Central Conference of American Rabbis Resolution: The People of the Book against Book Bans

March 10, 2024


Current data from the American Library Association (ALA) reflects an alarming trend: the highest number of attempts to ban books from US public libraries since the organization began recording such data more than twenty years ago,[1] and efforts to ban books are on the rise in Canada too.[2] Book bans aim to narrow and limit access to a diverse range of information, voices, and views. In our current moment, LGBTQ+ stories are most often targeted, with six out of the top ten books challenged in 2022 featuring positive depictions of diverse sexual and gender identities.

Titles like the graphic novel Maus, which teaches honestly about the Shoah (Holocaust), and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, continue to appear on lists of books that activists seek to ban, sometimes successfully. Nearly sixty percent of these public library challenges originate from parents and patrons who are neither educators nor librarians. In 2022, only three percent of book challenges originated with teachers, and organizations like the National Educational Association, note that teachers face personalized harassment and discrimination for their overwhelming opposition to book bans.[3]

Between January 1 and August 23, 2023, the ALA documented more than 695 challenges to at least 1,915 distinct titles, overwhelmingly authors and works that positively present LGBTQ+, Black, brown, Indigenous, and Jewish themes, people, and communities. Texas, Florida, and Virginia lead the nation in both the number of attempts at censorship and the number of titles targeted; they are among the eleven US states to report more than one hundred challenged books per state in the period between January and August 2023.[4] Spurred on by extremist organizations which “have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves,” individuals have turned not only to established public processes that govern public libraries, but to “intimidation and threats.”[5]

Book bans often represent attempts to erase vulnerable individuals and communities—and to silence marginalized voices—which has happened to Jews repeatedly throughout history. Educator, writer, and advocate Emily Style, founder of the inclusive curriculum approach, emphasizes the importance of people’s access to works that can serve as both “windows” and “mirrors:” snapshots into lives different from our own, as well as depictions that validate our realities.[6] Style writes, “All students deserve a curriculum which mirrors their own experience back to them, upon occasion—thus validating it in the public world of the school. But curricula must also insist upon the fresh air of windows into the experience of others—who also need and deserve the public validation of the school curriculum.”[7]

The Mishnah, among the earliest of rabbinic interpretations of Jewish values, presents many well-known advocates for broad access to learning. For example, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”[8]

Our classical rabbinic sages notably demonstrated that they valued diverse viewpoints by including minority opinions in our sacred texts. These perspectives, rejected in their own time, continue to be studied, and the sages recognized that minority opinions might even be adopted in practice in the future.[9] Suppressing disfavored voices endangers both the fullness of our perspective and the ability to pivot, change, and grow. As the ALA articulates, “Book bans result in the suppression of history and distortion of readers’ understanding of the world around them.”[10] Jewish views align with the ALA’s longstanding Library Bill of Rights, first adopted in 1939, which declares, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”[11]

Young Reform Movement leader Cameron Samuels, Co-Founder of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas and former NFTY Vice President of Engagement and Inclusion, testified before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary in September 2023, arguing, “Students deserve to be active decision-makers in our daily experiences as we attend class. The actions of one person alone, challenging a book in a school library, should not burden and restrict the education of 90,000 students in my district without due process.”[12]

Therefore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolves to oppose book bans in all their insidious forms, by:

  1. Speaking and writing in public fora to oppose book bans;
  2. Attesting to and advocating for the vital role of public libraries, including public school libraries, in providing diverse reading and resource options;
  3. Testifying against book bans at meetings of local, state, and federal governmental bodies, including but not limited to library boards, school boards, legislatures, and Congress;
  4. Joining with a broad diversity of faith leaders who oppose book bans by raising a collective interfaith voice in opposition to efforts to ban books and resources; and
  5. Including in Reform Jewish community events and resources, books and resources targeted by those who would ban books, for example, by teaching from these books when illustrating Jewish values, or by placing selected banned and targeted titles in our institutions’ libraries.[13]

  1. American Library Association, Book Ban Data Website, October 2023, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/book-ban-data.
  2. Jessica Wong, “Calls to ban books are on the rise in Canada. So is the opposition to any bans,” CBC News, February 21, 2024, https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.7106913
  3. ALA News, “American Library Association reports record number of demands to censor library books and materials in 2022,” February 2023, https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2023/03/record-book-bans-2022
  4. ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/book-ban-data
  5. ALA News, “The American Library Association opposes widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries,” November 2021, https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2021/11/american-library-association-opposes-widespread-efforts-censor-books-us
  6. Emily Style, “Curriculum As Window and Mirror,” first published in Listening for All Voices, Oak Knoll School monograph, Summit, NJ, 1988, accessed via National Seed Project, October 2023, https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror
  7. Ibid.
  8. Pirkei Avot 4.1.
  9. Mishnah Eduyot 1:5.
  10. Association of Jewish Libraries, Statement on Censorship and Banning Books, October 2022, https://jewishlibraries.org/ajl-statement-on-censorship-and-banning-books/
  11. ALA, “Library Bill of Rights,” June 19, 1939; amended October 14, 1944; June 18, 1948; February 2, 1961; June 27, 1967; January 23, 1980; January 29, 2019. Affirmed January 23, 1996. https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill
  12. Cameron Samuels, Witness Testimony before US Senate Judiciary Committee, 12 September, 2023, Published on Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s website, https://rac.org/blog/witness-testimony-book-bans-examining-how-censorship-limits-liberty-and-literature
  13. There are several organizations that track book bans, along with the ALA. The collection of this data is a crucial aspect of intellectual freedom, as attempts to censor, redact, and restrict access to books in libraries can take many forms. See the ALA’s list of top books banned in 2022 at https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10. In addition, consider including so-called controversial Jewish books, like The Purim Superhero, in your community’s libraries.