and that such incidents taking place in K-12 classrooms have increased by 90%. It is difficult to think of a more relevant statistic for discussion among teachers, librarians, authors, and journalists. Some of the most energetic and outspoken leaders in the promotion of diversity in children’s books and education have ignored the event, or preferred to understand it as merely one example of xenophobia, not as an attack on Jews. Yet the murderer singled out Jews as enemies of our country, using the language of Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s.
A notable exception to this trend is Kitty Flynn’s excellent piece on The Horn Book, mourning the loss of life in Pittsburgh and offering a list of resources for learning about antisemitism and Jewish life. The appearance of this article in a leading journal about children’s literature confirmed that an attack on Jews in a house of worship is indeed an urgent matter and merits both thought and action when we talk to our kids. Perhaps it has become not unthinkable, but uncomfortable, to talk about hatred of Jews, even among people who are highly articulate about attacks, both violent and subtle, on other groups.
School Library Journal has articles almost every day about the most effective ways to promote inclusive and open learning through the acquisition and distribution of books that represent everyone’s experience. Yet relatively few of their articles seem to take seriously the need to include Jewish readers, including the experience of feeling marginalized or even threatened. Even more positive components of Jewish life may be ignored, as in a recent piece about books about autumn holidays that totally omitted Jewish ones, among the most religiously important in our calendar. So far, they have posted nothing about the need to engage with the issue of anti-Semitism in their interactions with the public.
Even more troubling is the virtual absence of Jewish concerns on ALSC’s blog. When I searched under “Jewish,” as well as “antisemitism,” to check if I had missed any past blog entries that would concede the existence of Jews as readers, I came up with nothing but some incidental references to characters and a discussion about holiday decorations in libraries. A parallel search of “Islam” at did produce some recommendations for books that would make Muslim children feel welcome and understood.
Diversity is not a zero-sum game. The Pittsburgh murderer’s obsession with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), is not a surprise. This organization has been helping to settle and acclimate immigrants to our country, Jewish and non-Jewish, since 1881. They continue to be one of the most committed and competent advocates for immigrants today, including from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. HIAS has even published a book for children about the refugee crisis.
If librarians and other advocates for an inclusive and activist approach to literacy are afraid to discuss antisemitism as a deep-rooted and dangerous blight on society, one that is both related to other forms of hatred, and also uniquely menacing to the Jewish people, we have a problem that needs to be addressed. I feel sure there must be more people in the fields of library science, writing, and publishing for children, who know that this issue demands a strong and unambiguous response. Expressions of concern, compassion, and support in the aftermath of the killing in Pittsburgh would be a good place to start.
Emily Schneider is a writer and educator in New York City who blogs about children’s literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.
How sad! I recently saw this fantastic list from Association of Jewish Librarians on literature selections to feature in the wake of this tragedy: https://jewishlibraries.org/blog/id/403. I hope that children’s librarians can use that as a resource.
I’m an academic librarian, so this is not quite my area. But I’m also a parent and a human being, so I have a keen interest in seeing the library community promote literature that humanizes Jewish people and combats the evil of antisemitism.
Thank you for writing this piece, Emily. Even before Trump, the We Need Diverse Books movement rarely (ever?) included Jews. Via the “pledge” that circulated for diverse panels, I’d be scolded — or, worse, dragged and ostracized — for being on an “All White” panel if there were no visible POC on it, even near the school I mentor in Oklahoma where the kids have never seen a Jewish person and there are no synagogues within four hours of the school. I’ve been thrown out of a group I helped build, told by the white author founder who spends her days and nights fighting for diversity, that I don’t care enough about representation because I spoke out about internet bullying, leaving zero Jewish authors in the leadership. I’m guessing she’ll replace me with a POC, rather than bring more POC into the direct leadership which *I* had actually suggested.
And, oh, how we were erased from a vast majority of the discussion and upset over Charlottesville in our industry. A slew of lists circulating from those loud active voices in the immediacy of it all, all with books about POC, and only a single HOLOCAUST book (until we pointed it out that modern Jews must not be invisible) despite the swastikas and chants of “Blood and Soil” arising that hateful day in Charlottesville.
Thank you for writing this.
How is the Jewish community showing up for non-Jewish communities under similarly atrocious attacks? Go on. Gather your receipts from, say, the last ten years. I’ll wait…
I am not sure what your phrase “gather your receipts” exactly suggests, but I can assure you that the Jewish community is, and always has been, deeply involved in movements for social justice. Since you refer to the last ten years, I assume that you are excluding older historic patterns of Jewish support for civil rights in our country. Here are links to just a few Jewish organizations actively pursuing social justice and showing solidarity with victims from all groups:
Instead of waiting, why don’t you inform yourself about the many Jewish American groups and individuals who share your concerns and are working with different groups around common goals?
So interesting – thanks for this Emily. I think this sentence “Diversity is not a zero-sum game” is very important – but it’s also why I prefer to emphasize difference over diversity.
Anti-semitism is it’s own unique form of racial and ethnic discrimination, like discrimination against African-Americans, Anti-Arab sentiment, or discrimination against Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans, to name a few. Each has its own unique history, which we would do well to learn.
The jewish people’s condition seems to confuse lots of people in America because Jews are not “white” in relationship to dominant culture, but they are not treated exactly the way folks are who have darker skin tones and obviously non-European features. They don’t typically suffer from the same types of socio-economic, educational or health disparities as some other more recognizable groups. It doesn’t make anyone better or worse, these are just facts that help folks understand one another. Discrimination and oppression look different for different groups.
Most people I encounter don’t even realize that there is diversity within the Jewish community – there aren’t just Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, but Mizrahi, Yemeni and Sephardic, too, among others. Books about the Holocaust are just the beginning of the books needed about Jewish people – especially for children.
Non-sensical Anti-black racism dominates America and puts everyone on a scale according to how close you are to “white”, with treatment based largely on that scale. I totally agree that we as librarians and educators shouldn’t replicate that by ignoring Anti-Semitism, we should face it, include it, and define it.
We speak and read about gas chambers in Western Europe for example, but do not talk about the Babi Yar massacres, a Holocaust by bullets during WWII in the East. Folks often fail to mention mobile gas vans in North Africa used to kill jewish people during the same period. We need to ask ourselves what comes to the surface, and why.
The lynching of Leo Frank happened in Marietta Georgia in 1915, right here in the United States – not Europe! The U.S. has its own awful history of Anti-semitism and racism which should be put at the forefront of the conversation on white supremacy in relationship to all the other groups lynched, persecuted and oppressed in the U.S.
We should remember that the U.S. had a Holocaust Memorial and Museum before it had a National Museum of African-American History and culture, not because of a sensitive, nuanced engagement with Jewish history and Anti-semitism, but in large because the U.S. was able to explore the heroic role it played in liberating the camps in Europe. There is no heroic for the U.S. to explore in relationship to African-Americans, and there is still no National Memorial to slavery in particular, though it happened years before the Holocaust in Europe.
Visibility is a legitimate issue for groups, but it won’t be resolved by competition. It will be resolved by joining the histories of U.S. Anti-semitism with the histories of other groups in the U.S. and thereby having proper, well-informed solidarity. Coming together to share tools and resources only works when we’re well-informed and not living by the news cycle.
Thank you, Jane’a, for your thoughtful response. You are right that many people have little awareness of diversity among Jews. As for the Jews of North Africa during WWII, here is a link to a brief article which gives a very good overview:
As a general follow-up to my post, today the ALSC posted on their blog about the inaccuracy and bias of many Thanksgiving narratives presented to children. The author, who works at the NYPL, included a list of resources. It was exactly the type of post I would have hoped to see from the ALSC after the murders in Pittsburgh. It proves that, in fact, raising awareness of prejudice and informing the public are tasks which the ALSC believes are part of their advocacy.
At first I thought that their silence suggested indifference. Now I believe it might be evidence of exactly the prejudice which they purport to combat.