(JTA) — Bruce Friedman was moved by “The Diary of Anne Frank” when he read it at age 9. As a child in a kosher-keeping Jewish home on Long Island, he saw in the Holocaust memoir an essential lesson for Jewish and non-Jewish children alike.
“You learn to sympathize, empathize, share the fear and the horror and the fright and disgust with man’s inhumanity to man,” he recalled about the book. “And it’s not just the Nazis. It’s the human condition. We’re really good at hurting each other.”
And yet decades later, Friedman filed a challenge with his local school district in Florida to remove a new version of the diary from classroom shelves. The book, he wrote on a district form, “does disservice to lessons on the Holocaust.”
He added, in all-caps, “PROTECT CHILDREN!”
Last month, the local school board sided with Friedman and voted to remove “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation” from all grade levels in the district, with a spokesperson saying it was removed “based on state statute.” Also removed based on Friedman’s challenge: William Styron’s Holocaust novel “Sophie’s Choice.”
The successes followed two of hundreds of challenges Friedman has filed against books in Clay County, near Jacksonville, where he moved from New York during the pandemic. He has files on thousands more books that others have challenged. From his home there, the Jewish father has become one of the country’s most prolific and zealous participants in the movement to purge public schools of certain books.
The movement has largely targeted books featuring LGBTQ themes and content about racial equity, while catching books on other topics — including Jewish stories — in its dragnet. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has embedded the values of the movement into state law, making it easier for a small number of parents — or even just one — to force their districts to make books inaccessible to students.
The movement is most closely associated with a group called Moms of Liberty and inherits its worldview and tactics from decades of Christian family-values advocacy. But it turns out its flag-bearers can be Jewish dads, too.
Friedman recognizes that he stands out. “I figured we’d have a lot to talk about, Jew boy,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
He stands out in another way, too. Unlike many of his fellow book challengers, Friedman, a self-identified “bibliophile,” insists he reads every book he seeks to remove. He documents his objections as he goes in reams of challenge forms that he stores in his home office.
In objecting to a children’s biography of Harriet Tubman, for example, he says, “Telling them that the Civil War was all about slavery is a lie.” The picture book “Arthur’s Birthday,” featuring the cartoon aardvark, was bad in his view because “it is not appropriate to discuss ‘spin the bottle’ with elementary school children.” To Friedman, “Americanah,” a prizewinning novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the immigrant experience, is “a horrible piece of garbage.” Reading from his own file on the book, he listed off its problems: “Attempted suicide, immigration fraud, promiscuity, infidelity, abortion, racism, sex, critical race theory.”
For months Friedman has battled the Clay County school board over books, even becoming a conservative folk hero when his antics at a school board meeting drew censure. This week, when Friedman attempted to read from the Mindy McGuinnis novel “Heroine,” about the opioid crisis, board members cut off his microphone, telling him there were children present. When he attempted to keep reading, two police officers escorted him from the podium.
Yet a newer board member has frequently taken his side, recently describing “every single book we’ve banned” as “filthy, filthy pornography” and adding, “People who tell you different have not read the books, period.”
Recently, the board met to revise its book policy — but a school district official said Friedman would complicate the task.
“Mr. Friedman’s erratic and inconsistent challenges make it impossible for us to predict and devise a solution,” the school district’s chief academic officer, Roger Dailey, told the board during its Sept. 26 workshop. “I don’t know that there is a way to satisfy him.”
More than 60% of all book challenges nationwide in the 2021-2022 school year came from just 11 people. In this context, the volume of Friedman’s challenges carry weight far beyond his own district — and he’s only picked up the pace since.
“He’s been incredibly successful,” said Tasslyn Magnusson, who researches school book bans for the literary free-speech group PEN America and considers Friedman one of the biggest players in a movement she sees as attacking public education. “He’s by far the best example of how this is not about the books, but this is about destroying the system.”
Friedman’s allies, too, say he is making an outsized impact. He is “an amazing person, very patient, compassionate, and really wanted to dig into the issue of the books,” said Elana Yaron Fishbein, the founder of No Left Turn in Education, which has a list of books it deems “problematic.” Friedman is the group’s Florida chapter head; with his master list of every book challenged in every district, Fishbein said, he “really went above and beyond.”
Friedman is not the only Jew who is active in the book-challenge movement. There is Fishbein, an Israeli-born mother and a former employee of the Philadelphia Jewish federation who founded No Left Turn in Education in 2020 to combat what she says is “a leftist agenda” in public and private schools. And Brooke Weiss, a Jewish mother in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a lead organizer in Moms For Liberty. Weiss told JTA she has never challenged a book herself, but she helped put together the group’s first-ever conference earlier this year, attended by several Republican presidential candidates.
Yet Friedman, who is involved in both groups, stands out for the sheer volume and intensity of his challenges; he is responsible for more than a third of all challenges in Florida, and for 94% of the challenges in his district, which has acceded to hundreds of his requests to pull books and has removed more books than any other in the state as a result. He insists that his efforts are on behalf of children like his own, whom he pulled from public school when they lived back in New York out of concerns about what the child was learning there.
“I want all lessons in all schools to respect innocence,” Friedman told JTA.
Friedman said his father was a Navy veteran who worked printing art for periodicals, while his mother worked a variety of jobs including as an accountant, seamstress and Yiddish teacher. He celebrated his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, visiting the Western Wall. His parents, who are still alive, raised him “Conservative, leaning Orthodox” — he now participates in Jewish life via his local Chabad-Lubavitch center — and they imparted other values, too.
“My house that I grew up in was filled with books, and I had unfettered access to everything,” Friedman said. “I was the kind of guy who would stay close to librarians. The library was my happy place.”
Now, looking back, he says the unfettered access wasn’t always to his benefit. He has challenged “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the classic by Kurt Vonnegut about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, which he said he wrongly appreciated as a 12-year-old. “When I read it I had no regard for my own innocence,” he said.
Friedman attended multiple colleges in the New York area and worked as a construction manager in New York. He became radicalized by what he saw in public schools a decade ago, when his wife’s son entered kindergarten on Long Island. Schools in New York and around the country had recently adopted the Common Core, a set of educational standards meant to unify and improve what is taught across districts and states.
The standards had drawn backlash from conservatives who saw them as trampling on the principle of local control of schools. (People from across the ideological spectrum also argued that — in language presaging the book-ban movement — the standards were not always “age-appropriate” for children.)
Friedman said the standards caused his now-stepson to experience “considerable harm,” declining to offer specifics. The couple pulled him from public school and enrolled him in an evangelical Christian school that had eschewed the Common Core. The school’s outlook was also new for Friedman’s wife, who was raised Catholic, and the religious approach was not his own — “I was born a Jew. I will die a Jew,” Friedman said — but the family loved the school. When he saw Fishbein talking about No Left Turn on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show following the 2020 racial justice protests, he knew he had found his new cause.
Friedman moved his family from New York to Florida during the pandemic, “in pursuit of less tyrannical, more favorable governance and in the spirit of liberty.” (He noted that while he doesn’t regret the move, he does miss his family and “the pizza.”) His arrival in Florida came just as DeSantis was making “parents’ rights” a legislative priority. The timing was perfect for him to inaugurate No Left Turn’s presence in that state.
When Friedman and his family moved to Florida, he made the decision to put his son — now in high school — back in public school, believing that his evangelical education had given him “a very good moral base” that would insulate him from danger. But he forbade his stepson from ever using the school library and threw himself into monitoring the library’s contents.
There were so many parents out there, Friedman reasoned, who didn’t have time to thoroughly monitor their children’s media consumption like he did. Even if most of those parents might be fine with their kid reading the occasional racy book passage, some might not be.
“It’s not the kids that have a wicked dark sense of humor like I was,” he said, describing the child he pictures in his head when he files his challenges. “It’s for the sheltered little people who have parents that are so concerned with their souls that they don’t want them harmed.”
Friedman soon began reading school library books in his spare time, searching for objectionable content he could denounce, and scouring negative online reviews for more dirt on the books. He has turned the book challenge process into a science, filing flurries of official request forms — often with only one or two words of objection listed on them — which, under state law, must be considered by a formal review committee. He also has the ability to appeal any decision the committee makes, and usually does, if the decision doesn’t involve removing the book.
Recently, he says he landed a local job — but he has kept up the book challenges. “Employment has not slowed me,” he said. “I have the time to devote because I am a very motivated and determined person, and also because I don’t eat or sleep as I ought to.”
For the book challenges Friedman doesn’t author, he volunteers to serve on the committee that will decide their fates, as a parent representative. He then attends public board meetings to hammer home his objections in person; he went viral last year when he attempted to read aloud from a memoir by author Alice Sebold at one board meeting, as part of his justification for why he wanted it removed from the district.
As Friedman began reciting Sebold’s graphic accounting of a sexual assault, the board cut off his mic, warning him not to read “pornography” during a meeting being streamed to the public. “Hush your mouth and listen,” the school board attorney instructed him. This was hypocrisy, Friedman thought: If he can’t read a book aloud at a public board meeting because it’s pornographic, why should that same book be available in public school libraries?
Thanks in part to Friedman’s inspiration, reading objectionable book passages aloud at school board meetings has since become a tried-and-true tactic for activists who want books removed. Recent legislation in Florida even encourages such behavior by requiring boards to remove the book if they cut off such a reading for obscenity concerns.
The intensity of the efforts to ban books in Clay County has alarmed some educators there.
“One of the courses that I teach is on the Holocaust,” a district history teacher said during a school board meeting last year, speaking against the district’s mass book removals spurred on by Friedman. “Do I need to paint you a picture?”
A picture is exactly what Friedman didn’t like about the illustrated version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which was adapted by Ari Folman and David Polonsky and published in 2018 by the foundation that controls the diary’s copyright. In an image inspired by a passage in Frank’s original diary, she shares a brief memory of same-sex attraction, which was unacceptable to Friedman.
“The fact that little Anne Frank once had some lesbian thoughts that made their way into her diary, does that help a kid learn the horrors of Holocaust or inhumanity? No. So what is it helping the kid learn?” he asked. Employing a term, sometimes used as part of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, that describes adults training children to accept sexual abuse, he added, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s grooming.”
Friedman’s opposition to the book distinguishes him from Fishbein, who said she supports only “some” of Friedman’s challenges, such as one for the frequently challenged graphic novel “Gender Queer.” The Anne Frank adaptation is a different story: “We do not oppose the use of this book in schools,” she said. Friedman himself has taken to clarifying, in his challenges, that he is not acting on behalf of No Left Turn even as he continues to use an email address associated with the group.
Yet his campaign against “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation” has caught on. Since Friedman first pushed his district to review the book this past winter, another Florida district removed it outright after it was challenged by a Moms For Liberty member there. Last month, a school in Texas fired a teacher who reportedly read it aloud to her eighth-grade students.
Critics of Friedman’s movement say it builds on a history of censorship that has always boded ill for the Jews. Copies of Jewish texts have been burned by antisemitic regimes throughout history, including France in the 1200s and the Roman Inquisition in the 1500s. The Nazis led a campaign not only to burn Jewish books, but also to wipe out what they deemed “degenerate art” — which often meant, if not works by Jews, then modernist pieces the regime considered to be vulgar or not generally supportive of their aims.
“There are parallels with book burnings,” Aaron Herschel Shapiro, an instructor of Jewish American literature at Middle Tennessee State University, told JTA about the contemporary movement. “The rhetoric alone makes that clear. The books, and the ideas they contain, are framed as some sort of cultural contagion that must be purged. That’s a bit on the nose, no?”
The Association of Jewish Libraries has come out against the movement that Friedman represents. “Book bans result in the suppression of history and distortion of readers’ understanding of the world around them,” the group said in a statement last year.
Despite the fact that at least one Moms For Liberty chapter has quoted Hitler in its communications, Weiss says she sees her movement as actually safeguarding Jewish stories and students. She became involved in Moms for Liberty after her daughter was asked, on a quiz about the Octavia Butler novel “Kindred,” to compare slavery and the Holocaust; the correct answer was that slavery was “just as horrible over a much longer duration,” which Weiss said was “Holocaust-minimizing.” Still, she said, “Even my mother has made the claim that this organization is antisemitic.”
Some of the most prominent Jews in the book-banning movement reject any uncomfortable historical resonances. “If we are talking about removing ‘Gender Queer’ from the school, why does that not work out well for the Jews?” Fishbein said. “What does that have to do with Jews or not Jews?”
Friedman, too, rejects the criticism, which he said in an email is coming from “misinformed people that feel it’s a precursor to the next Krystallnacht,” referring to the pogrom that is considered the start of the Holocaust.
“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you, Andrew, represent your Jewish publication, the JTA, you might feel that everything on earth is about Jewishness,” he said. “The only thing Jewish about my efforts is that they seem to connect with our people’s passion for justice.”
Friedman is continuing his challenges at a full pace, and told the board at its September meeting that he would continue doing so until it established “a rubric and a guideline” for how to better deal with content he believes is “pornographic.” This month, he filed one for Antonio Iturbe’s young-adult Holocaust novel “The Librarian of Auschwitz.” The book is based on the true story of the Jewish Auschwitz survivor Dita Kraus, who as a teenager guarded a slim volume of smuggled books in the death camp’s children’s unit so that the kids would have something to read. Kraus is still alive today.
Friedman’s challenge to the book, which he shared with JTA, doesn’t mention Kraus’ quest to protect children’s books from Nazis. Instead, he quotes from sections describing nude, emaciated Auschwitz prisoners and Jewish corpses, passages which he believes are inappropriate for all age levels. A message to the board further articulating his objections suggests that his main issue with the book is that it mentions the Holocaust at all.
“Unsupervised forays into the horrors of the Holocaust can be traumatizing for children,” he writes. “They are almost certain to have some impact on a child. I wouldn’t necessarily expect this impact to be positive.” Elsewhere he repeats his familiar objections: “PROTECT CHILDREN,” he writes in all caps. “DAMAGED SOULS.”
Emily Knox, a University of Illinois professor who researches book challenges, told JTA the movement’s ambitions are inherently at odds with learning about the Holocaust.
“The issue with challengers is that they want books to be pure. And so what they will say is, ‘Why would someone put this terrible thing in a book?’” she said. “But it’s impossible to have a clean book on the Holocaust. That’s not something that exists, unless you decenter the Jewish experience in the Holocaust.”
New laws on the horizon would open the door to even more book challenges. Over the summer, Florida passed a new law that allows any county resident, not just parents, to challenge any book in the district. If even a single challenge claims a book contains sexual content, that book would have to be pulled immediately until a further review can be taken.
One book that Friedman personally says he doesn’t plan to challenge is a Holocaust work that has become a symbol of the broader book-ban movement. Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir “Maus,” which relays the experiences of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, last year was removed from a middle school lesson plan in Tennessee after the board objected to some of its illustrations, and has been on the chopping block in other districts in Missouri and Iowa. But just like with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Friedman has positive memories of reading the book as a teen.
“I absorbed it immediately. I thought it was fantastic,” Friedman recalled. “As far as graphic novels go, and history lessons at the same time, it’s probably one of the very best.”
Still, he said, he’s fine with local efforts to remove the book from schools — even if it comes at a cost to Jews.
“That’s local control,” he said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Even if their reasons are racist, even if they want that book gone because they don’t want any sympathy for Jews and they hate them, that’s local control.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bruce Friedman has filed more than 3,000 book challenges. In fact, he has filed hundreds, but maintains a master list of all book challenges filed across the country which totals more than 3,000.