Book Battles

The battle raging over antisemitism and Israel in the kids’ literature world

A major industry organization appeared to walk back a statement on antisemitism. Jewish writers say it’s part of a bigger problem

Ben Hasty/Getty Images

“It’s a bunny-eat-bunny world.” 

This is an oft-repeated, only-sort-of-joking phrase in the world of kid’s literature — or “kidlit,” as those in the business call it — a vast category that includes novels for children, toddlers and young adults, in genres ranging from fantasy to romance to sports. Loosely translated: The adult authors who write books for kids can, and often do, tear each other apart on social media.  

The siloed drama of the kidlit industry was blown into the mainstream this week, after the leading membership organization for children’s book writers issued a controversial statement that appeared to walk back a June 10 condemnation of antisemitism that was released in response to an uptick in harassment and physical attacks on Jewish communities and institutions around the country, in the wake of May’s war between Israel and Hamas. “I would like to apologize to everyone in the Palestinian community who felt unrepresented, silenced, or marginalized,” read the June 27 letter from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’s executive director, Lin Oliver. “SCBWI acknowledges the pain our actions have caused to our Palestinian and Muslim members.” 

Multiple Jewish authors who write for children and young adults told Jewish Insider that they were disappointed to see what felt to them like a reversal of SCBWI’s previously strong stance against antisemitism. “This statement was ‘all lives matter,’” one writer told JI.

“I was shocked and dismayed because the apology letter to the #StopAntisemitism statement distracted from and diminished their support,” Liza Wiemer, an award-winning author whose most recent book, The Assignment, addressed education surrounding Holocaust and tolerance, said in a statement. “Just like all their other statements they’ve made against hatred toward marginalized people, the #StopAntisemitism statement deserves to stand alone.”

Oliver’s apology made it appear as though SCBWI had concluded that condemning antisemitism was antithetical to condemning Islamophobia, or that antisemitism could not be addressed without also referring to politics in the Middle East. But SCBWI’s initial statement on antisemitism had not mentioned Israel. (After exchanging numerous emails with JI, senior leadership at SCBWI stopped responding without offering a comment on recent events.)

Oliver’s letter also noted that SCBWI’s first diversity chief, a Black Jewish woman named April Powers, had resigned. Rumors spread online that she was forced out, a claim that turned out to be incorrect. 

Some coverage of the incident has “irresponsibly suggested that SCBWI has apologized for its statement against antisemitism. That is not true. The statement stands and is still available on their site as of now,” said Tzivia MacLeod, a Canadian-Israeli author who is one of the leaders of SCBWI’s Israel regional chapter. “It is not true that SCBWI fired or demanded the resignation of April Powers.” 

What happened in the two weeks between the two statements was more complicated than some initial news reports let on. A Palestinian American writer and activist named Razan Abdin-Adnani expressed concern that anti-Muslim hatred was not addressed by SCBWI, but in the process, SCBWI’s accounts — helmed by Powers — deleted some of Abdin-Adnani’s comments on an SBCWI Facebook post and blocked her on Twitter. 

MacLeod and other Jewish writers expressed concern that some of Abdin-Adnani’s comments were hostile to Israel and at times antisemitic. “It’s upsetting. Our entire team has had our stomachs in knots all week, reading the hate she is spewing about our organization, its ‘Zionist’ ties and more,” MacLeod told JI. 

In one tweet, Abdin-Adnani criticized Powers for calling herself “pro-Israel” in an interview she did several months ago. In a Facebook comment on SCBWI’s page, Abdin-Adnani wrote, “I had no idea this was a Zionist/politically motivated organization that doesn’t serve ALL children,” and asked for a refund on her membership. In another tweet, she insinuated that Jews in Israel should go back to Europe: “I hear Germany & Poland are quite nice these days,” she wrote. When other Twitter users pointed out that her tweet could come across as antisemitic — telling Jews to go back to the countries where their ancestors were murdered by Nazis — she wrote, “I stand by every last thing I said in these tweets.” 

SCBWI’s June 27 letter apologized to Abdin-Adnani by name. Her Twitter thread alleging mistreatment and an anti-Palestinian bias by SCBWI has been retweeted hundreds of times, including by several prominent authors with a combined hundreds of thousands of followers. 

*****

Some Jewish writers viewed SCBWI’s handling of its antisemitism statement and the attacks on it that followed as a symptom of a larger problem in the industry: a focus on diversity that often does not include Jewish writers and books. 

“I started to notice with the wonderful movement to support more diversity, that Jewishness was not included in that diversity, despite the fact that many of us have always felt othered and different, to varying degrees,” said Gae Polisner, an author of young adult and middle grade books

Polisner has been outspoken on Twitter about antisemitism both in general and in the publishing industry. “How come when I tweet anything about hate/violence against Jewish people, no one in my twitter feed even acknowledges it? It is NOT the same when I tweet hate against any other group. #crickets #antisemitism #erasure,” she tweeted in January. “Oh wait, I know. The book industry will care and stop erasing us and include us in important diversity lists when it’s woke & popular to do so, and will sell books.”

Multiple writers told JI that they have been told by agents or mentors to make characters less Jewish if they wanted to reach wider audiences. “I was told Jewish books don’t sell, and I was even told by one agent — not my present one, who’s been nothing but supportive — to make something less Jewish,” said Jonathan Rosen, who writes fantasy novels for kids.

Yet while some writers have experienced overt or implicit antisemitism at various points in their careers or in the context of the broader kidlit industry, this is not the case for everyone — and the Jewish publishing industry is thriving, in part through the work of Jewish literacy organization PJ Library. “Through forces like PJ Library, through the great Jewish publishers who are still very much committed to supporting Israel … through people who are committed to bringing diversity and inclusion to Jewish kidlit — I honestly think we’re in great shape,” said MacLeod. 

Still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gained outsized attention in the kidlit world. This mirrors conversations and debates playing out in other industries and other online communities: A growing anti-Israel orthodoxy has emerged on social media, leading some Jews to fear expressing any support for Israel, or even their Jewish identity, online. 

In recent years, mainstream books that are set in Israel or reference the country have occasionally received pushback. The author of Red, White, and Royal Blue, a bestselling 2019 romance novel, pledged to remove a line about Israel after facing social media backlash. The line in question involved one character, a politician, making a single comment about having to deal with foreign policy related to Israel. One Twitter user wrote that “All mentions [of Israel], even ones that don’t outwardly seem bad, are wrong.”

A book called Once More With Chutzpah, a debut novel from writer Haley Neil that is set to be released next spring, has faced an onslaught of criticism because it takes place in Israel, where Neil has family. The novel features a brother and sister grappling with mental health issues, adolescence and the Jewish diaspora while on a road trip in Israel. A reference to Birthright Israel was removed from the book after a social media outcry, but a number of people on Twitter have continued to call for the book’s boycott.

Though it has not yet been released, Neil’s book has already received a slew of negative reviews on Goodreads, a social network for readers. One comment that came with a zero-star review on the book that is still several months from being released read: “no thank you, in this house we do not support books passed off as fun romps through an apartheid, settler state that routinely murders, displaces and subjugates palestinians. :)”

Other Jewish authors who write contemporary young adult fiction set in the U.S. worry that if they were to comment on Israel — even on social media — their careers would be at risk. “If I were to stand with Israel, for example, I’d be canceled tomorrow. That would be it, my career would be done. I’ve worked a long time to get here. That’s a hard reality to come to grips with,” said one writer who requested anonymity for fear of professional backlash. 

“Everybody’s afraid to speak up. There’s a whisper network of Jewish authors, and the ones who have spoken up, they get a swarm of Twitter attacks,” said another author who asked to remain anonymous and has let their SCBWI membership lapse.

But this writer acknowledged that the organization cannot simply be abandoned. “Really, that’s how people break in. It’s very much networking. It’s how you meet agents and editors, and how you learn the trade,” the writer explained. 

*****

Getting SCBWI to put out a statement on antisemitism in the first place required a coordinated campaign spearheaded by Jewish writers. “[SCBWI] had to be urged to do it because they were being silent. Once they did it, of course, the inevitable controversy came up,” said Rosen. The organization had previously put out statements in support of the Asian American community after a spate of violent hate crimes over the past year, and an “Equity and Inclusion” page on its website highlighted “anti-racism” as a central value. 

A letter began to circulate in early June, requesting that the “book community” come together and “unite with us against anti-Jewish hate,” according to a copy of the letter provided to JI. “We are asking for support to stop antisemitism. Antisemitism is wrong. There is never justification for any form of hatred. On behalf of Jewish authors, illustrators, editors, librarians, agents and others in the kidlit community we ask that you issue a clear and unequivocal statement against antisemitism.”

The letter also referred to concerns about Jewish representation in diversity efforts. “In addition, we are asking that organizations that advocate for diversity in children’s books speak out about the importance of Jewish representation and non-stereotypical and intersectional depictions of Jewish life,” the letter said. 

As of June 10, the day SCBWI issued its statement condemning antisemitism, the letter had 159 signatories. A similar petition from last year, called the “Book Community Statement Of Solidarity Against Antisemitism,” got more than 2,000 signatures. Polisner, who was one of the lead writers on this statement, told JI that someone she knew professionally had “asked me to co-author a statement against antisemitism, just as we had done in the book industry for so many other forms of hate.”

Some non-Jewish writers and illustrators “very willingly did sign” last year’s statement, Polisner told JI. But not everyone. “People said they weren’t comfortable. People never responded. People never spoke to me again after it. People very near and dear to me in the industry either didn’t see it or pretended they didn’t see it,” Polisner recalled. “There were people who just stayed silent,” said Stacie Ramey, whose most recent book, It’s My Life, is about a Jewish girl with cerebral palsy. “I think the worst part is no one will stand up for me and for my people.”

In past moments when the book community has sought to respond to hate, including Jews has sometimes come as an afterthought.

“Right after Charlottesville, when people on the right protesting were shouting ‘blood and soil,’ which is a Nazi chant, and carrying Nazi flags, the children’s book industry did what we do best — which is tried to rise to an occasion to make book lists and things that might help to educate younger people,” Polisner said. “The first book lists that came out included a lot of books about brown and Black characters and issues and failed to have any Jewish books or Jewish characters on the list.”

After she and others reached out to the organizers of the lists, they added a number of books on Jewish topics. “I don’t think it was an act of blatant antisemitism,” Polisner acknowledged. “I think that’s part of the problem with antisemitism, or what I’ve learned by reading is more often called erasure, which is it not even occurring to people that we need the understanding and the protection.”

*****

What’s next for SCBWI remains unclear. Another statement issued by the organization Wednesday night — presumably meant to put an end to the infighting that has marked its online channels for weeks — did not seem to please anybody. 

“The SCBWI mission is to be an inclusive creator-focused organization serving writers, illustrators, and translators as they create a body of literature for ALL children. As an apolitical literary organization, it is not our mission to promote any specific political viewpoint or policy,” the statement said in part. 

“Interesting again to me, that they were able to issue statements condemning racism and anti-Asian hate, but condemning antisemitism becomes ‘political,’” one Jewish writer said. Meanwhile, the activist who had called out SCBWI for its pro-Israel stance viewed the “apolitical” line as a tacit embrace of the pro-Israel position of its now-former diversity chief. 

“Art and literature has always been political. Art and literature has also always stood up for ‘the other,’ and the persecuted who need protection,” said Polisner. “What surprises me is it feels like there’s some hypocrisy when the industry picks and chooses who is worthy to have that protection, and who’s not, and that feels dangerous.”

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