A bored boy studying Talmud. A man reading a newspaper on the Sabbath. A Jewish king dressed like Christian royalty.
An Orthodox Herzliya City Council member has cited these children’s books illustrations as evidence that the Israeli version of PJ library promotes “pluralism” in an online petition to ban the program from Israeli schools, saying that it will corrupt Israeli youth by exposing them to non-Orthodox characters and ideas.
Sifriyat Pijama is the Israeli version of PJ Library, an American program that promotes literacy and Jewish engagement by sending free books to Jewish and interfaith families. Working with the Israeli Ministry of Education, Sifriyat Pijama distributes Hebrew-language books to Israeli religious and secular preschools and grade schools, serving 330,000 Israeli pupils.
The books, which children bring home, include classics of Israeli children’s literature, Jewish folk tales, stories from rabbinic literature and other narratives meant to strengthen Jewish identity.
Elad Zadikov, a Herzliya local lawmaker, believes that the books have another aim — to embrace all streams of Judaism, not just Orthodoxy. Addressed to the Ministry of Education, his petition has garnered more than 1,430 signatures and names several examples of what it terms “unthinkable” content in the program’s books. Zadikov said that the petition has gathered its signatures through word of mouth.
“The books look very innocent,” Zadikov said. “But behind these books they give for free is a very pluralistic approach.”
Galina Vromen, the director of Sifriyat Pajama, said that the program has no agenda other than to “to create common ground among Israeli Jews, emphasizing aspects of Israeli/Jewish heritage that are shared.” She added that if parents disagree with the content of the books, they are free to put them aside.
The petition also portrays Sifriyat Pijama as a shell for the New Israel Fund, which finances Israeli civil society and peace organizations. The New Israel Fund has become a favorite target of Israel’s religious and nationalist right in recent years for its support of groups like B’Tselem, which documents human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The two organizations have no relationship but have shared a common funder. Sifriyat Pijama’s main grantor, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, gave money to New Israel Fund cultural and education programs, according to its 2009 annual report.
So far, the Ministry of Education hasn’t been moved by the petition. It defended Sifriyat Pijama in a statement to the Forward, saying that all the books are approved by the state’s religious education office to ensure that the materials are appropriate for children. “We reject all rumors and conspiracy theories related to the program,” the statement said.
In a statement, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Israeli-based foundation, Keren Grinspoon Israel, said the books “have been very well received over the years,” noting that about a third of the pupils it reaches attend state religious schools.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.