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‘Maus,’ Nazi parallels and a Shylock reference make appearances at Senate hearing on book bans

(JTA) – Nazi book burnings, antisemitic attacks on high school students and Shylock were all invoked during a Senate hearing on school book bans Tuesday morning. 

The hearing brought to Capitol Hill the debate over how much control parents should have over what kinds of books their children can access in their school and public libraries — and whether it constitutes a “ban” when a book is removed because of their activism.

The hearing comes as a national movement of “parents’ rights” groups, stoked in some cases by Republican lawmakers, have brought challenges against thousands of books in school libraries, saying that they are not appropriate for children. The vast majority of the challenged books deal with topics of race, gender and sexuality; Jewish books have also been ensnared, with the Holocaust-themed “Maus” and an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary among the highest-profile book removals.

“Extremists continue to fight popular graphic novels like ‘Maus’ and other books,” Illinois Democratic Dick Durbin, the judiciary committee chair, said during his opening remarks. Art Spiegelman’s comic-book memoir about his parents’ survival of the Holocaust was the first book named at the hearing, closely followed by texts including Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Limiting access to a book about antisemitism or racism does not protect students from the actual history or the reality that hate still exists,” Durbin said, before introducing Illinois’ Democratic secretary of state as a witness. Illinois recently passed a law aimed at curbing book bansIt would revoke state funding to libraries that remove books for partisan or ideological reasons.

An opening video at the hearing produced by Senate Democrats also emphasized the widely publicized case of a Tennessee district that removed “Maus” from its middle school curriculum, and featured a quote from Spiegelman. “Maus” has also been removed or nearly removed from additional districts in Missouri, Iowa and elsewhere. 

One of the Democratic majority’s witnesses on the panel was a Jewish college student and book-access activist named Cameron Samuels. Samuels, who is nonbinary and uses they/their pronouns, described how a challenge to “Maus” at their Katy, Texas, high school felt like an attack on their Jewish identity.

“When Katy targeted Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus,’ I could not fathom how cartoon mice walking shamefully naked towards the gas chambers were considered sexual by the book’s challengers,” Samuels, a Brandeis University undergraduate who has received a Teen Tikkun Olam award from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, told the panel. 

“My ancestors fled religious persecution in Eurasia. I faced too many antisemitic remarks in school to remember,” Samuels continued. “Classmates told me the Holocaust did not exist. Many could not name a Jewish person so they learned about Judaism through media representation, often dominated by stereotypes. Books like ‘Maus’ teach accurate reflections of Jewish identity. 

“If a friend knew the real extent of the Holocaust,” Samuels continued, “maybe they would have thought twice before spraying cologne in my face, saying he was ‘gassing the Jew.’”

Durbin and Samuels further invoked the book-burning activities of Nazi Germany in their objections to parental challenges. But conservatives at the hearing, in addition to disputing the definition of “book ban,” also fought the Nazi comparison.

“My public school did not carry ‘Mein Kampf.’ Was it banned? I don’t know,” Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who was a witness at the hearing, testified, referring to Hitler’s manifesto. “I’ve read a few books about this era since, and I’ve so far missed the part where the Nazi Party forced schools to relocate books to guidance counselors’ offices.”

Nicole Neily, president of the conservative parents’ rights activist group Parents Defending Education, also disputed the comparison, claiming, “Headlines and research papers by activist organizations have intentionally muddled the waters between World War II book burning and what is happening in America’s K-12 schools.” 

Later, referencing Muslim parents in Maryland and Michigan who have organized to protest books about sexuality in their school districts, Neily added, “To conflate that issue, that I don’t want my child to be forced to read something with a book that is being burned in Nazi Germany, is disingenuous and false.”

During her testimony, Neily also claimed that librarians and freedom-to-read activists were on a mission to “extract a pound of flesh” from book-challenging parents by having them “pilloried in the public square.” The phrase “pound of flesh” comes from William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which features Shylock, an antisemitic depiction of a Jewish money-lender who demands a pound of flesh from a client unable to pay his debts.

Present at the hearing were Republican Senators from Tennessee, Iowa, Missouri and South Carolina, all states where Jewish books including “Maus” and Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer” have been challenged or removed from public schools. None addressed those books. Instead, many of them used their time to accuse publishers, tech companies and the Biden administration of silencing conservative voices, or pivoted the hearing to a debate over immigration reform. John Kennedy, a Republican senator from Louisiana, turned heads when he used his allotted time to read sexually explicit passages from frequently challenged LGBTQ-themed books “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” into the Congressional Record.

The hearing wasn’t the first time “Maus” bans had been invoked on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries declared, “Extreme MAGA Republicans want to ban books on the Holocaust,” while holding up a copy of “Maus” during a press conference. Jeffries was opposing a House bill passed by Republicans that would grant parents greater influence over their children’s educational materials.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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