Jewish Herald Voice
Picture it: A socially awkward child, armed with coke-bottle glasses with prescription lenses a centimeter thick, a unicorn sweater and one oversized lunch bag counterbalanced by the equally large stack of books she would never be seen without.
You guessed it – that was me.
I was weird as a kid, with few friends. Books were one of the few places I could go where being weird was the norm. Reading gave me confidence – I would never be cool, but I could be smart. Teachers gave me extra reading to do, because I wanted to work. My sister and I were the local librarian’s favorites, marching in and out every week with a plastic bag filled with last week’s adventures.
Books opened my horizons to worlds I never otherwise would see and paved the way for the path I found myself on later in life. The books I read invariably featured strong female characters, helping me see a world in which I could be a leader. They gave me insights into communities I rarely interacted with. Reading helped me properly contextualize and historicize events I learned about elsewhere. It was a blessing to be able to read whatever I wanted, with little interference.
That’s what makes Tennessee’s McMinn County School Board’s decision to ban “Maus” for being “too adult” utterly infuriating. The board attempted to whitewash the decision by saying the atrocities of the Holocaust were “shameful beyond description” and pledged to find more “age-appropriate” materials. The problem is there is no way to softly land into learning about this genocide.
Were the children murdered in Nazi mass graves and camps not adult enough to understand what was happening to them? When the Holocaust is stripped of the actual atrocities committed, it becomes easy to slip into the fantasyland that maybe, just maybe, non-Jewish neighbors were better than they were.
The math doesn’t add up – most were not upstanders, and the ones who were suffered greatly for those choices. “Maus” is unsparing in that detail: Non-Jewish neighbors, by and large, failed their Jewish friends and communities.
That is difficult for anyone at any age to process, but Jews do it every day. Holocaust survivors and their children are in almost every swath of the community. It’s not a thing we learn about in class, it’s the lived reality of family members and friends, decimated family trees, and the quiet resilience that comes with living despite the Nazi war machine’s best effort to murder you.
Jews are not granted reprieve from what Nazis did to our community. It is an enormous privilege to be able to avert one’s eyes and say it’s just too much. It can happen again when that is our approach to teaching it. “Never again” becomes meaningless when our understanding of the events in question become less tethered to the pain of survivors and more oriented toward shielding us from the harshest realities.
Reading helps open the door to compassion and understanding. “Maus” is hard, but so is the truth about the Holocaust.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in American history. One example is what happened in the Houston Independent School District during the Red Scare. In April 1957, the school board banned numerous textbooks. One board member supported that decision because, “two geography books promoted one-worldism and the United Nations, and two economics books recommended to the board were slated to sell students on federal control.” In a 5-2 vote the board agreed with her.
In August 1957, the board then turned its attention to overhauling social studies. Social studies was a progressive term in the first place, and these folks wished to abolish it from the classroom. Instead of learning about world history and geography, students would learn about the history and geography of Texas, the Gulf Coast and the Americas.
Time magazine lamented it was “a revision of the elementary-school social-studies curriculum that will keep Houston’s younger generation safe from learning anything at all about three-fourths of the globe.” Civics would be taught, but only in senior year, and half of the year could be an elective.
The group that helped purge world history from HISD – the Houston Minute Women – were notorious for harassing teachers, school leaders and people at school board meetings. They wished to expose “Communist subversion,” promote anti-Communist and anti-New Deal materials and flatly rejected the United Nations. The HISD school board the Minute Women helped elect frequently overruled the textbook adoptions suggested by teachers. These texts routinely were accepted elsewhere in Texas and the nation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Minute Women also promoted the writings of “notorious antisemitic and white supremacist figures,” such as Gerald L.K. Smith, who called for deporting Zionists from America. This attracted the attention of the Anti-Defamation League as early as 1953.
Prof. James Luther Adams noted in 1954: “We should be aware of the way in which an anti-Israel position is increasingly being made a part of American antisemitism. We do not need to cite alone the activities of such fringe groups as Liberty Belles and the Minute Women.
“The anti-Israel and the antisemitic views of these and similar people in the United States can be as destructively nationalistic as anything in the nationalism of the Middle East. It feeds on the 100% American super-patriotism of the current hysteria. Thus, whereas Arab anti-Israel sentiment helps oligarchic rule and Communism in the Middle East, American anti-Israel sentiment, especially when combined with antisemitism, nourishes racist crypto-Fascism in the United States.”
Whether driven by toxic ideology, ignorance or bad judgment, efforts to limit ideas in classrooms must not succeed. Banning books denies students crucial knowledge about the world. That’s true whether it’s about the Holocaust, stories with queer protagonists or efforts to honestly reckon with America’s history.
For some students, books are one of the few spaces they will see someone who looks like them or has similar life experiences. Many, like me, will become more curious, intellectually open and ready for adventure as a result of a hard novel. The truth is complicated sometimes and, as citizens in a democracy, we must be able to consider many truths and views simultaneously.
Censoring perspectives and life experiences will not stop them from existing as much as some wish it were so. Instead, we should do everything we can to empower young people to better understand each other and the world around them, one page, one dog-eared corner, one chapter at a time.
Lauren Post is senior researcher and content manager for StandWithUs, an international education organization that combats antisemitism and supports Israel.
Read the article here.