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Striking MAUS Is Antisemitic & Anti-American

The decision by one Tennessee school district to remove Art Spiegelman’s classic Holocaust story, MAUS, from its eighth grade curriculum was small-minded but not antisemitic, argued Margaret Renk, a New York Times writer who focuses on Southern culture. Instead, she said the issue was, “conservative parents doing what they have always done – trying desperately to insulate their children from the modern world.” Understood in this way, removing books like MAUS, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” from curricula or libraries may not necessarily be examples of racism, but rather just parental overprotection gone too far.

However, insulating children from material that makes them (more likely, their parents) uncomfortable *is* often actually a form of racism or antisemitism. For Jewish families, there is no choice as to whether or not children should be made aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and its impact on their lives. It is simply their reality. For black families, there is no choice as to whether or not children should be made aware of slavery and its legacy. It is simply their reality. It is their family stories.

By eliminating books that describe these difficult experiences, these school districts are claiming that black and jewish narratives, that black and Jewish families, are corrupting influences on *their* children. That *their* children represent the American default, the “public” served by public schools or public libraries, to the exclusion of those with more complicated backgrounds.

In contrast, school districts and communities that do the sometimes difficult work of exposing students to each other through literature and diverse, representative curricula encourage those students to realize that each story is equally part of the collective American experience, of which nobody can legitimately claim to be the default. Just as powerfully, they are teaching that by learning about each other, they can develop the empathy and understanding to bring them even closer together.

This Shabbat’s Torah portion, parshat tezaveh, describes the sacred vestments with which the high priest would officiate in the Tabernacle. Among them are the ephod, the apron, and the choshen, the breastplate. The ephod featured two precious stones that were worn on the shoulders upon which the names of the twelve tribes were etched, six per stone. The choshen also featured twelve precious stones that were arranged over the high priest’s heart, each etched with the name of one of the tribes. The question is obvious – why are both sets of stones necessary?

According to Rabbi Dov Linzer, President of New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the two sets of stones tell the high priest that if he wants to carry the people in his heart, he must also, at the same time, bear their burdens on his shoulders. At the same time, by shouldering their weight, the High Priest has the unique ability to represent the twelve tribes, together, in the presence of God.

Striking Art Spiegelman and Toni Morrison from curricula or school library shelves may not be expressions of antisemitic or anti–black hate. Both authors’ work is deeply unsettling. However, it is still racist or antisemitic, because it implies that their stories and the experiences they reflect are add-ons to a core, default American history and experience. The high priest challenges us to remember that only by collectively shouldering everyone’s burdens, do we enter, united, into God’s presence.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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