Even before Joanna Sargent had read “The Fixer,” she knew about it.
A middle-school librarian in South Carolina, Sargent first heard of Bernard Malamud’s novel about antisemitism during her professional training. Budding librarians often study Island Trees School District v. Pico, the only US Supreme Court case to address the holdings of school libraries. The 1982 case pitted a high school student against his school board, which had removed several books from the school library — among them “The Fixer.”
Last year, Sargent felt she was seeing history repeating itself when the book showed up on her own district’s list of challenged materials and was temporarily removed from library shelves. “The Fixer” was one of 96 books challenged by a local parent affiliated with the conservative activist group Moms For Liberty and a local business owner who doesn’t have a child in the district.
When the Beaufort County School District convened a committee to review the challenged books and appointed Sargent to join it, she finally got a chance to read “The Fixer” herself.
“I was blown away,” Sargent recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The novel, based on the real-life case of Mendel Beilis, a Jewish day laborer in Kyiv accused of murdering Christian children to make matzah in 1913, reminded her of the Biblical story of Job. “I was just like, ‘Oh, this poor man! Is anything going to go right for him?’”
Sargent and the six other members of the review committee got together to discuss the book and several others that had been challenged as inappropriate for students. The experience, she said, didn’t feel like a politically charged debate on censorship. Instead, it felt like a book club.
“We were all fascinated and captivated by the book,” Sargent said of the committee’s reaction. “It was about a man who had so many things going on for him, and the antisemitism was just so heartbreaking to me. I think I was in tears reading that book. I was just like, ‘How can we not let this voice be heard?’”
Sargent’s experience, along with the notes recorded by her fellow committee members and obtained by JTA, sheds light on an oft-unseen battlefield of the culture war over books currently playing out in states and school districts around the country. Parents’ challenges against books tend to make headlines, and so do districts’ decisions to ban books in response — but there’s frequently a review process behind closed doors that does not. That process, which in many districts requires staff and others to read books their own challengers may not have read, can be key to whether children continue to have access to contested literature.
The battle against book bans
In Beaufort County, the school district convened a rotating committee of seven people to review the challenged books, making their way through about seven a month starting with titles used in classroom instruction. For each book, committee members had to complete a checklist with their assessment of the book’s quality and content, its value in an educational setting, how thoroughly it avoids “pervasive vulgarity” and, in an echo of language frequently used by book challengers, its “appropriateness.”
The district signaled from early on that it was not very sympathetic to the charges leveled by a handful of parents that it was making explicit and inappropriate books available to children. A district spokeswoman said the books were removed from public access, despite not being contested according to the district’s regular process, only because of concerns about the safety of educators and officials in a heated environment. Over the course of the school year, the committee had returned all but four of the titles it reviewed to school library shelves.
When it came time to review “The Fixer,” Sargent was tapped alongside three other district employees, including a middle-school language arts teacher; a parent; a member of a school improvement council and a “community member.” The committee is meant to represent different constituencies in the district community, according to the district’s own guidelines for dealing with book challenges.
None of the members, to Sargent’s knowledge, were Jewish; the district, which has relatively few Jewish students, said it does not always achieve representation from the groups whose stories are being contested.
“The district could have done a better job with that,” Sargent said. “As librarians, we want to try to make our libraries inclusive and diverse.”
A review of the committee’s notes on the novel, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that every member endorsed keeping the book available in schools, with one participant specifying it should only be accessible at the high school level. (The book had previously only been stocked in high schools, according to Sargent, who estimated it had been a part of the school library’s collection for more than 25 years without any controversy.)
In their notes, the committee members said they thought “The Fixer” had the power to offer students a valuable perspective on bigotry — and on Judaism.
“History of the time period and persecution of Jews is educationally significant,” one reviewer wrote.
“Something I really like about ‘The Fixer’ is that it introduces an education of Judaism to the reader,” another reviewer noted. Despite saying that they personally “don’t think it holds up as a timeless novel of literary quality,” the reviewer said the book “helps to expand the world of many Lowcountry students,” referring to the coastal region of the state where the district is located.
Another reviewer included a list of vocabulary in the book that could be of educational value, including terms like “Torah,” “pogrom,” “shtetl” and “goyim.”
A few panelists took things a step further, declaring that the story, about the persecution of Yakov Bok by antisemitic Russians, had echoes in the book’s very placement on the banned list.
“The same individuals banning these books follow the views of the Tsarist persecutors in this novel,” one wrote.
Another alluded to the review of “The Fixer” on BookLooks, a ratings site started by a former Moms For Liberty member cited by the local parent who challenged the books. BookLooks gave the novel a “minor restricted” rating in part because of the use of an antisemitic slur directed at the Jewish protagonist.
The site’s administrator told JTA the rating was not meant to encourage schools to remove the book altogether.
“Banning any book because of the term ‘Jew noses’ is doing exactly what the antagonists in the novel are doing,” the reviewer wrote.
The committee’s final decision was unanimous: The book should be returned to shelves.
The ruling drew at least one formal appeal: from Mike Covert, a former Republican county council member who frequently attacks the school board on a conservative internet stream. Covert, a local business owner whose children no longer attend school in the district, worked with Ivie Szalai, the parent affiliated with Moms For Liberty, to file nearly identical challenges within minutes of each other last year. Covert added one more book, bringing the total of challenges to 97. He has appealed the review committee’s rulings regularly, without success.
In the appeal form, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, Covert referenced “The Fixer” by name and wrote that it and the other six books the committee returned to shelves during its most recent session are “lewd and vulgar. Period.” On recent video streams, Covert has taken his rhetoric a step further, telling his followers that “these books have no education value to anyone under the age of 18,” and declaring, “For those that think it is perfectly OK for your kid to read that s–t — and that’s all it is — there is something seriously wrong with you.”
Reached by phone, Covert told JTA he had read “The Fixer” — unlike Szalai, who said she had not read the books she challenged. He said the book had landed on his and Szalai’s radar because it was featured on conservative-run websites listing objectionable texts. He said he had appealed the board’s decision to restore it to shelves because he believed “it would be challenging my credibility if I didn’t.”
Covert also said he didn’t know the book was based on a true story or that it described a real episode of antisemitism in Russian history. His objections, he said, had largely been based on the incorrect idea that it was “completely fictional.”
“I like to think of myself as a pretty learned individual, and if somebody had said, ‘Would you bet that this was real?’ I would have taken that bet and said, ‘No, of course not,’” Covert said. “I would have had a different opinion right off the bat knowing that it’s true.”
Covert allowed that older grades could get some use out of “The Fixer” but also echoed the thinking of the Island Trees school board in 1982 in suggesting that reading the book could encourage antisemitism, rather than educate about it.
“The last thing we need is more kids going out there thinking, ‘Well, you know, maybe I should go shoot up a synagogue,’” he said. “Let them be kids. Let them mature physically as well as mentally, and then understand why were the Jews persecuted so disgustingly by the Russians. I mean, what was the reason? This book doesn’t go into the reason.”
At the same time, Covert said he could understand why Jews would be concerned with the specter of Jewish books being removed from schools. In addition to “The Fixer,” other books with Jewish content that have been challenged multiple times in various places include Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and a new graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.
“If I was you all, I would be on guard as well,” Covert said. “Anne Frank and the whole litany of material with that is absolutely, completely educational, in my opinion.”
Other than Covert’s appeal, the review committee’s restoration of “The Fixer” to the Beaufort County School District hasn’t yet elicited any particular response, Sargent said. The committee still has dozens of titles to wade through, under different configurations. Having rotated off, Sargent has her own thoughts about the sort of people who bothered to challenge the novel nearly 60 years after its publication.
“I don’t think they’re seeing the significance of them,” she said of the parents who challenged “The Fixer” and others in the first place. “It just seems like, ‘Jump on the bandwagon, and here’s a list of books. Let’s just try to get all of these out of as many places as we can.’”