Online Booksellers Selling Anti-Semitic Books
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An ADL Perspective

Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com are selling the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion online. What should be done about this?

Once upon a time, bookstores made decisions regarding what books to stock. Their decisions were premised upon the amount of available shelf space, and upon traditional principles of supply and demand. Extremist and anti-Semitic publications were rarely found on their shelves, and when such tracts were spotted, they were usually identified as such. For example, few customers of these bookstores ever stumbled upon the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, by accident.

In that pre-Internet world, when the Anti-Defamation League learned that a bookseller was selling an extremist publication, we did not ask them to stop selling it. Rather, we asked that it be labeled and categorized appropriately. We believed, and continue to believe, that in a free, democratic society, books

ADL believes that in a free, democratic society, books should not be banned, no matter how reprehensible they are.

should not be banned, no matter how reprehensible they are.

Today, the book selling universe – indeed our entire society – is in the midst of a profound change. Booksellers now sell their wares in a virtual marketplace, where the amount of available shelf space is irrelevant and where readers can obtain virtually any title and read unedited comments and criticisms posted anonymously. The laws of supply and demand simply do not apply in the same way. However, the principles of free speech and the First Amendment have never been more relevant.

The new world in which we live requires us to recognize new realities. In the age of the Internet, the bad comes with the good, with few if any signposts routinely provided for the naďve and uninformed. In this new universe, where everything and anything is available and the free flow of ideas has become a roaring tide, suggesting to an on-line bookseller like Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com that they should limit the availability of a publication is like swimming upstream. Not only is the concept of banning books offensive, it is archaic. Offering navigational aids, however, is perfectly appropriate.

ADL regards this situation as completely different from suggesting to a newspaper editor that he not publish an offensive ad. Newspaper publishers and booksellers serve different functions in our society, and consumers come to them with different expectations. A newspaper provides substantive content -- news, commentary and other information. So a reader turning a newspaper’s pages is not anticipating or looking for an offensive ad, but cannot avoid it should it appear. Moreover, a newspaper’s readers attribute to that paper’s publisher and editors the responsibility for deciding what to publish. By contrast, booksellers make it possible for consumers to search for and acquire titles of their own choosing, and consumers do not anticipate or look for booksellers – particularly online booksellers – to make similar editorial judgments.

Rather than attempting to challenge the availability of anti-Semitic publications on the Internet, the Anti-Defamation League has adopted an approach consistent with our previous recommendations to booksellers. More information is the answer; more contributions to that free flow of ideas. This is why we have chosen not to ask Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com to stop selling The Protocols and

We have emphasized . . . the need . . .to provide signposts, to offer guidance, to post reviews, to educate visitors to their sites about these and other anti-Semitic publications.

other extremist publications. This is why we have emphasized instead the need for them to provide signposts, to offer guidance, to post reviews, to educate visitors to their sites about these and other anti-Semitic publications.

Both on-line booksellers have been responsive to ADL’s approach. Following extensive discussions, they have agreed to implement a number of proactive measures intended to assist readers. For example, they have agreed to place prominently on their web sites ADL’s statement that The Protocols is an anti-Semitic forgery circulated by Czarist secret police at the turn of the last century. This statement points out that "The Protocols has been a major weapon in the arsenal of anti-Semites around the world, republished and circulated… to convince the gullible as well as the bigoted that Jews have schemed and plotted to take over the world."

In the case of The Protocols, both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com have even gone further, looking for ways to make it clear that they do not endorse or condone the hateful content. This publication will not turn up under a search for "Judaic," but only when searched for by name. This obviously makes it less likely that someone will stumble upon it inadvertently. Amazon has also added its own comment, accurately describing the book. We commend both companies for their sense of corporate responsibility.

Asking booksellers not to sell books is not only swimming against the tide. It is also fundamentally inconsistent with our faith as Americans in the marketplace of ideas. To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, sunlight is still the best disinfectant – it is always better to expose hate to the light of day than to let it fester in the darkness. ADL has always believed that the best answer to bad speech is more speech. The Internet has changed much of our world, but it has not changed that.


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