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Book Censorship at Mount Scopus College

November 1, 2010 – 4:41 pm143 Comments

"Dancing in the Dark" book coverAmid claims of censorship at Mount Scopus College concerning the book Dancing in the Dark, we asked Mt Scopus principal, Rabbi James Kennard, as well as the book’s author Robyn Bavati, to write about their perspectives.

Rabbi Kennard provided us with the following statement:

Dancing in the Dark, a polemic which gives an inaccurate, one-sided and fanatically negative presentation of Jewish life, with a clear agenda of disengaging young Jews from Judaism, is not a book that is appropriate, in my judgement, to be in the library of a Jewish school, in the same way as thousands of other titles are also not provided. It is therefore not available in the Scopus library and never was. No books were “removed from the shelves” nor is the book “banned from the school”.

Ms Bavati’s account of the controversy is below:

In mid June, the librarian from Mount Scopus College asked me to come to the school during Book Week in August to discuss Dancing in the Dark with the Year 9 students. The book, a young-adult  novel published by Penguin in February 2010, tells the story of a Jewish girl who ultimately rejects an Orthodox lifestyle in order to pursue a career as a dancer. When Rabbi James Kennard, the school principal and himself a strictly Orthodox rabbi, found out about the scheduled visit, he rang me to say that he had ‘some concerns’. He came to my house one evening to discuss them, and said that although he was looking forward to welcoming me at the college, he had a problem promoting my book at the school because, although he hadn’t read it yet, he understood that its “anti-religious” content was “antithetical to the school’s modern-Orthodox ethos.”

I explained that the book is not anti-religious, but anti-coercion, pro-choice, and pro-tolerance. It doesn’t vilify religious people; nor could it be said to incite hatred towards religion or anyone choosing to live a religious lifestyle. In fact, many Orthodox readers have told me they felt it presented a well-balanced view of religion, and portrayed the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community in a respectful, sympathetic and authentic manner.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Kennard said he did not want to promote a book that doesn’t represent the values and principles of Orthodox Judaism, according to which the Orthodox lifestyle is the only ‘right’ way for Jews to live. He therefore suggested that I visit the school to discuss my writing, but ‘not mention the book’.

I told him that if I were a parent at the school (which in fact I was – at one point all three of my children attended the college), I’d be very upset to think that the school was employing that kind of censorship (to which he replied, “I don’t care what the parents think; my job is to uphold the policy of the school”). I suggested that if he didn’t agree with the viewpoint expressed in my book, he should challenge rather than suppress it.

The librarian then suggested she facilitate a discussion between him and me, so that he could air his concerns in front of the students.  We both agreed to this, and the discussion took place on August 25th, as planned.

The Rabbi (who had by this stage read the novel) claimed that I had presented religion in a purely negative light and rendered all the religious characters nasty and objectionable. This is simply not true. He also pointed out perceived ‘inaccuracies’ in my portrayal of the Charedi community. For example, my fictional Charedi school only goes up to Year 11, whereas Melbourne’s actual Charedi school does have a Year 12. It is quite true that the school presented is not an exact replica of the school to which he was referring – Dancing in the Dark is a work of fiction. However, in broader terms, the portrayal of a community whose members censor books, don’t watch TV or go to movies, and where there is segregation between the sexes, is entirely authentic.

At the end of the session, I urged the students to read the book and make up their own minds. Rabbi Kennard concurred. Yet after the session, when I asked the librarian how the students had been responding to the book, she admitted that they had been unable to borrow it from the school library, as although five copies had been purchased, Rabbi Kennard had refused to allow them to be placed on the shelves. Now that she’d heard him agree with me that the students read it and judge for themselves, she thought perhaps he’d changed his mind. She suggested he write a statement expressing his own view of the book, which could be placed at the front of each copy, so that the students would know that he did not condone it. But he did not agree to this suggestion, and still refused to allow the books to be put on the shelves.

I am puzzled as to why he agreed to the discussion in the first place. Surely there is little educational value in students hearing a debate about a book they are subsequently unable to borrow from the school library.

Mount Scopus College has a reputation as an excellent school. Indeed, it topped the state in VCE results last year, with 70% of students achieving ENTER scores of over 90. The school prides itself on being inclusive and broad-minded, and it caters to the larger Jewish community, the vast majority of whom are not observant.

On the college website, the school claims to “…provide…Jewish learning, values and experiences, within a Modern Orthodox and Zionist framework, that enable each student to make an informed choice as to the meaning of their Jewish identity.” (Italics are mine.) It also claims that it “supports and promotes the principles and practice of …freedom of religion, freedom of speech and association, the values of openness and tolerance…” I imagine these latter values are the reason many parents choose Mount Scopus for their children. But if, as the censoring of my book suggests, these values contradict the values of modern Orthodoxy, the college should not be claiming to promote both. More importantly, if such censorship is being practiced, surely the parents have a right to know.

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