Author told to cut local history book’s Jewish allusions

Can a history book be too Jewish?

Apparently so, if it’s about Menlo Park. That’s where the local historical society asked the co-authors of a book it commissioned on the town’s history to slash all references to Jews.

Passages about African-Americans, white flight and the poverty of early Irish settlers were also red-lined.

Michael Svanevik, a professor at the College of San Mateo and the author of many local historical books, turned the Menlo Park Historical Association down cold. He said he cannot remember being confronted by such a clear-cut attempt at censorship.

“I was stunned,” he said.

The project is now dead. “It went down in flames” after the board, by a vote of 4 to 3, opted to stand firm on the changes, Svanevik said.

The association board was slated to vote on the changes to the 260-page manuscript at its regular meeting Tuesday. But members met instead at a hastily called session on Monday. Nearly 100 turned out Tuesday for the meeting at the Menlo Park Public Library to protest the decision, which, by then, had attracted the attention of the press.

But Svanevik said he never considered making the changes

“We said absolutely not,” replied Svanevik. He and co-author Shirley Burgett made their decision when first contacted by the association more than a week ago, and stood firm. “We would not take those topics out,” he said.

The controversy itself struck many as a relic from bygone days.

Svanevik said that shortly after submitting the manuscript, he and Burgett were “thoroughly surprised” to receive a 3-1/2-page letter requesting the changes, signed by Rita Gado, president of the association,

But Svanevik was further astonished to receive a call from Gado the following day, saying she did not agree with the contents of the letter she had signed.

“Then the vice president called and said the same thing,” he said. A third board member also called to distance himself from the letter, but reminded Svanevik he was under contract to the board and must obey its request.

“I gave them until Tuesday at 4 p.m. to decide what they want to do,” said the author, who writes a historical column for the Peninsula-based Independent Newspaper Group. “I have other contracts to honor.”

Neither Gado nor her colleagues on the historical society board had returned phone calls to the Jewish Bulletin by press time.

“They started by zeroing in on the removal of the words ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish,'” Svanevik said. “But they also think we’re being ‘insensitive’ by referring to the poverty of early Irish and Italian settlers, and by characterizing a school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart as ‘strict.’ The sanitizing runs throughout.”

Other items that received the red pencil: a discussion of white flight from the Belle Haven neighborhood and a 1960s anti-war protest at the Burgess Theater.

The board also zeroed in on a passage about the Jewish philanthropist Sigmund Stern, who helped create Stern Grove when he donated the parcel of land to the city of San Francisco. Svanevik said he was asked to remove all references to Stern’s ethnicity. A similar request was made regarding the Koshland family. Daniel Koshland Sr. donated $60 million to create the philanthropic San Francisco Foundation. His brother Bob seeded the San Mateo Foundation, which has become the Peninsula Community Foundation.

“The Jewish philanthropic community has made too significant an accomplishment in the history of the region to be removed from its history,” Svanevik said.

Ironically, the only scandalous passage in his mind involved Norwegians, “and they didn’t say anything about that,” Svanevik said. “I’m a Norwegian, so I noticed.”

Board member Harry Harrison confirmed Svanevik’s account and added that three trustees — Kathryn Carroll, Bill Russ and Peggy Stretch — are supporting the changes.

But the association vice president, Roger Seccombe, told the Palo Alto Daily News he did not wish to see local historic figures described specifically as Jewish.

A case of political correctness? “I don’t think so, but I think they think so,” Svanevik said. “But they also didn’t want to give African-Americans credit for their contributions.”

“I am just astounded that this could take place in the Bay Area,” said Fred Rosenbaum, Lehrhaus Judaica’s executive director and author of several books on the region’s Jews, such as “Architects of Reform,” about Congregation Emanu-El, and “Visions of Reform,” an update that will be published in February.

“To attempt to paint in a monochromatic way the history of the Bay Area is particularly shameful and contrary to the ethos of the area,” he added. ” It’s true that Mexicans were denied their land claims. It’s true that blacks were denied the most basic of rights. But this must be faced honestly or there is no purpose in writing history.”

News accounts of the controversy caught the attention of fellow historian Steven J. Zipperstein, an author and Stanford professor.

“It is extraordinary,” he said. “It really harkens back to a not-so-distant attitude toward Jews in respected society in Northern California. If you are a Jew that passed in gentile society, it would be unacceptable for anyone to point out your Jewishness. You just don’t raise the issue in respectable society.”

Zipperstein pegged the association’s attitude as “unarticulated, unconscious liberal bias without any ideology.”

The authors have no qualms about their decision to pull out of the project, even though they’ll lose almost half of their $16,500 commission. Instead, they’ll get a lesser “kill fee.”

“It’s kind of funny to lose $8,500 and still feel like you won, but we feel good,” Svanevik said.

The authors’ stance has yielded offers from other publishers — and the support of other historians.

“That was the only thing for him to do,” Zipperstein said. “It was the act of an honest historian.”

Svanevik, a popular speaker, is a respected authority on Bay Area history. He and Burgess have acquired a following for their treatments, which include “City of Trees” about Burlingame and “City of Souls” on Colma and “Class Act,” about the College of San Mateo. They have also published a pictorial history called “No Sidewalks Here.”

If the historical association had its way, the Menlo Park tome might well have been called “No Warts Here,” Svanevik quipped.

“We discussed the whole matter in one of my history classes the other day,” he said. “I told the class that where history is concerned, I believe in ‘warts and all’ coverage. A Jewish student of mine said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! I resent being thought of as a wart.’ I thought that was extremely well said.”

The association has paid $25,000 to get the book written and published, according to Harrison, and will forfeit a $16,500 printing deposit.

The Menlo Park City Council will take the matter up at its meeting Tuesday. It was not clear what action they may consider, however.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.