By Andrew Lapin
January 10, 2024
(JTA) – A Florida school district is heading to court in a closely watched legal challenge to its decision to remove more than 1,600 books, including Anne Frank’s original diary.
“Schindler’s List” and a young-adult novel about a teenage girl in Auschwitz are also among the slew of books that have been pulled from shelves and are now being held for “further review” in Escambia County, in Florida’s Panhandle. The district shared the list publicly in December, saying that its removals comply with state law.
Now, Escambia County is due in court Wednesday for a hearing about a lawsuit challenging the removals. The suit brought by publishing giant Penguin Random House, literary speech activist group PEN America, local parents and several bestselling authors argues that the district’s book bans discriminate against people of color and LGBTQ people.
Such books have been the target of a national, conservative push to remove material that some argue is offensive. The push has been strongest in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed the effort and enshrined it in state law. In a sign of how seriously the state is taking the lawsuit, Florida’s own attorney general is advocating on the district’s behalf.
As has frequently been the case, Jewish books have been caught up in the dragnet in Escambia County.
In addition to Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” Escambia has also removed other books about the Holocaust, including “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography,” by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón; “Schindler’s List,” the novel about Oskar Schindler by Australian author Thomas Keneally that was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s movie; and “The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel” by Antonio Iturbe and Salva Rubio, based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus, who hid books from the Nazis in the camps.
A representative for Escambia County schools declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. But a chart on the district’s website noted that the books it has stored for review are “based on community standards and/or by a committee.”
The Florida Freedom to Read Project, a statewide free-expression activist group, shared a copy of what it said was the district’s book appropriateness checklist with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It requires school media centers to “check sex, romance & nudity,” “check violence & scariness” and search sites such as Google Books for “terms related to sexual content” for each title.
“All classroom copies must be removed from student access until the title has been reviewed according to community standards,” the district noted. The district also suggests specialists look up the book on BookLooks, a book-review site with ties to Moms For Liberty, the conservative activist group that has driven much of the book-ban momentum.
Florida law requires schools to pull and review books if a resident alleges they contain “sexual” content, but enforcement methods differ by district, which activists say is a result of unclear guidance from the state.
“Once all books with any depiction or description of sexual conduct or age assigned as “adult” by the publisher were pulled from the shelves and put into storage, the media centers were allowed to open back up,” Stephana Farrell of Florida Freedom to Read Project told JTA.
The case in Escambia County is one of several currently unfolding against local and state book-ban laws — and is not the only one to involve Jewish books. Recently a federal judge in Iowa, blocking parts of that state’s own book-ban law, suggested it was keeping Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night” out of schools.
But the Escambia case has attracted outsized attention, as it puts Florida’s strict book laws, and the stance of DeSantis, who is running for president, in the legal hot seat. Spurred by a teacher challenging 100 books she said were sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate for children, the Escambia case has led to the firing of the district superintendent and the resignation of the library services coordinator; photos of district bookshelves covered with black paper have become a potent symbol of the school book wars.
The inclusion of “The Diary of a Young Girl” is especially notable. A recent graphic adaptation of Frank’s diary has been removed from several schools in Florida and elsewhere, because some parents and legislators have objected to its illustration of sexual passages from her book. But Escambia County marks the first instance in which Frank’s original diary is known to have been removed from schools since the “parents’ rights” movement driving the book purge gained steam in 2021.
Several leading proponents of the movement have publicly stated their support for the original Anne Frank diary’s inclusion in classrooms, and school districts that pulled the new adaptation have defended their decision by noting the original remains available.
Bruce Friedman, a Jewish parent in Florida who successfully pushed for the removal of the diary’s graphic adaptation and hundreds of other books in his own district, told JTA last year that schools “should stick” with Frank’s original diary. “We’ve made it into part of mainstream America to read that diary,” he said.
And Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the parents’ rights group Moms For Liberty, also told JTA last year that she believes schools should teach Frank’s diary.
The Anne Frank Fonds, the Swiss group that controls the diary, has also weighed in. “We consider the book of a 12-year-old girl to be appropriate reading for her peers,” the group said last year.
The foundation was responding to bans of the illustrated version, which it authorized and which has become a frequent target for book-ban advocates. The other books about Judaism and the Holocaust that have been temporarily or permanently removed from schools include Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer” and Elisabeth Kushner’s “The Purim Superhero,” a children’s book about an LGBTQ Jewish family, which was also pulled from a Florida Panhandle district.
Among the other titles being held for review in Escambia County are dictionaries, thesauruses, the Guinness Book of World Records, and science books by National Geographic.