April 2, 2006 (revised October 14, 2006)
From: Leonard Levy (parent)
To: Teachers and Administration at Davidson Middle School and the San Rafael School District
For the past few months I have been talking to a few other parents about whether "The Bronze Bow" is suitable subject matter for public school due to its religious content. I was initially surprised to see my daughter reading a book about Jesus in public school, so I made a point to read it myself and that only increased my reservations. The fact that I'm Jewish certainly affects my point of view and sensitivity, but I don't think it limits the significance of the concerns that follow.
Let me thank you in advance for taking the time to read all this. Its pretty long, but I felt it was necessary to flesh out the details and historical background to make my points clear.
I spent a lot of time researching these issues and asking questions of people far more knowledgeable than me. I don’t want to pass myself off as an expert on religion or biblical history and have no doubt there’s room for argument about much of what is suggested below. Also I want say that I think I’ve always been pretty open minded and curious about religion and spirituality (we do Chanukah and Christmas at home and my daughter grew up with Santa Claus), and I’m definitely not someone who would ever think of banning books.
To be honest, I liked "The Bronze Bow.” It's a great story, the historical background is fascinating though inaccurate, and the main character's conflicts are compelling. I have read some of Elizabeth George Speare’s other work and liked it very much
Ultimately though, I do think it promotes a religious perspective that isn't appropriate for public schools. While I sincerely credit the teachers at Davidson for attempting to teach this book from a "non religious" point of view, I don't think this is possible. In fact it actually makes the implicit messages of the book more insidious.
Because the historical issues from that period are complex and little known by most people including practicing Jews (who often don’t see these issues until they are pointed out), this book seems to have flown under the radar for some time. Though perhaps innocuous on the surface, I think it could create strong preconceptions about issues that will follow our kids throughout their lives.
My objections to “The Bronze Bow” are twofold:
1. It strongly promotes a Christian religious message that does not belong in the public schools. In a high school or college comparative religion course it might be fine - not in 7th grade Core.
2. From a Jewish point of view, the book presents a negative, inaccurate and arguably slanderous image of Jewish religion and society, and encourages the view that the teachings of Jesus were a great improvement.
In sum, I believe it clearly violates the “California Dept. of Education Criteria for Evaluating Instructional Materials in History-Social Science, Kindergarten Through Grade Eight (2003) “ (Category 1 Criteria # 10):
“Materials on religious subject matter remain neutral, do not advocate one religion over another, do not include simulation or role playing of religious ceremonies or beliefs, do not include derogatory language about a religion or use examples from sacred texts or other religious literature that are derogatory, accusatory or have instilled prejudice against other religions or those who believe in other religions.”
Likewise it also violates the principles behind the "Instructions to Publishers" (of textbooks) adopted by the California Board of Education March 8, 2006 which states:
"remove any references to any Jewish role in the crucifixion of Jesus."
Those instructions also specifically removed passages from one text because:
“This misrepresents Jewish teachings and follows the outdated replacement theology idea that Judaism is a religion of law, but Christianity is a religion of love.”
I do not believe that calling attention to these violation of religious neutrality can be equated with “book banning.”
Let's start with the first objection:
Placing Jesus Christ as a central character in any historical novel has built in dilemmas, especially one aimed at children. There is no getting around the fact that Jesus cannot simply be a fictional creation. Yet neither can he be rooted in history, since everything we know about him comes solely from religious teaching. Do you present him as a man (the safest choice), or the personification of God with miraculous powers? Do you take the traditional Gospels literally or place your portrayal in line with modern scholarship.? Whatever choice you make you are in danger of offending someone's deeply held beliefs. This book did not make the safe choice.
Although Jesus is not the direct subject of the Bronze Bow, is not called the "Son of God" or “The Messiah” directly (he is by a main character), and nothing is said about resurrection, his presence dominates the novel with overwhelming charisma, magnetism and healing powers that can only seem divinely inspired. Furthermore he performs miracles frequently. I'm a filmmaker by profession. When I read the Bronze Bow I saw halos of light around him every time he appeared, a choir of inspirational voices or strings in the background, and beatific smiles on the faces of everyone he encounters.
The Bronze Bow is a rich book that operates on many levels. It’s a coming of age story, an exciting historical tale, a psychological and moral drama, a bit of a love story, and a religious fable. If the religious element was merely sub-plot and background I would have no problem with it, but in my reading it’s the organizing principle of the whole book. Moreover this is proudly affirmed by the author in her Newberry acceptance speech.
The teachers at Davidson (’05 -’06) and the Principal, Ed Colucci have based their defense of the book on the opposite view that Jesus is not really central to the story and that Daniel learns love and tolerance from his friends and experiences, not primarily from Jesus.
The text I believe is very clear. Far from a minor character it seems to me that the entire plot of "The Bronze Bow" turns around the teachings and presence of Jesus. Daniel’s moral dilemma (whether to continue on a path of violence, anger and revenge or turn toward compassion and love) begins when he meets Jesus. Those ideas of love and compassion, though eloquently expressed are always and nearly only associated with Jesus. The events of Jesus’ life from the Gospels are interwoven so deeply throughout the narrative that showcasing them could easily seem like the real purpose of the book.
Though there are other sub-plots that reinforce the "truth" of Jesus' message (his sister's relationship with a Roman soldier, Rosh’s violence and selfishness, etc) it is Jesus' overwhelming presence that haunts Daniel more and more throughout the novel driving the central dramatic tension. None of the other plot lines are this powerful. It culminates in the very last pages (pp. 238-253.)
From the point Daniel turns his back on Jesus (for rejecting military action against the Romans) the novel builds to a climax with 2 parallel plots. His sister suddenly gets weaker and weaker (as a result of Daniel’s anger), while at the same time Daniel's confusion about rejecting Jesus looms larger and larger in his mind. Far from finding his own way toward love and tolerance however, right up to the very last moments of the book, Daniel still threatens to kill a Roman soldier if he so much as speaks to his sister (p.251).
Moments later on the very same page, with his sister near death and Daniel in crisis, Jesus suddenly appears at the door.
“He saw only that luminous figure. Jesus had come! He struggled to believe. Jesus had come to his house! He wanted to cry out to him, to go down on his knees”
Yet Daniel is still torn emotionally - unable to choose between the words of King David (his own tradition - which here represents war) and the power of love represented by Jesus. Unable to rationally decide, he remembers Simon's words:
"…We have to choose not knowing.
To know Jesus would be enough.
Almost with the thought the terrible weight was gone. In its place a strength and sureness, a peace he had never imagined, flowed around him and into his mind and heart."
Within moments, Jesus miraculously cures his dying sister, Daniel invites the Roman soldier into his house and we have a happy ending on the next page. I cannot read this as anything but a thoroughly religious message wherein the hero finds salvation in accepting Jesus. That very phrase”to know Jesus” is widely used in religious literature to refer to a personal relationship with Jesus as saviour.
When Elizabeth George Speare’s Newberry acceptance speech was recently brought to my attention, I was stunned to see how perfectly it confirmed my reading of the book.
“I was teaching a Sunday School class at the time, and I longed to lift the personality of Jesus off the flat and lifeless pages of our textbook…I longed to have them see that the preacher who walked the hills of Galilee was not a mythical figure, but a compelling and dynamic leader, a hero to whom a boy in any age would gladly offer all his loyalty.”
Indeed she was inspired while at church by the music of the service.
“The climax and final chapter of my new story began to play itself out so compellingly that I was aware of nothing else. From that moment on I knew where I was going… that final chapter, though it was many times rewritten, remained essentially intact just as I first saw it that morning.
That final chapter of course is when her hero accepts Jesus, but at this point the character of “Daniel” hadn’t even been conceived yet (originally it was to be a girl.) Ms. Speare goes on to explain in detail how she went about creating her protagonist and building a story that could lead to her predetermined finale.
Ultimately Ms. Speare felt frustrated by her inability to convey the full majesty and mystery of Jesus.
“his teachings still left me facing a mystery…Yet he stands like a mountain peak, which however high we climb, looms forever higher, rising in the mist, its full dimension hidden from sight… The sum of my search is contained in one line… ‘We are forced to choose not knowing.’.”
From the author’s own words it is clear that Daniel’s story in “The Bronze Bow” serves to reinforce the story of Jesus, not the other way around. It is not surprising that any quick search on the web will reveal that it is widely used in Christian schools and recommended as a way to introduce your child to Jesus.
Apparently "The Bronze Bow” was chosen for being a historical novel to parallel the study of ancient Roman history in class. However these classes did not read similar books about other traditions, and the history provided in the book itself quite slim. There is some good background about the Roman occupation of Judea, but as we’ll see below, the information about Jewish belief and practice falls somewhere between inaccurate and slanderous.
Since there were no contemporary accounts of Jesus, much of this book is based not on history but the religious teachings of the Gospels. I would have the same objection to public schools using a novel purportedly about ancient Egypt that centered around Moses, Pharaoh, and the Jewish slaves - great story, but no historical grounding whatsoever.
I recogniize that the teachers in San Rafael are not intentionally teaching this as a religious book. In fact they seem to be bending over backwards to not do that. I genuinely appreciate their efforts, however by avoiding the obvious they make its underlying messages even more powerful and implicitly endorse the book’s view of reality. I know of at least two children who came home confused, telling their parents they read in school that Jesus was the “Son of God.”
I'm even more concerned about my second objection. (This will require a bit of historical background):
For a number of reasons "The Bronze Bow" may not seem objectionable to someone who does not know much about Jewish tradition and history (including many Jews). After all on the surface it is about Jewish kids and Jewish experience and history. Jesus is presented as a Jew as are his followers, and the experience of Roman subjugation is handled with sympathy. There is no overt anti-Semitism in "The Bronze Bow", but the implicit messages and assumptions are very negative.
The teachers and the Principal at Davidson have defended teaching about the life of Jesus (as told through the Gospels) as an important part of history since Christianity was central to European history for the next 2000 years. I have no quarrel with this idea in theory, but in practice it is fraught with serious problems that they don’t acknowledge.
While I’m no New Testament expert, any quick search on the web will reveal that many modern scholars believe that the 4 traditional Gospels and other early Christian writings betray a conscious effort to distance the new Christian movement from its Jewish roots and to place Jesus more in opposition to Jewish clerics than the Roman authorities. They were written at a time when Christians (who originally had been a sect within the Jewish community) were clashing with Jewish congregations. Most of their converts were coming from among the Romans and other non-Jews. Moreover Rome had just finished a violent, costly and bloody series of wars that culminated in the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of many Jews from Palestine. Many scholars for example consider the Gospel’s story that the Rabbis delivered Jesus to a sympathetic Pontius Pilate who didn’t want to kill him as highly unlikely. Pilate had an extremely violent and bloodthirsty reputation in contemporary accounts and crucifixion was forbidden by Jewish law because it was torture.
The early Christian church also sought to show that Judaism had degenerated as a religion and was no longer relevant after Jesus. It depicted Judaism as a religion of lifeless “Laws” (that were onerous to the poor in particular) run by a clergy that was wealthy and removed from the people. It particularly told Jewish followers of Jesus that they no longer needed to follow the old Jewish commandments. The term “Triumphalist” Christianity is often used to describe this negative view of Judaism and the idea that Christianity was a great improvement.
Though ostensibly an "historical novel” about Jewish life during the Roman occupation, the view of Judaism and what it offered Jews ethically & morally in “The Bronze Bow” are strictly from a Christian “triumphalist” point of view and are strikingly inaccurate. Moreover the book goes out of its way to draw this portrait. Many of the passages I object to most could be excised with no harm to the story of Daniel whatsoever. I would argue they are there for religious reasons only.
My guess is it wouldn't be written as a mainline book for children today and probably exemplifies what the American Library Association meant in its 1997 conference when it said of some early Newberry winners that "the attitudes are woefully out of date". Indeed it was written prior to a great deal of re-thinking attitudes toward Judaism among both the Catholic and Protestant faiths.
I'm especially concerned because issues surrounding the birth of Christianity and its relationship to Judaism cut deeply into the identities of kids from both traditions. It is fascinating and influential history, but very complex and surrounded by strong beliefs and conflicting interpretations. For Jews in particular, accusations around why they did not follow Jesus, or whether they killed Jesus have led to enormous amounts of suffering and bloodshed, and are the central tenet behind historical anti-semitism. Indeed “Passion Plays” (depicting the last days of Jesus) were often the occasion for violent attacks upon Jewish communities throughout the middle ages.
Even in contemporary Northern California, surely one of the most tolerant places on earth, young Jewish adults will inevitably find themselves called upon to defend their "rejection" of Jesus, and warned they are "going to hell" because of it. In more conservative communities, this book would be even more troubling.
I'm going to number my specific concerns for the sake of clarity:
1. Let's begin with the overall observation that the Jewish world that these children grow up in seems to offer absolutely no moral or ethical values whatsoever. It is a cold mean world in which orphaned children are sold to vicious taskmasters. Rabbis are rich, haughty and removed from the common people. Religion is a burden, especially for the poor. There are absolutely no adult role models other than Jesus and his followers. The only moral choice seems to be - follow a path of hate, anger and violence or follow the path of Jesus.
In general there is just enough historical veracity to give the appearance of balance, only making the errors even more dangerous. The view of Jewish religion in particular is filled with inaccuracies (all negative) that in some cases veer into outright slander. This all only reinforces my feeling that “The Bronze Bow “ is primarily a sectarian religious book.
2. One of the most egregious passage for me was on p.55:
"He saw four elders of the Pharisees, the phylacteries bound to their proud foreheads, walking with great care that their tasseled robes did not brush the passers-by, lest the merest touch might make them unclean.
Where do we begin with this passage? "Phylacteries" are small boxes holding central prayers that are still used for morning prayers by orthodox Jews. Placing them on “proud foreheads” is extremely offensive to me. The "tasseled robes" that sound decorative and ostentatious were and remain a religious obligation with deep meaning. This is the "tallit" that Jews today wear in Synagogue, and under which I was married. The image of Pharisees as proud and disdainful of the poor is downright slander.
I had to research this myself, as popular Jewish history today doesn't bother to discuss the "Pharisees” as a group. This is one reason I think this book has flown under the radar for so long. What I learned was that the Pharisees were tremendously important to Jewish history and were the ancestors of modern Judaism. There were 2 schools of Pharisaic thought at the time, that of “Rabbi Shammai” and of "Rabbi Hillel". Hillel’s teachings were already well on the way to becoming the dominant strain in Jewish practice.
Great reformers, the "Hillel" school are credited with bringing the religion from the central temples into everyday life. They were by and large working class themselves and often poor. Commonly a Pharisaic Rabbi might have made his living as a craftsman (such as a carpenter.) They made a point of democratizing the religion, making it OK for the poor to not follow commandments (rules) if they were onerous. They were very popular among the masses, promulgated the "golden rule" as the essence of the teaching, as well as popularizing the idea of a messiah and an afterlife.
In Sunday school, Jewish kids are always taught the story that when a gadfly asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel replied "Whatever is hateful to yourself, do not do onto others. That is the whole of the law, everything else is commentary." This teaching of the golden rule predates Jesus by about 20 years. There isn’t a hint of Hillel’s Pharisaaic Judaism in “The Bronze Bow” though it would have been very popular at the time.
Some scholars believe Jesus was a Pharisee in the "Hillel" tradition, though the Gospels put them in opposition. One of the great ironies of religious history is that one of the definitions of the word "pharisee" in Webster’s Dictionary is "liar". No doubt the Gospels were caricaturing the “Shammai” school that was indeed extremely concerned with ritual purity. However they would have been but one element in a time of great religious diversity and ferment.
3. Rabbis in general are depicted negatively in this book as rich, aligned with authorities and morally bankrupt. (Actually, the term Rabbi” didn’t even exist at this tim , but we’ll ignore that for simplicity.) The only Rabbi we meet (Joel's father) is wealthy, looks down on Daniel’s obvious poverty and is generally unsympathetic. His son Joel, the rabbinical student, becomes obsessed by Jesus. What about his own tradition, does it offer nothing?
The teachers and Principal at Davidson have said they thought Joel’s father was presented sympathetically. I’m not sure what book they were reading. Though later in the book he does thank Daniel for saving his son’s life and is briefly depicted more positively, his first appearance paints a decidely unpleasant portrait:
“He gazed with distaste at Daniel’s unlawful garment [it was dirty and poor].
A camel would be as welcome Daniel thought. The man will have to purify his whole house when I leave!”
At a dinner surrounded by “hovering slaves” and expensive silverware, Daniel’s hunger causes him to snatch a bit of food and wine before the traditional hand-washing and prayers.
He noticed that the others were holding theirs untouched…He saw Hezron’s [the Rabbi] lips flatten together. Curse their finicky rules. Had they never felt the knawing of an empty stomach.?”
Personally, I find the phrase “curse their finicky rules” in reference to ancient Jewish traditions enormously offensive.
Even the "Good Samaritan" story (p.162) plays a similar role here. Two Rabbis pass by a sick man but only a Samaritan (Jews & Samaritans disliked each other intensely at the time) helps him. This story makes perfect sense for a Jew (Jesus) to tell others Jews as a self-criticism, but in the context of this book it becomes yet another criticism of the Jewish clergy.
Daniel rails, "Where were the Rabbi's then" referring to his own brutal indentured servitude. Yet Jewish law as far back as the Bible had some of the world’s first rules protecting slaves and indentured servants from cruel treatment. In particular if a Jewish indentured servant ran away from a cruel master it was illegal to return him. We don't know how widely this rule was observed, but it certainly was known, and it never appears in "The Bronze Bow". In fact this violation of Jewish law is the basis of the entire plot of “The Bronze Bow.”
4. One of the previous references brings up another consistent and erroneous theme in "The Bronze Bow". The idea that a Rabbi would be polluted by contact with an "unclean" person is completely alien to Jewish thought. On page 105, Joel says of Jesus’ teaching the poor.
"How can he call those people children of God?" he questioned. They have never heard of the Law. They are unclean from the moment they are born.
This is a distasteful and complete misreading of Jewish teaching that probably derives from misunderstanding Jewish commandments. The concept of original sin is likewise alien to Judaism.
5. Jewish law also get brutally skewered in “The Bronze Bow” with the recurring theme in which "cleanliness" rules are depicted as onerous to the poor and the word "Law" is often capitalized with negative connotations. This is consistent with a "triumphalist" Christian view that Judaism had degenerated into pointless rules and commandments, which Christianity superceded.
Joel’s father expresses this perfectly at the same dinner we visited earlier:
“Mark my words boy. Israel has one great strength, mightier than all the power of Rome. It is the Law, given to Moses and our fathers. When the last Roman emperor has vanished from the earth, the Law will still endure. It is to the Law that our loyalty must be devoted.”
To me this seems a perversion of Jewish teaching that I don’t think any Jew would recognize. Perhaps it comes from a mistranslation of the hebrew word “Torah which refers to the first 5 books of the Bible. “Teaching” might be better. I have only heard such references to “the Law” from Christian ministers talking about historical Judaism. Compare it to the words of Rabbi Hillel above. Most Jews would probably complete that sentence “Israel’s great strength has always been the belief in one God,” but you won’t find a word about that in this book. Furthermore the great strength of Jewish tradition (even in the first century ) has always been that “Laws” were in fact never fixed but reinterpreted (and argued about) by each generation to adapt to changing circumstances. (One of those rules probably more than a thousand year old by then, was to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.)
Washing hands before eating (one of the Jewish commandments at the time) is singled out by this book and repeatedly depicted as a burden upon the poor. On page 99, with Jesus’ approval Joel & his sister learn that they don't need to wash hands anymore. By p.177, Thacia says, " Joel and I have broken so many laws lately that one more wouldn't matter." On page 88 Daniel muses:
But the Law was for the wealthy, for the scholars, not for the poor. By now he had broken so many points of the Law that he was beyond all redemption. What matter if he broke one more?
Ultimately the book makes us accomplices in disrespecting and demeaning Jewish tradition. Religious Jews don't see these commandments as onerous "laws", but as opportunities for uniting with their spiritual impulses. It's a profound part of Jewish life and a very deep teaching. It has survived thousands of years, and mostly been nurtured by poverty. Again this feels downright slanderous to me.
On p.177 quoted above, Thacia goes on to say: "Jesus has made me see that we don't need to wait for God to care for us. He does that now.” Did God not care for people in Jewish teaching?
6. OK, lets go on to Rosh and the Resistance.
There were many Jewish resistance movements under the Romans. Rosh and his followers are probably based on one of the most violent and self-serving of those groups. But there were many others that were more sympathetic and very popular. By deliberately choosing such a distasteful group, I believe the author has not only distorted history, but created an unbalanced moral choice.
Why were the Jews so opposed to the Romans? No suggestion here that it might have to do with their faith. Many cultures were conquered by the Romans, but only the Jews fought them bitterly and repeatedly even to the point of mass suicide at Masada. This wasn't because they were a bitter angry culture, or because they opposed Roman taxes, but because the Romans interfered with and profaned their religious practices, putting inciteful Roman statues in the temples. By and large few Jews actually converted to Christianity, and many were willing to die for their faith. It must have had something going for it.
Jews are justifiably proud of their resistance to the Romans. Some of their most famous religious teachers (such as Rabbi Akiba – a Pharisee) were deeply involved in that fight and died horrible deaths as a result. (Akiba was burned and skewered alive). This book demeans that history by painting it in the most unflattering light imaginable, yet one thoroughly consistent with its general themes.
In the final scene when Daniel is about to accept Jesus, the opposing view he battles with emotionally are expressed in "… the words of David [i.e. King David from the Bible] that had always strengthened him. He trains my hands for war.“ This is one of the few direct references to Jewish history or teaching in the whole book – “He trains my hands for war.”
Actually this book could be read as a critique of active political resistance vs. apolitical religious non-violence. Imagine reading it in the context of WWII, the American Revolution, or Central America and "liberation theology.” Jewish activists often cite Rabbi Akiba’s stand against the Romans as a religious model for political action, and many scholars think the historical Jesus may was crucified because the Romans percieved him as a political threat whether he was or not. I’m surprised the teachers never followed this up.
By not ever presenting a genuine alternative to Jesus, Daniel is really given a straw choice. That is one of the greatest weaknesses of the book in my view.
7. It’s no surprise that when High Holy Days are mentioned near the end of the book no advantage is taken of their deep meaning. This could have been a great place for Daniel & his friend to look inward and ponder where they are going in life. That’s what High Holy Days are about for Jews, but none of our protagonists (including the Rabbi’s children) show any interest in it at all. In fact no one in the story does. The attitude of the author even sounds patronizing:
“Pious Jews moved with dignity toward the synagogue, looking with disdain on the frivolous folk who took the occasion for an idle holiday. Voices and laughter sounded across the housetops.”
This is simply one more example of the fact that Ms. Speare shows not even the slightest curiosity about real Jewish beliefs and practices. She is only interested in that which she can disparage. Indeed pious Jews seem to always look with disdain at ordinary folk in this book.
8. The most disturbing moment in “The Bronze Bow” is unquestionably on p.219 when the children decide that they need to warn Jesus that the Rabbis are jealous of him and want to have him killed. (By the way related to this is an earlier passage that describes how Jesus was stoned and driven from Nazareth by the Jews there.)
“I mean the elders of the synagogue. The rabbis and the scribes, they can't understand him. They're furious at the things he says and does. He is too free with the Law. ...Some even say he is in league with the devil. [Incidentally there was no Jewish concept of “the devil”]... Some of them hate him so much - I think they would kill him if they could..."
This places the blame for Jesus death squarely on the Jews, not the Romans. It’s a charge that has directly led to pogroms and massacres for thousands of years. I cannot overestimate the number of Jews murdered by this claim, nor how seriously the Jewish community takes this issue.
What in the world is this doing in a public school book?
Moreover it clearly violates the “Instructions to Publishers” mentioned earlier.
The teachers and Mr. Colucci however don’t seem to get the gravity of this issue for Jews. In fact they seem to consider this as something akin to historical fact since it is part of the Gospels’ story. Yet it is extremely controversial for modern scholars and was at the heart of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's film "The Passion..." a few years ago.
I remember clearly in fifth or sixth grade while watching a documentary about the Holocaust, my friend leaning over and whispering, “Hey, why did you guys kill Jesus?” Just a few months ago my seventh grade nephew in San Francisco was stunned by friends who asked him why the Jews killed Jesus and whether it was true that they drank Christian blood at Passover!
9. In the interest of clarity I’m not going to go into the book’s treatment of the mute black slave “Samson.” However, there is no doubt that many will find that racially offensive as well, and at the least it’s another example of how the book’s attitudes are dated.
I find it revealing that Mr. Colucci (the Principal) mentioned that the treatment of this character jumped out at him as offensive, while the depiction of Judaism didn’t. I would argue that without years of “sensitivity training” in racial issues this character too might have seemed innocuous, in a manner similar to how some will look at our arguments above. These issues are simply not on most people’s radar. “What’s the big deal, it’s just a story!”
No doubt there were problems in Jewish society at that time - corruption in the clergy, difficulties for the poor, a need for religious and social reform, etc. There always are. It was certainly an extremely difficult and chaotic period and no doubt the new Christian movement was a meaningful choice for many. I don’t want to quarrel with the Gospels, Christian views of history or certainly the teachings of Jesus which are beautiful. I’m not competent and I suspect the historical information is scant anyway. The problem with this book is with its consistently negative and erroneous portrayal. It makes a mockery of the notion of “religious neutrality.”
I considered offering to discuss some of these issues in my daughter’s class. However, I soon realized that after first correcting the inaccuracies and negative portrayals of Jewish culture, I would inevitably have to question some Christian teaching and the Gospels in particular. In my opinion this just doesn’t belong in a seventh grade public school. Furthermore these issues require far more background than I or the vast majority of 7th grade teachers could hope to bring to any discussion.
I know that this book has been very popular with many parents and the teachers say they have never had a complaint before. My response is that most people are no more aware of these issues than the teachers were. A number of parents who've read my letter have remarked "Oh my god, if I had realized all this when my child was in that class I would have complained."
Keep in mind that Jews in general don’t want to stand out. I have met Jewish parents who were upset with this book but never said anything to their teachers. Their kids will be even more reluctant. My daughter begged me not to talk to her class about this and she would not honestly answer a class question about how Jesus performed miracles for fear of offending what she probably mistakenly feared could be her teachers religious convictions.
In conclusion I’ll repeat what I said at the outset - though it may seem innocuous, a book like this is harmful to our students, not only by teaching them inaccurate history, but by creating underlying preconceptions and biases that may follow them throughout their lives.
- For Jewish kids it is especially weird since it ostensibly describes their history, but does it from a completely different and historically antagonistic view. Its like the book is stealing their identity. It could easily produce feelings of alienation from their teachers and their school.
- For kids with Christian or various other backgrounds, I think it may create or reinforce a particularly toxic view of Jewish culture at the time of Christ, and by extension Judaism in general.
- For all kids, it is a strong dose of Christian proselytizing that simply doesn’t belong in a public school.