I don’t remember when I first came across Kat Rosenfield’s byline, but I can tell you that for years now I’ve read everything she writes. Her bailiwick is our culture, particularly the strange corners of it that tend to go overlooked by everyone else.
Exhibit A is her ongoing, insightful coverage of the mad world of Young Adult fiction and the moral panics that regularly tend to convulse that industry.
Last week that beat converged with the urgent story of rising Jew-hate in America when a black, Jewish diversity chief named April Powers lost her job in children’s publishing for condemning antisemitism. (You read that right.)
When I came across the story, I immediately reached out to Kat to ask her what it said about the state of the publishing world and, more, what it revealed about how high-minded ideals like intersectionality actually operate in practice.
On first viewing, it looked like a Tik-Tok riff on The Purge: a caravan of cars rolls down La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. The passengers — young men in keffiyehs, some draped to mask their faces — stand and shout through sunroofs and windows. The cars honk incessantly. In the back of a slow-moving Jeep, one man waves a billboard-sized Palestinian flag while another shouts through a megaphone: “Israel kills women and children every day!” His companions jeer: “Yeah! Fuck you!”
The next video shows the same men on the sidewalk, shouting and advancing on another man in a grey shirt who’s trying to fend them off with a metal pedestal. In the next: The man in grey is lying on the ground, curled in the fetal position. They punch him, kick him, claw at him.
The last video clip of the evening’s events shows the same sidewalk, now crowded with police. “They’re apparently going around the city, asking who’s Jewish, and beating them up,” says the unseen videographer. “This is America, guys.”
These clips were shot in late May, during the recent war between Israel and Hamas, a month in which there were dozens of similar attacks on Jews and Jewish spaces across America. It was also a moment when corporations and politicians — many of whom had eagerly released statements unequivocally condemning the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes the previous month, or supporting Black Lives Matter the previous year — suddenly lost their nerve when it came to denouncing violence against minorities.
Those that did speak out against Jew-hate, including high-profile progressives like Bernie Sanders and Ayanna Pressley, tended to speak out against “antisemitism and” — as in, antisemitism and Islamophobia, or antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry. (Tablet’s Noam Blum documented the trend here.)
So it made it particularly striking when one progressive literary organization came out against the violence and called it by its name.
The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors is an organization for established and aspiring professionals in children’s and young adult literature. The publishing industry is famously left-wing, but the world of children’s publishing makes the rest of the industry look like milquetoast moderates. In the past few years, Young Adult authors have rewritten already published work deemed offensive. They have seen the ratings of a not-yet-released book torpedoed by organized takedown campaigns on Goodreads. They have cancelled their own titles after (often flimsy) allegations of racism, or been compelled to reveal private, even traumatic details of their lives in order to “prove” that they have the standing to tell certain kinds of stories. In one particularly notorious case, Kirkus Reviews retracted its starred review of the novel “American Heart” and issued a new one scolding its “problematic” elements after a Twitter outrage.
It was in that context that the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors put up a post on Facebook that began: “The SCBWI unequivocally recognizes that the world’s 14.7 million Jewish people (less than 0.018% of the population) have the right to life, safety, and freedom from scapegoating and fear.” The June 10 post went on to condemn antisemitism as “one of the oldest forms of hatred,” and asked readers to “join us in not looking away.”
April Powers, the woman who wrote the post, is black and Jewish. And, as of last week, she is out of a job.
Powers was hired last year as the society’s first “Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer,” a newly created position within the organization. She brought 15 years of experience to the role, having managed similar efforts at corporations like Nestle and Amgen. But she told me that she was unprepared for what happened after she posted that statement against antisemitism.
The saga began when one of the organization’s members, Razan Abdin-Adnani, who identified herself as the daughter of Palestinian refugees, commented on the post asking if the organization also planned to denounce violence against Palestinians.
Powers replied: “As a new member, you may not have noticed our statements are very recent & reflect surges in hate crimes & violence around the world. If we see a surge against Muslims globally as we have w/ other groups, expect us to speak out.”
In hindsight, Powers said she shouldn’t have engaged. “If I had it to do over again, I would have turned off comments for the statement,” she told me on Tuesday. “We were attempting to create a safe space.” She said she had no idea it would get so ugly so fast.
At first, Powers went back and forth with Abdin-Adnani in the comments. But when the conversation turned hostile and began attracting heated replies, she disengaged and deleted several comments, including some from Abdin-Adnani.
That’s when Abdin-Adnani took to Twitter. There, she repeatedly accused Powers and the organization of failing to show solidarity with Muslims and demanded a statement denouncing the violence in Gaza. She also demanded a refund of her membership dues, writing: “I had no idea this was a Zionist/politically motivated organization that doesn’t serve ALL children.”
The confirmation of her membership cancellation from an administrative assistant sparked additional offense: Apparently provoked by the assistant’s recognizably Jewish surname, Abdin-Adnani tweeted her dismay at receiving an email from “a white, Jewish woman who I noticed had a public FB picture of her in Israel.” She added: “as a Palestinian, it felt like a slap in the face.” (Abdin-Adnani later posted a screengrab of the email including the assistant’s full name.)
You might imagine that this would have been a good time for the organization to take a principled stand, to condemn this member's inappropriate behavior, and to make a strong statement in support of its employees, particularly its black, Jewish diversity chief.
Instead, SCBWI stayed silent as the controversy continued to blow up online. Both Powers and the SCBWI account blocked Abdin-Adnani as her tweets got more intemperate, contributing to a narrative that she had been “silenced.” Big accounts on YA Twitter signal boosted her complaints. Prominent authors demanded apologies and vowed boycotts.
Then, two weeks after the original Facebook post, Lin Oliver, the executive director of SCBWI, offered a groveling apology. Not to the Jews, for failing to stand by a simple denunciation of antisemitism, nor to a faithful employee, whom SCBWI had left to twist in the wind, but to “everyone the Palestinian community who felt unrepresented, silenced, or marginalized.” The statement went on to acknowledge “the pain our actions have caused to our Muslim and Palestinian members” — pain brought on, it seems, by daring to oppose violence against Jews. “I also want to offer my apologies to Razan Abdin-Adnani for making her feel unseen and unheard by blocking her. She has been unblocked from our feed,” Oliver wrote. (Oliver and Abdin-Adnani did not respond to requests for comment.)
Although Powers insists that SCBWI did not compel her resignation, SCBWI happily took credit for it. The apology noted: “As a remedy to these events, we have taken some initial steps: 1. Effective immediately, we have accepted the resignation of April, our Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer.”
Toward the end of the organization’s apology was an abject note from Powers herself: “By posting an antisemitism statement, our intention was to stay out of politics. . . . I neglected to address the rise in Islamophobia, and deeply regret that omission. . . While this doesn’t fix the pain and disappointment that you feel by my mishandling of the moment, I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies and resignation from the SCBWI.”
What began as a simple denunciation of antisemitism ended with a letter that reads like a hostage video.
Powers was painstakingly diplomatic in our conversation. She stressed to me that she bears no ill will toward her former employer, which she calls a “wonderful” organization, and that she resigned by choice. But did she have a viable alternative? As threats mounted against Powers, her family, and her colleagues, SCBWI could have condemned her attackers and stood by her. It didn’t. And Powers said she wasn’t about to stick around just to see how much worse things would get.
“I was terrorized online,” she told me. “I’m still receiving horrible messages. I wasn’t willing to endure that for any job.”
What disturbs Powers the most wasn’t the harassment or the threats. It’s that when she tried to do the job she was hired to do her Jewishness was seen as inherently suspect — and, for some, as a reason to discredit her. “It was, ‘You’re Jewish, you can’t be in a role like this,’” she said. “I lost credibility in that exchange because I'm Jewish.”
When it comes to the original statement, she says she has no regrets. “I will not apologize for making a statement on antisemitism. It needed to be said and it still needs to be said. The silence is deafening.”
On one level, this is a story about a disturbed person who hijacked a small organization and leveraged the YA community’s penchant for petty drama to elevate a perceived slight into an industry-wide outrage. It’s also something far bigger and more chilling.
What happened to April Powers demonstrates how high-minded ideals about intersectionality and social justice now operate in practice. Jews are not seen as a marginalized group in need of protection, nor as the victims of violence fueled by bigotry, or even as voices worth listening to on the topic of antisemitic hate. In a culture obsessed with locating every group in a hierarchy of oppression, Jews simply do not count.
According to the tenets of social justice, Powers’s lived experience and multiple minority status should have made her unassailable on the topic of her own people’s oppression, and anyone who tried to use Powers’s identity to discredit her should have been roundly condemned. According to the tenets of social justice, the continuing violence — vandalism, harassment, a rabbi stabbed in broad daylight just the other day — means that we should be listening to the community now more than ever. But when that community is Jewish, progressives suddenly have very different ideas about who deserves to be heard.
For the moment, at least, Jews are Schrodinger’s victims; they may or may not be deserving of sympathy, depending on who’s doing the victimizing. When a group of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists chant “Jews will not replace us!,” the condemnation is swift. But replace the tiki torch with a Palestinian flag, and call the Jews “settler colonialists,” and the equivocations roll in: Maybe that guy who threw a firebomb at a group of innocent people on the street in New York was punching up, actually?
April Powers naively believed that American Jews should get the same full-throated defense as any other minority group in the wake of a vicious attack, without ambivalence, caveats and whataboutism. That belief cost her the security of a job.
In the words of that unseen videographer: This is America, guys.
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