by Marjorie Gann
(CAMERA) — Children’s author Ibtisam Barakat wants to use children’s books “to keep the Palestinian dream of a homeland alive.” Featured in the recent CNN article “A gift to my ancestors’: Meet the Palestinian-American authors bringing their culture to the heart of children’s books,” (Alaa Elassar, May 21), Barakat expresses her dream of a time when “those displaced… are finally free to return.” It obviously troubles neither Barakat nor CNN that a “return” of as many as eight million people who claim status as Palestinian refugees[i] (only a fraction of whom actually fit the commonly accepted definition of “refugee,” which does not include the descendants of refugees) would wipe out Israel as a Jewish state, though that’s exactly what a Palestinian return would mean.
Elassar and CNN promote four children’s authors whose books feature Palestinian culture but also promote anti-Israel propaganda to young readers.
Pushing the victim/exclusion argument that “Palestinian-Americans, along with other Arab-Americans, are still woefully underrepresented in books,” Elassar cites a study claiming that “less than 1 percent of children’s and young adult books released by US publishers were about Arabs.” Underrepresented? Palestinians comprise only 0.1 percent of the American population; Arabs come in at 1.2 percent, so if we’re aiming at proportionality, US publishers aren’t doing badly.
American children should certainly read lots of books about the cultural origins of their fellow Americans; this will expand their world. The problem is when the books move from cultural exposure to political indoctrination.
Elassar opens with Hannah Moushabeck’s “Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine.” Moushabeck is a formidable figure in the multicultural children’s book world. As acquisitions editor of Interlink Publishing, she released Wafa’ Tarnowska’s “Amazing Women of the Middle East” (under the Crocodile Books imprint) in 2021 to considerable controversy. That book’s colorful map of the Middle East erases Israel (replacing it with “Palestine”), and, though Jews originate from the Middle East and Jewish and Israeli women have contributed enormously to Middle Eastern culture,[ii] the book includes no Jewish Middle Eastern women. [iii]
In “Homeland,” Moushabeck has decided to tell a personal story in picture-book format. She traces her father’s childhood in the Old City of Jerusalem, from which his family fled in 1948 in the wake of what she calls al-Nakbah, “the catastrophe.” They were allowed to visit the Jordanian-occupied Old City from 1947 until 1967, when Israel won a lightning victory in the Six-Day War and reunited Jerusalem. The family now lives in the United States but, at least in this account, continue to view themselves as refugees.
“Homeland” is not explicitly hostile to Israel; it simply erases both Israel and Jews. No child reading this book will learn that there was ever anything Jewish about Jerusalem. Moushabeck’s Jerusalem is judenrein.
On one two-page spread, we view a charming streetscape of the Old City. The text notes that the grandfather spoke many languages, but the pedestrians’ speech balloons include Arabic, English, and Greek — no Hebrew, though Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in 1948.
A panoramic view of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif shows the dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque on the left, an Arab child flying a Palestinian flag from a rooftop in the center, and the golden Dome of the Rock on the right. Flying above these sites are five pigeons, each holding the iconic Palestinian key (their symbol of a purported “right of return”) in its beak. The message: In the grandfather’s words, the pigeons aren’t flying away because “this is their home.”
As Moushabeck tells the story, no Jews lived in the Old City, so none were ethnically cleansed on May 28, 1948, when the Jordanians captured the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and purged it of Jews. Although she enjoins readers to sympathize with her family’s exile, she evinces no regret that the Jordanians obliterated 3000 years of Jewish Jerusalem, destroyed all but one of Jerusalem’s 35 synagogues, and forced the exile of its Jewish residents.
Though charmingly illustrated, this book offers a litany of resentment, understandable but unjustified. Moushabeck’s family home was lost in a war begun by the Arabs, who refused to recognize the United Nations’ 1947 vote for the partition of Mandate Palestine, which Israel accepted. Had this vote been accepted by the Arab leadership, two new states, one Arab, one Jewish, would have been created, and Moushabeck’s family would be able to use their key today.
The CNN article also introduces Ibtisam Barakat’s “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood,” a memoir of her experience of the outbreak and aftermath of the Six-Day War (1967).
The book opens as a fleeing man warns Barakat’s Palestinian family, “After their [the Israelis’] planes attack, they will be combing the area house by house. The word is that they will butcher every living thing that they find.”
But “butcher[ing] every living thing” was not the Israelis’ objective. This was a defensive war against four enemy nations whose leaders openly declared their genocidal intentions:
“Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” (Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 26, 1967)
“In the event of a conflagration, no Jews whatsoever will survive.” Ahmed Shukeiri, future chairman, PLO)[iv]
According to Michael Oren’s definitive history of the Six-Day War, “Few Israelis even came in contact with civilians, most of whom had fled with the Syrian command, well in advance of the attackers,” and in general civilian casualties on both sides were “remarkably low” because most of the fighting “took place far from major population centers.”[v]
Still, the Jordanians lobbed 6000 shells at Jewish Jerusalem, damaging over 900 buildings (including Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem). They wounded over 1,000 civilians, 150 seriously, and caused 20 deaths.[vi] None of this is reported by Barakat.
The panic on the part of Arab families like Barakat’s may have been triggered by Arab propaganda; we know, for example, that one Palestinian working for UNRWA in Jordan said that Arab politicians were spreading rumors that “all the young people would be killed. People heard on the radio,” the UNRWA administrator went on, “that this is not the end only the beginning so they think maybe it will be a long war and they want to be in Jordan.”[vii]
Barely two decades after the Holocaust, Israel was defending itself against a second annihilation, not “butcher[ing] every living thing they can find,” as Barakat would have it.
Other accusations are belied by the facts. For example, if the goal of Israel had really been to dispossess the Palestinians, why was Barakat’s family permitted to return to their home in Ramallah after an absence of only four months and 13 days? Doesn’t that indicate that dispossession of the Arabs was not Israel’s primary goal in this war? True, the area was occupied, and Ibtisam’s mother was scared by some poorly-behaved young Israeli soldiers who made rude gestures at her. But they were not ethnically cleansed from their home. Barakat’s memoir honestly reflects how the outbreak and consequences of the war appeared to her. But if how it appeared is contradicted by documentary evidence, the book should not be transmitted uncritically to the uninformed young reader.
Naomi Shihab Nye is another author CNN promotes. Her picture book “Sitti’s Secrets” is an apolitical evocation of her grandmother’s memories, but her middle-grade/young adult novel Habibi has an agenda. Her Palestinian-American protagonist Liyana visits her father’s family on the West Bank, and she meets a Jewish-Israeli boy, Omer. Liyana voices unease with the Jewish idea of being a “chosen people,” without really understanding the complexities of the biblical concept. Liyana thinks it has to do with a sense of “being ‘chosen’ over anybody else.” Though Omer proposes a different angle on Jewish chosenness (“Maybe Jews are also chosen to suffer. Or to be better examples”) in the end Liyana concludes, “It seems like big trouble any way you look at it. I’m sorry, but I don’t like it. Do you believe you’re chosen? It sounds like the teacher’s pet.”
Pace Liyana, chosenness in the Hebrew Bible simply means that God chose the descendants of the patriarch Abraham, who first acknowledged the one God, to communicate the idea of God’s oneness to a pagan world. It also means that God will be particularly stringent with the Jews: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.”[viii]
If being chosen meant being racially superior, Judaism wouldn’t believe, as it does, that the Messiah will descend from Ruth, a non-Jew born among the Moabites, the Hebrews’ enemies.[ix]
But perhaps, at bottom, Nye attacks the Jewish idea of chosenness because it underpins the millennia-long Jewish claim that God selected them to live in the land of Israel, a claim Nye herself cannot accept.
Though Habibi is not antisemitic in intent, the author’s misreading of Jewish chosenness presents to young readers an antisemitic trope that has perpetuated resentment of the Jew throughout history. Elsewhere in her writings Nye, a renowned children’s poet, insists that, “[s]ince Palestinians are also Semites, being pro-justice for Palestinians is never an anti-Semitic position, no matter what anybody says.”[x]
The term “antisemitism” was coined by German antisemite Wilhelm Marr in his book The Victory of Germanicism over Judaism (1879) expressly to distinguish his racial antisemitism, which he argued was based on “science,” from the German term “Judenhauss,” which had religious overtones. Marr didn’t want to be accused of old-fashioned religious bigotry. His coinage, which has been widely accepted, had nothing to do with Arabs; to argue, as Nye does, that it is never antisemitic to criticize Israel after you redefine the term to take the Jew out of antisemitism is pure sophistry.
Amahl Bishara’s picture book “The Aida Camp Alphabet” promotes hostility to Israel to very young readers by presenting the negative conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp without context. A terrifying image of the looming gray wall that dominates the road, and of soldiers with guns drawn, demonizes Israelis. Given that the audience for a picture book is children, it would be pointless to explain
In fact, what Bishara describes as the “wall that looms over our homes” saves lives. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, ”From September 2000 until the end of 2006, more than 3,000 terrorist attacks originated in the West Bank, resulting in the deaths of 1,622 people inside the Green Line. By comparison, since 2007, when most of the fence was erected, until mid-2022, 141 attacks killed 100 people.”[xi]
The CNN article also unquestioningly accepts Bishara’s claim that her “own family was expelled from the Galilee in 1948.” That may be, but the term “expelled” is thrown around loosely by Palestinians. Some, like the residents of Lydda and Ramle, were expelled, but most Palestinians fled, and anyone who visits the Galilee will know that it is heavily populated by Arabs who stayed put.
By all means, children should read about the cultures of their classmates, including those from the Middle East. For stories of Palestinian origin, I would highly recommend Sonia Nimr’s “Ghaddar the Ghoul and other Palestinian Stories” (Francis Lincoln Children’s Books, 2007) for its stories of jinns and talking shoes, princesses and tricksters. For younger children, there is a gorgeous picture book, “Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! A Palestinian Folktale” (Two Lions, 2012), about a mischievous magical cooking pot, retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and illustrated by Alik Arzoumanian. But the books promoted by Elassar and CNN serve only to imbue vulnerable young readers with antipathy to Israel and Israelis, which can easily slide (as the “chosen people” trope shows) into antisemitism. It’s time to stop indoctrinating the young with hatred.
[i] Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (All Points Books, 2020), p. 186.
[ii] Among these were Egyptian Jewish film actress Rachel Abraham Levy, and singer Leila Mourad. Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, provided health care to all children, no matter their faith, in hospitals in pre-state Israel and after the founding of the state.
[iv] Quoted in Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, p. 270
[v] Michael Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, p. 306.
[vi] Oren, pp. 186-187.
[vii] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/myths-and-facts-online-the-1967-six-day-war. Accessed May 12, 2021.
[viii] Amos, 3:2.
[ix] Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. NY: William Morrow, 2001. p. 557.
[x] The Tiny Journalist: Poems (BOA Editions, 2019), Author’s Note.
Marjorie Gann is a retired elementary school teacher and a children’s author. A book she co-authored on the history of world slavery, Five Thousand Years of Slavery, was recognized as a 2012 Notable Book for a Global Society. The authors’ Speak a Word for Freedom: Women Against Slavery was published in 2015. She sits on the executive of the Association of Jewish Libraries–Canada, and is a frequent reviewer of children’s books for AJL News and Reviews.