With more than 64,000 members, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest organization of its type in the world. The group aims to improve the quality of libraries and to ensure equal access to information for all. This mission has included advocacy when libraries or librarians are in danger.
The Chicago-based ALA also provides an impressive array of research tools on its Web sites, including links for a multitude of subjects to help guide the work of scholars, students, library patrons and even library professionals.
But critics fault the ALA for endorsing a Web site for children that arguably takes an anti-Israel worldview. It's the latest skirmish between pro-Israel groups and the ALA, which has intermittently devoted a great deal of energy to singling out Israel for criticism.
The offerings of the ALA matter, say observers, because the organization is both so well respected and influential. The ALA accredits librarian graduate programs, funds awards and scholarships and also is generally considered the voice of American libraries in the halls of Congress.
Through its recommendations, conventions and seminars, the ALA also influences the book collections in nearly 170,000 libraries, as well as informing the views of nearly 400,000 people who work in libraries -- not to mention the patrons who use these facilities.
These days, the ALA's reach extends into cyberspace, which is where children are directed to a Web site that Jewish groups say distorts Israel's past.
In the world history section of the association's Great Web Sites for Kids, the only information on the current political situation in the Middle East comes from an ALA-approved, Saudi-funded site called ArabNet.
Much of the material is cultural and not objectionable, but some entries are notably one-sided. In an entry titled, "Netanyahu -- the Peace Sabotage," young readers would learn that the former Israeli prime minister, and he alone, "had definitely slowed the [peace] process with predictable results in all quarters most directly affected by it."
That explanation is simplistic and doesn't take into account the political machinations of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his continuing collusion with organizations that were directing terror attacks, said David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a professor of Jewish history.
The ALA-approved ArabNet Web site also talks of the 1948 expulsion of Arab families from Israeli-controlled areas but makes no mention of the departure or expulsion of up to 850,000 Jews and from Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other Arab countries after 1948. Nor does it note, in a section about modern Lebanon, the lengthy Syrian occupation of that nation.
ALA bylaws state that Great Web Sites should be accurate and unbiased.
To be sure, the ALA Web site's resources for adults contain a plethora of links to organizations with contrasting views. It has links to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Knesset, Israel's parliament -- and also to Al Jazeera, the controversial Arabic television news channel and the Arab League.
The organization also has made efforts to reach out to American Jews. In 2004, the ALA launched a reading and discussion program for libraries called, "Let's Talk About It: Jewish Literature -- Identity and Imagination." Recently, the organization established a new award for excellence in Jewish literature, which will be handed out later this year.
The Great Web Sites entries, on the whole, include many valuable resources for children, including a Web site on the Holocaust.
Still, the absence of a pro-Israel link to balance the pro-Arab link on the ALA-approved Web sites for children, troubles Jewish advocates. They argue that young children lack the sophistication to analyze and process complex information and might take the material presented by ArabNet as gospel. That's why they have sought -- unsuccessfully so far -- to rectify the situation.
The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the ALA division responsible for running the Great Web Sites, recently turned down proposals from Jewish organizations, including the Los Angeles-based advocacy group, StandWithUs, to add at least one pro-Israel link to counterbalance the pro-Arab site. Janet Sarratt, co-chair of the ALSC Great Web Sites Committee, said she never shared the concerns raised by Jewish advocates with her committee colleagues because she didn't want to influence their evaluation of the proposed pro-Israeli sites.
The frustrations of several Jewish groups notwithstanding, ALA President Michael Gorman said he had no intention of intervening in the online controversy, calling it "a divisional matter."
Retired Texas librarian Barbara Silverman, who serves on an American Library Association committee that deals with children's books, said the reluctance to address legitimate concerns raised by her and other Jewish librarians troubles her.
"I don't know whether I'd say [the Great Web Sites Committee] is anti-Semitic, but they're certainly anti-Israel," she said.
There's a long history to the discomfort felt by some Jewish organizations toward the ALA. Over the past 15 years, the ALA has passed three resolutions critical of the Jewish state, more than of any other country, save the United States. During that period, the ALA failed to pass a single resolution critical of Syria, China, Sudan, Iran and North Korea -- countries where library rights and other freedoms are at risk on a daily basis.
"It seems like the leadership should be most concerned about issues of literacy and publishing, but rather, they focus attention on political institutions they don't agree with," said Paul Gertsen, a non-Jew who is a librarian at the St. Paul Public Library in Minnesota. "Naturally, that bias filters down to administrative and acquisition levels."
It would be absurd to argue that opposing Israel heads the agenda of the American Library Association. The top-ticket items -- which are bannered on the group's Web site -- include protecting and enhancing library funding and monitoring the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which threatens privacy protections.
But Israel has popped up periodically on the agenda, most recently in 2002, when the ALA passed a resolution calling on the United States and "other governments" to prevent further destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives and other cultural institutions.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) blasted the resolution, calling it biased, without factual basis and a throwback to the bad old days of the early '90s. At the time, an Israeli government spokesperson denied that the army ever targeted books or libraries but noted that any building "used as a safe haven for terrorists and snipers" could have been "caught in the cross-fire."
Credible reports in the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times recorded instances of damage and vandalism to cultural resources in the Palestinian city of Ramallah during an incursion by the Israeli army in response to terrorism.
The same year that the ALA condemned Israel for allegedly destroying Palestinian libraries, it failed to blame Arab terrorism for the murder of American Israeli library staffer Dina Carter, who lost her life when a bomb detonated at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem in 2002. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. In response, the ALA generally condemned "the violence that resulted in the loss" of her life and said it "abhors the loss of all innocent lives, including Dina Carter's, during the recent conflict in the region."
Asked why the association failed to single out Palestinian terror, ALA President Gorman called it a matter of semantics. Gorman, also the dean of library services at California State University Fresno, said he could not explain why his organization had officially criticized Israel three times since 1991, although he vehemently denied that anti-Zionism played any role. (The ALA later rescinded one of the anti-Israel resolutions).
"The idea that there's some kind of hotbed of anti-Israel feeling that constantly bubbles up is simply at variance with the truth," he said.
The other two resolutions were in 1992. In one, the organization protested the deportation of a librarian at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Also that year, the ALA called on Israel to "end censorship and human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and in Israel itself."
Under intense public pressure from the ADL and other Jewish advocacy groups, the ALA rescinded the resolution a year later in 1993. The ALA has rarely, if ever, condemned the extensive censorship practiced routinely in Middle Eastern countries outside of Israel, nor the strident anti-Semitism in many textbooks used in Muslim countries.
Moreover, the ALA issued no statement in 1999 after an arsonist destroyed a Sacramento synagogue library that housed thousands of historic Holocaust books, documents and videos. Similarly, the ALA passed no resolution in 2004 condemning the firebombing of a Jewish day school in Montreal, a hate crime that destroyed its library.
The ALA Council's reluctance to criticize such actions suggests that it "doesn't seem to be concerned about the destruction of any Jewish libraries, archives and resources," said Elliot H. Gertel, Judaica curator at the University of Michigan.
In his view, ALA members by no means share a monolithic anti-Zionist viewpoint, but a number of influential association leaders apparently do. Gertel, as a member of the ALA's Jewish Information Committee, unsuccessfully attempted to get ALA to rescind the group's 2002 condemnation of Israel.
An ALA official explained the discrepancy by making a distinction between the acts of individuals and the acts of a government. Michael Dowling, director of the ALA International Relations Office, said his organization has not, in the past, adopted resolutions relating to the destruction of libraries by individuals.
The ALA magazine, he added, ran short articles about the attacks in Sacramento and Montreal to "make people aware of the destruction of these libraries, and those interested could assist in the rebuilding efforts."