‘Who Is A Jew’ Debate Embroils Publisher


A major educational publisher has withdrawn from the market a new book about Israel containing a passage that a prominent Orthodox organization found offensive, and it has agreed to destroy remaining copies of the book.

Scholastic Library Publishing said it took that step after receiving a series of complaints from Agudath Israel of America about “Israel: Enchantment of the World,” a reference book published in 2006.

In a section about the eligibility of people for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, the book stated that “some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies … They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws.”

The assertion that Orthodox Jews consider non-Orthodox Jews as not Jewish is “utterly untrue” and “deeply misleading,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public affairs, wrote in a letter to Greg Worrel, the firm’s president.

A new version of the passage explains that Orthodox concerns in the Law of Return controversy center around the propriety of conversions in accordance with traditional Jewish law, and not around individual Jews’ level of observance.

The passage about Orthodox Jews “was a mistake,” said Kyle Good, Scholastic Library Publishing’s vice president for corporate communications. “It was clearly an error” that was missed in the editing process, she said, adding that “it’s not the standard policy” of the firm to destroy books — in this case, to recycle the books — against which such complaints are raised.

She did not cite other examples of the firm similarly destroying the stock of other books “It’s unusual for us to find an error like this.”

“Our process for reprinting [the book about Israel] will include destroying the current inventory of books, working with our customer service team to answer questions from customers who have already purchased the book, and replacing their current copies when the new reprints are available,” she wrote in a letter to Agudah.

She said the decision to recycle the books was an economic one — it made more sense to make new books out of the old ones, than to store the remaining 800 copies that will not be sold.

“We don’t have that many left,” Good said. She said the book’s original press run was 7,500. “We’re not burning books. We never destroy books; we recycle them.”

A publisher eliminating a stock of remaining books, even through the recycling process, because of readers’ complaints, is unusual, a spokesman for the publishing industry said.

“This is very rare,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division.

The publisher’s decision to act on Agudah’s complaint within a few months “makes a statement about Jewish life and about tolerance within American society,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.

“It speaks well both of the publisher and of the protester,” Gurock said. “It speaks to the assertiveness — an appropriate aggressiveness — of the Orthodox community in protecting their rights as American and as Jews.”

“We were very grateful that Rabbi Shafran brought the error to our attention,” Good said. Agudah was the only representative of the Jewish community that registered a complaint over the book, she said.

The firm’s Web site calls it “the leading print and online publisher of children’s non-fiction and reference materials.”

A corrected version of the book, part of a set about foreign countries under the Children’s Press imprint, will appear in April. The amended text will read: “In addition, the question, Who is a Jew? is important. Today, under the country’s Law of Return, a Jew automatically becomes a citizen when making an aliyah (immigration to Israel). But some Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies. They believe that the only people who should be granted automatic citizenship are those born of Jewish mothers or those who converted to the faith according to traditional Jewish law, or halacha.”

“It’s a tremendous credit to [the publisher] that they are taking this so seriously,” Rabbi Shafran said. “They are dealing with this with alacrity and goodwill.”

Rabbi Shafran said the book’s contents were brought to his attention by the librarian of a BaisYaakov girl’s school in Brooklyn.“A textbook,” especially one that is likely to be read by children outside of the Orthodox community, “needs to be accurate about such things,” the rabbi said. “Judaism teaches that seeds we plant in children’s minds are very important. We have to be very careful what we put in their minds.”