America's Public Schools and Libraries Need Your Help to Fight the "Thought Police"
Article first appeared in the October/November 1999 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Reprinted with permission.
A history teacher from a Northern Virginia public high school recently called our office in great distress. A parent volunteer had thrown away seven years worth of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs magazines that the teacher kept in the reference section of the school's library for students to use for research. That particular parent had already complained that the teacher's class discussions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict disturbed her child. So it was clear that the destruction of the magazines was no accident. It was a case of a single individual taking it upon herself to limit everyone else's access to another viewpoint.
You might call someone like her one of the "Jewish thought police," a term columnist Doug Bloomfield, himself a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), uses in his "Washington Watch" column in the Washington Jewish Week to refer to those who target Arab Americans or others who are deemed politically incorrect when it comes to their views on Israel. Fortunately we were able to replace the back issues easily thanks to subscribers who had sent us their collections of Washington Reports for recycling.
Teachers have told this reporter many times that there just aren't enough resources around when they are teaching units on the Middle East or Islam or the latest new courses in political "conflict resolution" or "peace studies." As we have introduced teachers to the Washington Report at National Council for the Social Studies or American Library Association conferences, over and over again teachers have exclaimed, "This is it! I'll have to get our school library to subscribe."
One high school teacher who was assigned to teach a course on world conflicts said she was easily able to compile a list of recommended reading for students when it came to the Israeli perspective. She was, however, at a loss for books to assign to give the Palestinian side for balance. And that is why the Washington Report, and its catalog loaded with books and videos, should be in every library to give students, teachers, and the public access to a balanced perspective.
Every two years we send a letter to public and institutional libraries, offering subscriptions to the Washington Report and telling them that if they pay for their own subscriptions, they will receive our special book donation package with a list price totaling at least $150. At present some 4,200 U.S. and Canadian libraries have paid for their own subscriptions or have subscriptions paid for by individual donors.
Therefore we encourage all Washington Report subscribers to donate subscriptions to their local libraries and schools. Whenever possible, however, donors should first speak with the librarian in charge of collections and explain why the donation is being made. If the donor doesn't get prior approval, when the magazine arrives at the library, the person who opens the mail can toss it. That is what often happens to unsolicited magazines, even if the mail opener isn't a member of the "thought police."
When I joined the staff of the Washington Report and moved to Maryland's Montgomery County, in the northwestern suburbs of the national capital, I surveyed the several branches of the county library. I noted which ones have a special marked spot on the shelves for the Washington Report, and whether it is in the computerized list of magazines the library carries. When I didn't see the magazine I asked where it was. Though one branch had subscribed to the magazine for years, renewing it through the branch's subscription service after the initial donated subscription ran out, I couldn't find the Washington Report on any shelf, anywhere. Nor had it ever been entered into the computerized catalog, so heaven knows where it ended up.
Perhaps it fell victim to a "thought policeman" among the library's patrons, or even on its staff. But the point is that had the library's copy been available to all of its users, dozens of people would have been exposed, every week, to a point of view available to them nowhere else. You can only solve that kind of problem with the help of the collections librarian and persistent monitoring.
If the collections librarian says the library has no room for the magazine, you can politely ask if the library carries either the New Republic, Commentary or U.S. News and World Report. Even if only one of those magazines is on the shelf, the Washington Report should be there also to provide a balance of viewpoints on Middle East affairs for library patrons. If the librarian asks if the magazine is indexed, explain that EBSCO Information services, Ethnic News Watch, Index to Jewish Periodicals, Public Affairs Information Services, and Periodica Islamica all index the Washington Report in CD-ROMs and online databases. Take a magazine to the librarian who makes the decision, or ask us to mail one to the correct person. Follow up until the magazine is where it should be--on the shelf and in the computer catalog.
Many library patrons have taken the next step and monitor the continuing availability of the magazine in the libraries that have received their gift subscriptions. When Carl Greeley from Barefoot Bay, FL noticed that the magazines he donated to nearby libraries were not always available he met with the librarians in charge of magazine collections. He convinced them to enclose the Washington Report in a plastic cover and label a spot on the publications shelf instead of merely putting it on a table, from which it frequently disappeared.
Some library patrons are self-appointed members of the "thought police." Subscriber Judith Howard asked one librarian in the Boston area why the shelf marked Washington Report had a sign saying "See Librarian for copies." The librarian told her that unless they kept it locked away, and handed it out personally for patrons to read and return, it vanished.
Another subscriber reported that as he sat at a reading table in his local library, he saw a woman pick up the Washington Report from its spot on the shelf and bring it back to the table where he was sitting. After she sat down, our subscriber was about to say to her, "I love that magazine, too," when he heard a woman sitting beside her say, "Now." He watched dumbfounded as the woman holding the Washington Report dropped it into her friend's shopping bag and the two women then casually strolled out of the library. If your library's issues of the magazine have fallen victim to such "thought police," call us and we will replace them.
Sometimes we receive calls supposedly from librarians canceling their subscriptions. We explain that we only cancel library subscriptions when requested to on letterhead stationary. And we may still confirm the request with a telephone call. Incredibly, self-appointed censors or "thought police" pretending to be librarians but who have no connection with the library they claim to represent do try to cancel library subscriptions without the real librarian knowing anything about i,t.
When a real librarian really does choose to cancel a public library subscription, there are things patrons, whose taxes support the library, can do. First, ask why. If the answer is that the subscription was canceled for budgetary reasons, offer to donate one. If other reasons are offered, ask to discuss the matter with the head librarian. After one head librarian, herself a member of the "thought police," canceled a donated subscription, a medical student in a Detroit suburb presented the library board of directors with a petition signed by two dozen local doctors, most of them Arab Americans, asking that the subscription be reinstated. It was.
Usually when a library cancels a subscription it is because "thought police" have complained. Complain back. Most librarians just want to serve their community and avoid trouble. We shouldn't let people get their way just by being obnoxious.
Have you donated a subscription to a favorite library in the past? If you have, you can phone the Washington Report to verify whether the library is still receiving its subscription, and whether it now is paying for it on its own. If it isn't paying, and the subscription has lapsed, it's probably our fault. When our new circulation computer program was put into place, some donor names were inadvertently deleted from our records. As a result some libraries are no longer getting subscriptions or they may be getting free subscriptions until we can match them with a donor. Or a financially strapped library may not have renewed a subscription only because the librarian did not realize that there are potential donors out there. We should have let you know that your library wasn't renewing, but our computer program may have just let the subscription lapse instead.
Start by checking to see whether or not the Washington Report has vanished from the shelves. And while you are at it, check to see if the Washington Report has its own marked spot in the periodicals section. And is it in the computerized index? Are the back issues available? And is that made clear to the patrons? In short, if the magazine you once donated to your library is missing, find out what is going on.
If you aren't yet motivated to take on this mission, I recommend giving your local library, and yourself, a little test to see what viewpoints are available to the reading public. (As for the movie-going or media-reading and -watching public, we won't even go there in this article.) First look on the library shelves and admire the magazines like the three one-sided pro-Israel magazines mentioned above, as well as such specialized magazines as Model Railroad, Back Packer, Runner and even Bunte in German, which all have found permanent space on the shelves of the smallest library I surveyed in Montgomery County.
Next look in your library's catalog to see how many books it carries on Judaism and Islam, and Israel and the Arab countries, and look closely at the titles for the general tone of the books available (see sidebar). Do you see any evidence of "thought police" making sure that one side of the story isn't easily available? Now are you motivated to make a difference in your local library? Are you ready to pay for a subscription as a holiday gift for a school's library or its teachers? Giving a Washington Report subscription, and perhaps some good books as well, and then keeping an eye on it can make a difference. When someone is ready to take another look at America's single biggest foreign policy problem, it's essential that both sides of the issue are available, despite the efforts of the "thought police."
Delinda C. Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report.