Donate to RNS

When they came for the books …

Florida lately has become more known for book bannings than its sunlight.

Courtesy image

(RNS) — We Floridians have much to be proud of. We are proud of our weather — most of the time; perhaps not in July; but certainly this past week, as our northern relatives and friends were turning into human popsicles in subzero weather. We are proud of our beautiful beaches, our low-key lifestyle, our diversity, our lack of a state income tax.

But, I will share with you an image that is far bleaker than anything that you would find in a travel magazine, an image we will need to ponder, alongside the usual images of purple sunsets and exquisite shorelines.

It is an image that has popped up recently. It is the image of bookshelves in schools. It is the image of bookshelves papered over to hide books, with signs that say: “Books Are NOT for Student Use!!”

Last July, the State of Florida adopted House Bill 1467. On its surface, the bill demands that school districts be transparent in the selection of instructional materials.

Senate President Wilton Simpson said:

Florida parents are seeking greater involvement in many aspects of our education system, and this legislation speaks to that effort. The books our kids are reading in schools need to have proper vetting. Parents have a right, and a responsibility, to be involved in that process. Not all books are appropriate for every grade level. This legislation makes sure that we have a transparent and consistent process for public participation in the review of books and other materials used in school lessons and in the school library.

In practice, what this has meant is that the state of Florida is banning books it deems inappropriate.

Florida has the second-highest number of book bans in the United States. The state with the highest number: Texas. It has been estimated that public school teachers in a third of Florida’s counties have been instructed to box or cover up books until they’ve been reviewed for compliance with the new law. In Palm Beach County, two books were removed past spring.


Who is doing this? Where is this coming from? It is coming from local agitators. This was always the goal of the right wing in this country. Decades before it trained its sights on national politics, it knew that if it could control school boards and library boards, it could pass its agenda.

Consider Community Patriots of Manatee. Go to their website, and you will see a call to action under the heading “Woke Buster’s [sic] Wanted” — to be the “eyes and ears and boots on the ground in the schools;” to stop educators from “filling the libraries with these books” — books that celebrate diversity.

This DeSantis administration recently rejected Advanced Placement classes in African American history, which the College Board had been developing for more than a decade.

Years ago, I served a congregation in bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. One of the area high schools is Central Bucks High School South. At that school, the principal ordered the school librarian to take down posters that contained a quote by Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor and moral witness Elie Wiesel.

The quote came from Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel acceptance speech: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Why did the principal order the librarian to take down this quote?

Because the quote violated a school district policy banning teachers from engaging in “advocacy activities” or displaying any signs or symbols of “any partisan, political, or social policy issue.”

Just sit with that for a moment, please.

By the next day, the posters were back up. The school issued a statement that Wiesel’s memoir “Night” is a regular part of its curriculum. The district also apologized “for any hurt or concerns this has caused, particularly for those in the Jewish community.”

Do not think that this is an isolated incident. They are coming for the books.

  • In Tennessee, a school board removed Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus,” from its curriculum because it contained a nude illustration and profanity.
  • The same thing has happened in Missouri.
  • In Fort Worth, Texas, a school removed a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary (a book that I have taught to confirmation students) before returning the book to shelves.
  • In Jacksonville, Florida, they removed a picture book about a Jewish family with two dads, as well as the controversial book about a diverse group of people helping an elderly Jewish woman make cholent (a special Shabbat stew).

In multiple states, it has been suggested that instructors should remain “impartial” on issues including Nazis.

The late author Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

“I hate it that Americans are taught to fear some books and some ideas as though they were diseases …”

As though they were diseases.

Ever since the dawn of this century, we Americans have been confronting our fears. Fear of terror. Fear of climate change. Fear of economic loss. Fear of the Other. Fear of COVID-19. These fears are valid fears.

And now, once again, we have the fear of ideas.

As an educator, I believe that all classroom materials must be age-appropriate.

Moreover, some of these books contain controversial ideas. They contain ideas that should be open to discussion.

Good. Let those ideas be presented, and let those ideas be debated — especially about American history and our long-overdue racial reckoning.

Where did we get the idea that people have the right not to be upset by learning? That people are so fragile they cannot bear to learn unpleasant truths? Learning means growing, and growing means stretching, and stretching is painful.

When you go to the gym, your trainer will yell at you in encouragement and inspiration: “No pain, no gain!”

The same is true when you enter the gymnasium of the mind, and of the soul. You deserve to be challenged, and so do our children.

I am for open discussion of controversial topics. When we welcome New York Times columnist Bret Stephens here through our Simply Jewish program, his mere presence as a conservative thinker attests to our ability to hear things that we might not agree with. We believe in nuance. That is what Judaism affirms and embraces.

But mark my words. These people — people who would monitor books and teachers and ban books and micromanage teachers — don’t believe in the open discussion of ideas. They don’t believe in nuance. Those postures are at the very core of liberal thinking. They hate liberal thinking. They want to destroy. They simply hate.

Why is this a Jewish issue?

Because we Jews know how this ends.

Several years ago, my son and I visited the campus of Humboldt University in Berlin, where we saw a memorial created by Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman.

An art installation called the "The Empty Library," created Micha Ullmann as a remembrance to the banned, burned and destroyed books from World War II. Photo by Aaron Siirila courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

An art installation called “The Empty Library,” created by Micha Ullman as a remembrance to the banned, burned and destroyed books from World War II. Photo by Aaron Siirila courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

The memorial consists of nothing but an empty underground vault. The vault is empty, because it represents the books that the Nazis pulled out of the library of that university and burnt publicly.

On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda announced a nationwide initiative “against the un-German spirit.” They assembled a list of banned books — books that included Marxist, Socialist, anti-family and anti-German literature. It would demand a literary cleansing by fire, in which the public would come and burn books.

It was to happen on May 10, 1933. Some 40,000 people crowded into the Bebelplatz, and 5,000 German students marched in a process with burning torches to ignite the pile of books. Joseph Goebbels proclaimed: “The era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end … and the future German man will not just be a man of books … I entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past.”

During that month, 34 additional book burnings took place across Germany.

Let me be very clear. Goebbels was saying that we have to destroy intellectual pursuits — which he defined as being specifically Jewish. He was saying that we have to destroy all books that spoke of the democratic spirit, the liberal spirit and the Jewish spirit — books by such authors as Einstein, Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and Franz Kafka.

Let me be even clearer: The Nazis also burned books on sexuality, especially those that advocated for an acceptance of homosexuality — the work of Magnus Hirschfeld.

There is a bronze plaque near that memorial. It contains these words from the German poet Heinrich Heine, which he had written in 1820, whose books were also burned:

That was but a prelude;
where they burn books,
they will ultimately burn people as well.

There is a brutal historical irony here. This all happened exactly 90 years ago.

In 1913 — 110 years ago — the Hebrew poet Zalman Shneour wrote: “Again, the dark ages draw nigh. Do you hearken, O man, do you sense it?…”

I sense it.

Do you?

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!