December 29, 2023

A Little Piece of Ground

Dov Ben-Shimon Federation CEO

During these difficult days in Israel, as we confront a tremendous surge in antisemitism in our own communities, it’s not often we have good news to report.

Today we do.

After over a year of intense lobbying efforts on the part of our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), I’m pleased to let you know that a deeply troubling and prejudicial book which had been assigned to sixth graders in the Newark Public School system for the last year, has just been pulled from 200 classrooms across the city.

It is a rare event for us to weigh in on curriculum issues, much less try to get a book removed from classroom study. In this current climate where libraries and school districts across the country have been banning books, we knew that to take this on would risk creating perceptions of inappropriate interference.

But the stakes were too high for us to ignore this one.

That’s because the book – A Little Piece of Ground – told the story of a young Palestinian boy under Israel occupation from a wholly one-sided position. Denied access to his beloved soccer field, forced to watch his father humiliated by Israeli soldiers, the story promotes the view that all Israelis are bad and all Palestinians are good. The wars of 1948 and 1967 are noted with no mention of the key cause; namely, Arab rejectionism and violent aggression towards Israel. Nor is there any mention of the hundreds of Palestinian terrorist attacks over the years, and the slaughtering of Israeli men, women and children.

For the 12-year-old child who was assigned this book in the schools’ sixth grade language arts curriculum, there was no conclusion they could possibly reach except that Israel is the aggressor, and the Palestinians are the victims. We felt this story would ultimately affect Newark students’ understanding of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and lead to negative perceptions of Jews and Israelis.

I am deeply proud of JCRC Director Linda Scherzer, immediate past chair Zev Scherl, and current chair Jody Hurwitz Caplan, for the meetings they held with Newark Board of Ed members, school officials, legal advisors in the governors office and the City of Newark, among others, explaining why the book either needed to be removed, replaced or balanced with a story told by an Israel child.

Throughout the year, as our JCRC team tried to make the case with educators and civic leaders they were often met with closed doors, unreturned phone calls and outright hostility. It is a credit to this team that they never gave up, and worked diligently and respectfully to be heard. Thanks to the help of lay leaders and major donors who had deep connections within the City of Newark, the arguments were amplified, ultimately leading to a successful outcome. For their efforts and that of the entire JCRC team, I am deeply grateful.