(JTA) — Late last year, a mom in South Carolina requested that her local school district remove nearly 100 books from its shelves — including a classic novel about antisemitism.
The challenge to “The Fixer,” an award-winning 1966 work by Bernard Malamud, came amid an ongoing flurry of attempts by conservative activists to take books out of schools. And this instance of an attempted ban followed what has become an established playbook.
The parent in question, Ivie Szalai, is affiliated with the conservative “parents’ rights” group Moms for Liberty. She alleged that “The Fixer” and dozens of other books were too lewd for children’s eyes, raising her concerns at Beaufort County school board meetings and with district officials.
“I know that many of the books in question may have extremely helpful material for many students,” she reportedly said at one meeting of the coastal district that includes the popular vacation destinations Hilton Head and St. Helena Island. “But that does not negate the fact that many of them contain explicit sexuality, even some pornographic, X-rated scenes.”
In seeking to ban “The Fixer,” however, Szalai isn’t just joining a recent national trend. She’s also targeting a book that was at the center of a previous generation’s attempt to restrict children’s access to literature — and that led to a rare Supreme Court decision on library book bans, in 1982.
The situation in Beaufort County, more than 40 years later, bears striking parallels to that case and demonstrates the deep roots of conservative efforts to ban books. It offers yet another example of how stories about Judaism and antisemitism, even on topics that predate the Holocaust, can get caught in the book-banning dragnet. And it shows how the movement’s advocates are scoring victories even in places without new laws working in their favor.
Szalai did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Josh Malkin, an attorney and senior advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, believes that challenging “The Fixer” may be part of a broad attempt to stress-test the court’s ruling from 1982, which was inconclusive.
“What the right is doing really well right now is finding language in the law that they believe there to be wiggle room around,” said Malkin, who has been monitoring book challenges across the state. “With all of this insanity around book bans in 2023, it’ll be interesting to see how far up in the judicial system this gets.”
“The Fixer” fictionalizes a notorious 1911 case in which a Jewish laborer in Kyiv, Mendel Beilis, was charged with murdering a Christian boy and using his blood to make matzah. The case is one of the most famous modern examples of the blood libel — the canard that Jews murder non-Jewish children and use their blood for ritual purposes. Beilis’ family has bristled that the character based on him is a crass, irreligious laborer, and has alleged that Malamud plagiarized from Beilis’ own autobiography. Still, the story is widely recognized as an indictment of antisemitism and a powerful portrayal of human suffering. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Szalai challenged “The Fixer” in October 2022 along with popular titles including “The Kite Runner” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She did not follow the district’s normal process for challenging books, instead submitting a list of the objectionable material to officials via email and threatening “to escalate this to authorities” if the district did not take immediate action.
Unlike some other Republican-led states, Malkin said, South Carolina has no law that requires schools to acquiesce to book bans, though the state superintendent was elected last year on a promise to prevent “political indoctrination” in schools. The state’s Republican governor Henry McMaster has also made book bans into a political issue, instructing his education department to investigate “obscene material” in schools. Local districts can decide how to handle challenges that parents raise about books.
Candace Bruder, a spokesperson for the Beaufort County School District, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the books were removed following threats against the district and efforts by activists to identify its librarians.
“In order to protect our employees from this harassment, the decision was made to temporarily pull the 97 books for review through an organized process,” she wrote.
In the months since, many of the books that Szalai challenged have returned to schools’ shelves, including “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which details an inner-city public school teacher’s efforts to educate her students about the Holocaust. But “The Fixer” is still in limbo: The school board in Beaufort County will decide the book’s local fate next month.
It isn’t the first school board to weigh that question. In 1975, board members in the Island Trees School District on Long Island removed “The Fixer” and six other books from school libraries — citing similar complaints as those aired by Szalai now.
In a statement, the Island Trees district’s board members said the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The critique of “The Fixer” included instances in the book of profanity directed toward the Jewish protagonist by his prison guards. A board member told the Washington Post that he thought some passages might be objectionable to Jews.
A group of students challenged the board’s book bans and took their case to the Supreme Court. In the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico case, a majority of justices ruled in the students’ favor, but they also said school boards have a role to play in managing the titles available in school libraries. Only a few agreed that the students had a First Amendment right to access particular books. “Because it’s a plurality of opinion, it doesn’t have the same force of law that majority opinions do,” Malkin said.
Now, conservative activists are making the same arguments as their forebears about books they’re seeking to ban. The questions at the core of the Supreme Court ruling are animating the book-ban movement, and its opponents, today.
“As a Jewish person who knows the history of our culture, I know we have an active role to play in ensuring that ‘never again’ happens. This for me is part of that moment,” Emily Mayer, a former public school teacher in Beaufort County who now works as a political strategist, told JTA about why she has been organizing her neighbors to oppose book bans.
“I didn’t think that I would ever be kind of on the precipice of something like this, to make sure that we don’t see history repeat itself,” said Mayer, whose father is a rabbi in Maryland. “But now that we are at that moment, if I sat by quietly — and other Jewish advocates I know feel the same — we would be doing an injustice, not just to the Jewish religion, but to all people who have been othered in some kind of way.”
While today’s book ban movement focuses largely on titles about race, gender and sexuality, Malkin believes it is not an accident that books about Jews keep facing challenges. Multiple school districts have fielded challenges to “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” with at least one in Florida permanently removing it because of a determination that it is “not age-appropriate.” The Holocaust graphic memoir “Maus,” a picture book about Purim featuring a family with two dads and a book about Shabbat included in a diversity collection have all faced challenges over the last year.
“This movement of white Christian nationalism is coinciding with the rise in antisemitism. So while that likely doesn’t make the text of the challenge, it’s scary,” said Malkin, who is Jewish. “This whole thing is: you scratch back one layer and it’s about putting G_d back into schools. But whose G_d? I think that’s a pretty quick step to ‘Let’s make sure we are marginalizing and othering folks with other religious beliefs.’”
In 1975, the Island Trees board members got their lists of “objectionable” books at a conservative political conference at a time of skyrocketing complaints about obscene material in schools. Similarly, conservative parent activists today are turning to BookLooks, a website created by Emily Maikisch, a former Moms for Liberty activist, to identify books to challenge.
Szalai has said that she sourced her complaints from BookLooks, which annotates and rates books based on their content. She did not read most of the books she sought to have removed, according to local reports,
“I felt led to do what I did, and I’d do it all again,” Szalai said at a school board meeting last month when she informed the board that she would be pursuing criminal charges over a decision to keep a book she said was “obscene” in schools.
BookLooks assigns “The Fixer” a rating of 3 out of 5, what it calls “minor restricted.” A content warning reads: “This book contains controversial religious and racial commentary; hate involving racism; violence including self harm; and profanity,” citing more than 30 instances of objectionable content. Those include descriptions of violence and invocations of antisemitic stereotypes. It ends with a chart showing how many times profane words can be counted in the book.
Absent from the BookLooks brief on “The Fixer” is one of its most famous lines, spoken early on by its ill-fated narrator: “There are no wrong books. What’s wrong is the fear of them.”
Maikisch told JTA the site’s rating for “The Fixer” should be viewed as the equivalent of an R rating for a movie, meant to reflect “very valid concerns” parents could have about the book’s content. She thinks it’s a good thing parents are challenging books like this one in their school districts and prompting formal review processes.
“The alternative would be for parents to be hands-off and let the ‘experts’ handle it,” she told JTA. “But that ship has sailed and parents are not wanting to remain passive and uninformed about their children’s education anymore.”
Still, Maikisch said she’d be “very surprised” to see books like “The Fixer” completely removed from high schools, which she said “wouldn’t likely be a popular position.”
BookLooks has fueled challenges to “The Fixer” in other places where Moms for Liberty is active. The book was on a list of challenged books drawn up by the group’s chapter in Horry County, South Carolina and, following a member’s complaint, it was also removed from shelves in Martin County, Florida — a state where a law allows parents to challenge instructional materials and books in public school libraries and where Gov. Ron DeSantis has been an outspoken ally of Moms for Liberty, which was founded in the state in 2021.
Julie Marshall, a Martin County parent and Moms for Liberty activist, asserted in a form challenging “The Fixer” that the book had no serious literary value and said it should be removed entirely from schools, while noting that she had not personally read it. Asked to provide a description of the book’s inappropriate content, she provided a link to its BookLooks page.
The principal of a Martin County high school that had the book in its library wrote back weeks later to let Marshall know that “The Fixer” and several other titles had been removed from the shelves, according to emails that Marshall shared with JTA.
But Marshall, who successfully fought for the removal of a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust in her district earlier this year, told JTA that she came to believe — after consulting with “some Jewish friends” whom she did not name — that “The Fixer” should in fact be available in schools, but only for older students.
“The Fixer is an Adult novel and has graphic violence in it and that is how it came up for possible removal, but after discussions, we did not feel this book should be removed,” she told JTA via email.
The review committee in Beaufort County could agree with that assessment when it reveals its latest batch of book reviews on Aug. 2. The committee, which meets around once a month to tackle about 10 books at a time, prioritized “titles being used in classroom instruction,” Bruder said to explain last spring why “The Fixer” hadn’t yet been reviewed. But it is now on the agenda alongside six other more recently published novels.
The committee has so far sided with the parent challenges only three times, for a novel about a school shooting by Jodi Picoult, a novel about abuse by Colleen Hoover, and a raunchy novel about teens on a road trip by Jesse Andrews.
Before they meet, Beaufort County committee members are reading “The Fixer.” It’s something that Malamud himself said he wished would happen more often when his book faced challenges.
“I wish those school board members and others who want to ban books would make an effort to understand them before shoveling them off library shelves,” the author said in 1976, a decade before his death, in response to the Island Trees ban. “If they read ‘The Fixer,’ they might be clamoring to have more students read it.”
Mayer said she thought one outcome could indeed be more widespread readership for a significant Jewish novel that is read far less often than it was at its heyday.
“It’s the same thing that we say about children, that the best way to get a kid to do something is to tell them not to do it,” she said. “Saying you can’t read that book only makes it more appealing. … It’s very possible that ‘The Fixer’ could come back around.”
For Jay Beilis, Mendel Beilis’s grandson, that wouldn’t be an ideal outcome. He’s been waging a one-man battle against “The Fixer” because of Malamud’s alleged plagiarism and in defense of his grandfather’s character, even publishing a book enumerating his concerns. Yet he says he doesn’t want to see the book pulled off of school district shelves because of the concerns raised by Moms for Liberty members.
“I’m not going to celebrate the book being banned,” Beilis told JTA. “A book like that to me shouldn’t be read — but not for the reason the people who are banning it are doing it for.”