Two women hug as other people look on
Andrea Wedner, center, one of two worshippers who were shot but survived in the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, gets an emotional embrace at the conclusion of a ceremony to say l'hitraot, or until we see each other again, to the Tree of Life building ahead of planned construction in Pittsburgh on April 23, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jahi Chikwendiu-The Washington Post via Getty Images)

9 stories that defined our Jewish year in 2023 before Oct. 7

(JTA) — On Oct. 6, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency led its morning newsletter with an article that had long been in the works — and that we expected to drive conversation in the days ahead. It was a profile of a Jewish dad in Florida who had pushed to ban hundreds of books, including Anne Frank’s diary, from school libraries.

The ongoing saga of book bans in school libraries and how they ensnared works about the Holocaust and other Jewish topics is a story our reporter Andrew Lapin, and JTA more broadly, had focused on all year. For much of 2023, book bans seemed like one of the topics that would define American Jewish life this year.

Then the Oct. 7 Hamas attack happened, plunging Israel into war and upending life not only there but for Jews in the United States and across the world. Since then, nearly everything we have covered at JTA — from advocacy for Israeli hostages to antisemitism to discourse on college campuses — has related back in some way to the Oct. 7 attack and the Israel-Hamas war.

In the wake of that cataclysm, it sometimes feels like everything else American Jews once thought and talked about has taken a backseat. But before the Hamas attack, there were important and complex topics that occupied and characterized Jewish life this year — not least, another upheaval in Israel.

Here are nine stories that defined our year before Oct. 7.

Campaign spreads to ban books, including Jewish ones, from school libraries

The book ban movement, driven by conservative “parents’ rights” groups such as Moms for Liberty, wasn’t only a Jewish issue: Activists largely sought to ban books about race and gender, claiming that they were inappropriate for children. But those campaigns, sometimes targeting large numbers of books at once, often swept up Jewish books in their dragnet.

People standing with protest signs
Protesters stand outside the summit of Moms For Liberty, the “parents’ rights” group behind many book challenges across the United States, in Philadelphia on June 30, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Michael M. Santiago-Getty Images)

One book that faced challenges in multiple school districts — some of them successful — was a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary. The Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” was also hit with challenges. One of the most prolific participants in the book ban movement was that Florida Jewish dad.

More generally, some American Jews felt that the book ban movement built on a tradition of censorship that has often boded poorly for the Jews. And even when the bans didn’t target Jewish books, Jews were sometimes implicated: A Florida mom who tried to ban an Amanda Gorman poem had also promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She apologized.

Seismic fight erupts in Israel over the judicial system

Before October, if you asked what the most important Israeli news story of 2023 was, this was the answer, hands down. At the beginning of the year, Israel’s brand-new, hardline right-wing government unveiled a plan to sap the Supreme Court of its power and independence, a plan proponents said would enable the government to enact the agenda of its conservative voters.

Hundreds of people with Israeli flags
Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jamal Awad-Flash90)

The plan sparked an unprecedented protest movement — drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the street who condemned the overhaul as a danger to Israeli democracy. What followed was civil unrest, mass threats by reservists to abstain from military service, a raft of warnings and criticism from world leaders and diaspora Jewish groups alike, and fruitless negotiations between Israel’s sparring political parties.

In July, the government pushed through one piece of the plan, limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions. That led to a fresh wave of protests, and anticipation across the country and beyond regarding what else the government would legislate. Lawmakers were set to reconvene after the Jewish holidays ended with Simchat Torah — which fell on Oct. 7.

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter is tried and sentenced to death

In 2018, a violent and deadly attack on Jews praying at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shocked the country and the world. In 2023, the man who killed 11 Jews stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to death.

The shooter’s guilt was never in question; his lawyer admitted as much. But the course of the trial revealed gruesome details about the attack and — for jurors and others — served as a primer of sorts on American Jews and how they see their place in the United States. And in Squirrel Hill, the historically Jewish neighborhood where the shooting occurred, residents contended with fears of retraumatization and leaned on one another to heal.

The shooter’s lawyers did fight hard to spare him the death penalty. Families of victims and survivors also disagreed over the punishment. But following a monthslong trial, the jury handed down a death sentence in August.

Musk’s handling of hate speech on Twitter/X raises alarms

Elon Musk, the billionaire tech mogul, bought San Francisco-based Twitter in 2022. Over the course of 2023, his shifting approach to hate speech, including the removal of some of the platform’s guardrails, alternately enraged, concerned and confounded Jewish watchdogs and others.

Headshot of Elon Musk
Under Elon Musk, the social media platform X has been at the center of several antisemitism-related controversies. (Photo/JTA-Ludovic Marin-Pool-AFP via Getty Images-Design by Mollie Suss)

As the year progressed, Musk’s personal pronouncements about Jews began to draw criticism. In May, he posted that George Soros, the liberal megadonor and frequent target of antisemitism, “hates humanity.” He later turned his sights on the Anti-Defamation League, threatening to sue it for billions of dollars and blaming it for rising antisemitism.

This particular story has continued post-Oct. 7. Musk has taken steps to combat anti-Israel rhetoric on the platform, now called X. He visited Israel and toured sites of the massacre. But he also amplified an endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, leading major advertisers to stop their spending on the platform.

A trio of antisemitism-themed shows run on Broadway

For a few days this year, Broadway fans keen on seeing antisemitism portrayed onstage could go to three shows on the topic.

Woman and man smiling
Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt during the opening night curtain call for “Parade” at New York City Center. (Photo/JTA-Bruce Glikas-WireImage-GettyImages)

The musical “Parade,” about the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, opened in March. The play “Leopoldstadt,” a semi-autobiographical work by Tom Stoppard about his Jewish family in Vienna in the years surrounding the Holocaust, opened in October 2022 and ran through July. And “Just for Us,” a one-man show by Jewish comedian Alex Edelman about the time he attended a meeting of white supremacists, opened in June.

All three received positive reviews. “Leopoldstadt” and “Parade” won a total of six Tonys in June.  “Parade” itself wasn’t immune from antisemitism, though. Neo-Nazis protested at its previews.

Christie’s faces blowback for auctioning jewelry with Nazi ties

Christie’s, the auction house, achieved a record sale when it put a jewelry collection belonging to Austrian art collector Heidi Horten on the block. But the auction house also faced a wave of blowback from critics who said it obscured the source of the wealth that purchased the jewelry: Helmut Horten, Heidi’s husband and a Nazi Party member who made his fortune from businesses seized from their Jewish owners.

Man in suit holds pearl necklace
Rahul Kadakia, Christie’s international head of jewelry, presents an item from the collection of Heidi Horten ahead of auction in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 8, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Fabrice Coffrini-AFP via Getty Images)

Christie’s pledged to donate a portion of the proceeds to Holocaust research and education, but organizations and institutions devoted to Holocaust memory castigated the auction house, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art called off an event about art restitution that had been organized by Christie’s. In August, Christie’s canceled a planned second auction of the jewelry.

‘Maestro,’ the Leonard Bernstein biopic, reignites ‘Jewface’ debate

Controversy over the prosthetic nose Bradley Cooper wore in his biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein began last year, when promotional shots of the movie circulated. But the debate ramped up this year when the first trailer for “Maestro” hit screens ahead of its December premiere.

Was it antisemitic for a non-Jew to put on an elongated nose for a Jewish role? Should non-Jews play Jewish characters at all, a practice some call “Jewface?” Those questions sparked numerous takes online and beyond but petered out after the ADL and Bernstein’s family said they had no objections to the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix. The makeup artist of “Maestro” apologized anyway.

Synagogues face a string of fake bomb threats

Before reports of rising antisemitism began to dominate the headlines this fall, synagogues across the United States were hit with dozens of bomb threats. All of them were fake, seemingly designed to provoke a police response. Some of the perpetrators targeted synagogues that livestreamed their services, such that the congregation could be seen on screen fleeing their pews.

This is not the first time waves of fake bomb threats have hit Jewish institutions. Suspects have been arrested for the incidents, but the attacks have continued throughout the year. One weekend in December, hundreds of synagogues across the country got false bomb threats.

Israel and Saudi Arabia move toward a treaty

One major news story from this year that is now in limbo: prospects for a diplomatic accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Before Oct. 7, the Biden administration was pushing for the two countries to normalize relations, a step that would signify significant warming between Israel and the Arab world and that would transform regional relations in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses prior to a working lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Presidential Palace on June 16, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Chesnot-Getty Images)

It would be a major coup for Israel, which had already established ties with four other Arab nations in recent years.

There appeared to be progress toward a treaty, and the outlines of a deal had been proposed. But what will happen next on that front is unclear: After Oct. 7, Saudi Arabia put the talks on hold.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.