The books with Islamic themes for slightly older children are more problematic in that the children do not have a grasp of history in which to put what is written into context. These children have been conditioned to respond emotionally, rather than factually. Through fictional works such as the ones I will be discussing, children are directed to specific outcomes through the emotional attachments they make with the protagonists of these stories. Just as an adult watching a movie may find himself cheering for a successful jewelry heist by a jewel thief, these children develop an affinity with these fictional book characters.Furthermore, by middle school, these children have already learned how to be social justice warriors and now they are just awaiting a cause. Do these books provide such a motivation?
As you examine these book descriptions and excerpts, you need to attempt to read these as a child would. Children do not know what you know about this subject. Often there is more damage done by what is omitted, rather than the words written. What will they believe about this subject when they finish these books, and will these new-found beliefs be reinforced through school curricula, numerous other children’s books, television, and movies, etc.?
I will begin with a book for middle-schoolers. A Little Piece of Ground, by Elizabeth Laird, was first published by Macmillan in 2003, and by Haymarket in 2006. Haymarket’s motto is, “Books for changing the world.” Haymarket Books is a radical, independent, nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago, a project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.1 A Little Piece of Ground won the Hampshire Award (a British award) in 2004. This award is given for the best paperback fiction title published in the previous year for the 11-14 age group. The judges are Year 8 students from schools which subscribe to the School Library Service. Here in the USA, this book can be found on both the Accelerated Reader and Lexile Find a Book websites. This book was translated into Arabic by Palestinian author Sonia Nimer and was published by the Tamer Institute for Community Education.2
A Little Piece of Ground has been published with the generous support of the Wallace Global Fund. According to a May 24, 2018 article by Joshua Needelman in the Washington Jewish Week, “the Wallace Global Fund has donated thousands of dollars to groups that both endorsed and supported the BDS movement. . . . According to the Forward, the fund gave $25,000 to Code Pink, an anti-war organization that in 2009 endorsed the BDS movement. In 2011, it earmarked $150,000 for Haymarket Books, which later published “BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” by Omar Barghouti. Zipin, a Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania founder, called Barghouti a “disturbing individual who believes in the eradication of the state of Israel.”3
I tell you, the Israeli’s won’t be happy until they’ve driven us all out and grabbed every inch of Palestine for themselves. (39) [page numbers from e-book version]
They won’t be satisfied until they’ve driven us out of our whole country and taken all of it for themselves, . . . (152)
It was the only thing he wanted, after all. Just to be ordinary, he murmured. To live an ordinary life in an ordinary country. In free Palestine. But it’ll never work for us. They’ll never give us back what’s ours. (202)
Israeli tanks fired shells into a crowded building in Rafah last night, killing nine people and injuring . . . (226)
Karim’s family is on the way to visit his grandmother and help her pick olives when they are stopped by Israeli soldiers who order their father out of the car. His father and the other Palestinian men were ordered to remove their clothing.
“Why is Baba [father] taking off his clothes?”
. . . “To humiliate them. Old men, too. In front of their families, and strangers.” (52)
The men, standing out in the road in their underpants, looked funny and pathetic, helpless and stupid. They were staring . . . anywhere except at each other, or at the waiting line of cars in which their women and children sat, witnesses to their shame. (54)
. . . he saw his father’s humiliation (55)
. . . Hassan Aboudi had been allowed to dress himself and return to his car at the end of an agonizing hour.. . . I’d have fought back, he told himself savagely. I wouldn’t ever let them do that to me. But he knew that his father had had no choice. He knew he’d have been forced to bear it too. (56)4
Book reviews give a window as to the thoughts of the readers. 88% of the reviews are 5 star, 10% are 4 star and 2% are one star. Here is a 5 star Amazon review written in 2005 by Jane Chesterman (before the book was published in the U.S.):
I read 'a Little Piece of Ground' in one night when visiting UK last summer, and promptly bought another 45 copies, to distribute to others in the USA, and the whole lot have already gone. This book is a must read for every American who wants to know how our 3 billion tax dollars per year sent to Israel in military aid affect the everyday life of Palestinian families on a day to day basis. The whole thing comes alive on a personal level. You feel you are actually in Ramallah, suffering with the twelve year-old boy who only wants to be a kid and play football outside with his friends. Remember how a book changed American history so dramatically? 'Uncle Tom's cabin' [sic] is said to have played a major part in changing public opinion with respect to slavery. When 'a Little Piece of Ground' is published in the USA, as it undoubtably [sic] will, I would not be suprised if it changes public opinion about the Middle East conflict as dramatically.5
Guy Spier gave a lengthy one-star review in April of 2016. This is an excerpt from that review:
A more responsible author, or perhaps I should say, an author without a subtly and carefully concealed political motive would have found ways to weave other perspectives into the story. Given that she is consciously writing for a child audience, I find this worse than scurrilous. I find myself asking why an author would so deviously try to poison young children's minds and to incite hatred and intolerance.6
Reviewers often comment on how brutal the Israeli’s are. It’s difficult to discern if that description comes from reading this book alone, or from other sources. Regardless, most of these reviews are written by adults. There are over hundred reviews for this book on goodreads.
The Cat at the Wall, by Deborah Ellis, is hailed as a balanced story addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is about an extremely selfish thirteen year old girl from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who was killed while crossing a street. She was reincarnated as a cat who now lives in the real Bethlehem. The cat enters a Palestinian home that two Israeli soldiers have come to occupy in order to surveil the neighborhood for terrorists. Omar is a young boy they find living in the house alone. This cat is the narrator of this book.
While Ellis does show the humaneness of both Palestinians and Israelis, something of this so-called balance is lost when the most memorable scene in the entire book is of the death of both of Omar’s parents at an Israeli checkpoint. The cat saw it happen and tells the story. There were two young soldiers at the checkpoint when Omar’s father and ready-to-deliver pregnant mother showed up. The soldiers couldn’t understand Arabic and the Palestinian didn’t understand Hebrew. Furthermore, Omar’s mother was deaf. One moment Omar’s mother is lying on the ground screaming in pain (labor pains) and the next she has died. The father is killed when he attempts to get his identification papers which are inside his violin case. The Israeli soldier shoots him fatally, as he believes him to have a rifle. The Israeli soldiers were afraid that it was a trap—that the woman had a bomb strapped to her. When it was all said and done, the two Israeli soldiers had tears in their eyes. Tears at the checkpoint, but no translators? I’m still at a loss as to why Omar’s mother actually died instead of just delivering her baby right there at the checkpoint.
There is no real context given for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which leaves one to question just what the take away will be for the young readers. A picture is painted of Palestinians with rocks and Israelis with tanks; the Palestians as those who are occupied, and the Israelis as the occupier. The scales are tipped on this one.
Tasting the Sky, by Ibtisam Barakat, was published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Barakat was just three years old when the Six Day War in 1967 broke out. Barakat tells her story of growing up in Ramallah. Beginning with a traumatic memory at the age of three and a half, Ibtisam Barakat’s perceptions are through the eyes and understanding of a child. As a result, the sixth grade and up readers will only perceive these events as social injustices and human rights violations of which they are already considered experts in identifying.
How many of these young readers understand the meaning of “fedayeen” in this excerpt?
They sit outside with Father and speak about work, land, politics, religion, children, past and present wars, and the latest operations of armed resistance by the fedayeen. The resistance gives Father and the men hope that living under the occupation may not be forever. (38)
Father cursed, saying that we were living in the middle of a daily war. Where was it leading us? It seemed to him that the planes flying low above Ramallah were meant to keep us frightened. And we were. (149)
Father seemed sad. Many people had been saying that much of the land in Palestinian cities, towns, and villages would soon be confiscated by the Israeli government. (116)
Everything reached a breaking point . . . when two soldiers came to our door. Thinking they wanted a drink of water, Mother impatiently pointed to the water room. But they laughed, walked to the well, then returned. One of them pulled out his gun and stood away from the window to guard the door. The other threw kisses at Mother, hugged and touched his body up and down as he pointed to hers. . . . I looked at Mother’s face. She was pale and trembling. Before the soldier left, he made a circle with his hands, meaning that he would return on another day. (149-150)7
These are a few comments I found on Amazon: “Bought this for my daughter for a school assignment” . . . “I used this book as a read aloud in my 5th grade daughter's homeschooling segment on the middle east” . . . “Bought for daughter for Eng 1 class.” . . . “(Part of 9th grade reading list for my state.)” . . . “My rising 9th grader was assigned this book as a back-up summer reading assignment.” . . . “I read this book with 4 classes of seventh graders.” . . . “Propaganda that my son was FORCED to read in High School.”
Junior Library Guild Selection
A VOYA Nonfiction Honor Roll Selection
A Skipping Stones Honor Book
A Bank Street College of Education Best Book
An American Library Association/Amerlia Bloomer Project Top Ten Book
A News & Observer Newspaper’s Wilde Best Book Award Winner
A Palestine Book Award Shortlist Selection
An Arab-American National Museum Honor Book
A Middle East Book Award Honorable Mention
A Notable Book for a Global Society
Balcony on the Moon continues through Ibtisam Barakat’s adolescence during the years 1972-1981. I will quote from the Author’s Note at the end of this story:
Recognizing that many countries helped to alleviate the homelessness of the Jews as a people by making a home for them in Palestine, and that this resulted in the Palestinians becoming a homeless people, the United Nations formed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA. It is the largest UN agency dedicated to providing refugees of one displaced people with basic protection, housing, education, and health services.8
Resources are provided in the “Learn More” section. These include the UNRWA, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, and two books by former President Jimmy Carter—Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work.
In a January 2016 article in the JewishPress.com, author Leora Eisenberg JewishPress.com writes:
It’s no wonder that pro-Israel activism on campus struggles when its anti-Israel counterparts make up their facts. Usually made up of wide-eyed “liberal”, “progressive” students eager to change the world, anti-Israel groups tote their status as populist human rights groups while thriving on dubious narratives that nobody questions.
What is remarkable, however, is that these groups rely on sources such as Al Jazeera+ (more commonly known as AJ+) and the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) for their “facts.”
. . . The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) is an American organization which promotes dubious understanding, while claiming to “offer journalists facts, analysis, experts and digital resources.” If one ventures onto their home page, one finds stories– heartbreaking ones, admittedly– that are minimally researched and wholly one-sided. Even its “fact sheet” is rife with anecdotal references meant to elicit pity– only perpetuating a victim mentality. . .
. . . AJ+ and IMEU are hugely present on social media, making themselves widely accessible to their activist base, which is generally between the ages of 18 and 21, the age when many attend college and are susceptible to jumping on the “movement bandwagon,” so to speak, of anti-Israel activity. . . .9
There are numerous articles written about the corruption within the UNRWA. Barakat was also greatly affected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The biggest present donated by people in other countries, however—and much better than clothes—is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I saw a summary of it posted on a wall at the UNRWA office. I read it and copied every word from it into my notebook. Later, I wrote the key words on a piece of paper I keep in my pocket. (87)10
The twelve year-olds and up reading this story will also learn about Dalal al-Mughrabi:
. . . But in the spring of ninth grade, the entire West Bank is astonished by news of the actions of a twenty-year-old Palestinian woman, Dalal al-Mughrabi.
. . . Dalal, a young woman from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, infiltrated the Israeli border, leading a group of armed fedayeen. She and her group hijacked an Israeli bus to avenge the killing of a Palestinian military leader.
There was more than thirty hours of shooting and fierce fighting, with blood in the streets, sirens everywhere, many people injured, and others killed, including Dalal. Everyone in Ramallah is shocked that a young woman would do all this.
The girls in my school are moved to tears by Dalal’s story. They whisper that if we had a country and an army, she would be one of the heroes, like the men who carry arms and fight and die for their people’s freedom. We would name a street after her. Had she lived, she might have become the head of the country, like Menachem Begin, the current Israeli prime minister, who once led a group that committed many massacres in the struggle to create the nation of Israel.
. . . Dalal’s name, however, on Palestinian tongues, begins to mean courage and resistance . . . The Israeli newscasters, while mourning their dead, describe Dalal and her group as the most dangerous of terrorists. Israeli military leaders promise severe retaliation against the Palestinians. (122-123)11
I’m sure Barakat just forgot to mention that 38 Israelis were killed including thirteen children.
1 Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), cersc.org/
2 The Tamer Institute for Community Education, [TAMER Institute for Community Education is an educational non-governmental non for profit organization established in 1989 as a natural and necessary response to the urgent needs of the Palestinian community during the first intifada (uprising)], www.tamerinst.org/en/pages/about-tamer [This link is to the page showing the book translated into Arabic: https://www.tamerinst.org/en/products/list/94]
3 Joshua Needelman, “Jews question Democratic congressional nominee about BDS,” May 24, 2018, washingtonjewishweek.com/46251/jews-question-democratic-congressional-nominee-about-bds/news/
4 Elizabeth Laird. A Little Piece of Ground. Haymarket Books, 2006, e-book edition
7 Ibtisam Barakat. Tasting the Sky. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007
8 Ibtisam Barakat. Balcony on the Moon. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2016 [Margaret Ferguson Books was an imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2011-2017 and presently with Holiday House]
9 Leora Eisenberg, “Generation of Misinformation,” Jewish Press.com, January 20, 2016, www.jewishpress.com/indepth/analysis/generation-of-misinformation/2016/01/20/
10 Ibtisam Barakat. Balcony on the Moon. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2016