Toula Drimonis: In the end, Jewish Public Library gets it right

Book bans, even partial ones, are not the answer. Returning the works of Elise Gravel to the public shelves is the right thing to do.

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Une patate à vélo, by beloved Montreal children’s author Elise Gravel, was the first book I ever purchased for my nephew in Toronto, as a way of introducing him to French. The book showcases Gravel’s signature brand of silly: a potato riding a bike, a farting unicorn, a singing tomato — illustrations that make kids giggle and enjoy learning how to read.

I was therefore uneasy when I heard that Montreal’s Jewish Public Library (JPL) had recently relocated Gravel’s books to the closed stacks after Jewish advocacy groups singled out some of her social media posts as antisemitic.

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Gravel has been extremely vocal about the Israel-Hamas war, which has killed thousands of innocent people, among them Israeli civilians and a reported 25,105 Palestinians (mostly children and women) in Gaza. As the death toll mounts, so does public outrage.

It’s within this context that Gravel has repeatedly (and, I believe, earnestly) voiced her opposition to the Israeli government and solidarity with Palestinians paying a heavy price for Hamas violence. In doing so, however, the author fell victim to repeating antisemitic tropes circulating online, which the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) denounced. “Criticizing Israel is not necessarily antisemitic,” the group said on X, “but doing so by invoking antisemitic myths is.”

While Gravel rejected accusations of antisemitism, she acknowledged her error, removed or edited content she published, and promised to be more careful with online sources as Israel-Hamas misinformation runs rampant on social media.

Despite that, the JPL still removed her books (which have nothing to do with the conflict). The author’s controversial action was basically followed by the library’s controversial reaction. This resulted in a lose-lose situation that benefited absolutely no one.

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I know tensions are running high and Montreal’s Jewish community is feeling the rise of antisemitism around the world and at home. I have many Jewish friends on alert, watching in fear as synagogues and schools have been targeted. I also have friends watching in horror as deaths keep piling up in Gaza. 

But if one supports free speech, it’s hard to justify supporting it selectively. You either believe in the right to criticize a government or you don’t. By removing Gravel’s books from public view, the JPL — which has shown a commitment to informed discourse by carrying Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its catalogue of offerings — was essentially penalizing her for what she has said online.

One can debate whether moving books out of sight, while still making them available, constitutes a form of censorship. But if artists must start self-censoring or risk not having their works seen, well, what would you call that?

In response, a group of Montreal authors, publishers and artists — many from the Jewish community — published an open letter denouncing the JPL’s move. “To remove or ban books because the author’s political opinions differ from those of the institution is an affront to freedom of speech and to democracy,” they said. I agree. 

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That the controversy has been playing out a few days before the start of Freedom to Read Week is not lost on me. On Thursday, the JPL reversed its decision, saying it “recognizes that everyone has a fundamental right to access the full range of knowledge, creativity, ideas, and opinions, and to formulate and express their thoughts in public.”

Exactly. Gravel has the right to express her despair about a war in which the daily death rate in Gaza is the highest on record in any 21st century conflict. The CIJA also has the right to point out antisemitic online content that may incite intolerance and violence.

Bans, or partial bans, are not the answer. And deep down, I believe Montreal’s Jewish community (which historically has seen its share of bans, quotas and political and social prejudice) knows this.

In the end, the JPL made the right decision, as I fully expected it would.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. X @toulastake

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