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Banned in Canada

Jewish groups protesting a pro-Palestinian book are missing the point

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The Forest of Reading is a recreational program run by the Ontario Library Association. Every year more than 250,000 Ontarians vote for their favorite books, a tradition that culminates in The Festival of Trees, Canada’s largest literary event for young readers. It’s a waterfront party with authors, illustrators, and live music.

It all sounds so sylvan and merry. But this year, in the Red Maple category—the recommended reading list for 7th and 8th graders—one of the 10 nominated books is The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter. And its inclusion is making a lot of Canadian Jews very unhappy. The book tells the story of Amani, a Palestinian girl in the West Bank who wants to be a shepherd like her grandfather. But the land that has been in her family for generations is now under Israeli occupation. Israeli soldiers prevent the family from harvesting their olives, grazing the sheep, or driving on the highways near their home. Israeli settlers poison the sheep’s water, bulldoze Amani’s house, and shoot and kill her dog. Amani’s father and uncle are beaten and thrown in jail; her father seeks justice and peace through negotiation, but her uncle believes in violent resistance. There is one sympathetic Jewish character, a teenage settler who realizes that the Jews are wrong and decides to leave the country. In a heavy-handed metaphor, the Israelis are repeatedly compared to wolves stalking the sheep. A Jewish rabbi and a lawyer who help Palestinians make brief appearances, but the book gives no indication that there is a serious Israeli peace movement.

The book was published in 2008 to mostly good reviews and little controversy. But when it was nominated to the 2010 Forest of Reading list, the uproar began. Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded that the book be “made unavailable” to students. “The Simon Wiesenthal Center does not promote censorship,” said president Avi Benlolo, “but the issue is that this book is so skewed and so overtly against the State of Israel. … Any school child who reads the book will grow to hate the State of Israel and possibly the Jewish people.” The Jewish Tribune, a publication of B’nai Brith Canada, ran a story with the provocative headline: “Could this book turn your child against Israel?” The story’s opening sentence: “Reading this book made me want to go to Palestine and kill Israelis.” The quote was attributed to a girl named Madelaine on the book review site Goodreads.com. Quoting her was Toronto parent and Jewish Tribune contributor Brian Henry, who also wrote an open letter to Ontario’s education minister demanding the book’s withdrawal from the reading list. “Unfortunately, that’s a perfectly natural reaction to this book,” Henry wrote. And in the same issue of the Tribune, Sheila Ward, a trustee of the Toronto District School Board, said, “I will move heaven and earth to have The Shepherd’s Granddaughter taken off the school library shelves.”

Ward, it was clear, hadn’t read the book. “This book,” she wrote, “on the basis of what Mr. Henry has sent to me, is so blatantly biased that it is intolerable. I suspect I’ll be accused of censorship. If it means I will not support hate-provoking literature with no redeeming qualities, I am delighted to be called a censor.”

Anita Bromberg, national director of legal affairs at B’nai Brith Canada, told me in an interview that calling the book into question had nothing to do with its literary merit. “The book isn’t badly written,” she says. “I’ve read most of it. What we are questioning is the educational value. Anyone without a lot of background or experience who was reading it would accept that everything in there gives context to what goes on in the Middle East, but it is one-sided, biased, and more based on propaganda than truth. I think this book is inappropriate to be on the list or in the school setting.”

The Canadian mainstream press has picked up on the story. For now, Toronto school officials say the book will remain in school libraries, but Henry is filing a formal complaint. Concern over the book’s one-sidedness is understandable. But there’s a larger question here: How do we determine which books children should be allowed to read? Who should get to decide whether books are carried in school libraries or added to curricula?

Angela Maycock, assistant director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, believes that any demand for restriction is risky. “It quickly becomes a slippery slope,” she says. “Most of the time, people are motivated by genuine concern, fearing that harm will come to young people from being exposed to a book. That’s a laudable goal, wanting to keep young people safe. But where we get into trouble is when one group wants the power to restrict the access of everyone. In a library, everyone gets to choose for themselves. No one is required to read The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.”

Anyone offended by a book, says Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has recourse. “You don’t have to be quiet if you don’t like something,” Bertin says. “Anybody can file a complaint. There’s generally a review process. But it’s not about whether someone likes the message but whether teachers and librarians think the book has pedagogical value or promotes reading. The problem with saying ‘this offends me, and therefore it shouldn’t exist’ is that when drawn to its larger conclusion, nothing should exist because everything offends someone. That would shut down all but the banal and bland, and it shuts down the ability to have a conversation about all kinds of matters of public interest.”

So, how should Jewish communal organizations react to literature and art they perceive as anti-Israel? “B’nai Brith could ask to have a panel discussion at schools about the book’s representations of Israel and why they find them upsetting, though that would mean they’d have to listen to others who don’t agree with them,” Bertin suggests. “In my dream world, we’d be having discussions about why people react the way they do, and maybe by doing that, we’d also get people to respect and understand other people’s sensibilities.” The question of balance—whether parents and educators should require a book or a library to strive toward even-handedness—is a trickier one. “If you have 10 books on evolution, do you need 10 books on creationism?” Bertin asks. “If you have 10 books on the Holocaust, do you need 10 books by Holocaust deniers? Balance is an impossible proposition. We strive for a diversity of viewpoints and a wide range of thoughts and opinions so individuals can choose.”

B’nai Brith and the Friends of the Wiesenthal Center are of course not alone in advocating censorship (whether or not they choose to call it that) of potentially upsetting books. In recent years parents have challenged Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its use of the N word; Texas School Board members have rewritten children’s textbooks to reflect their beliefs that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation; the Spertus Museum in Chicago closed a 2008 exhibition of historical maps of the Middle East and contemporary art because some Jews felt the maps reflected an anti-Israeli point of view. In 2006, Brandeis University took down an exhibition of art by teenagers from Palestinian refugee camps, curated by an Israeli student.

But might young people have better critical faculties than we give them credit for? Remember Madelaine, the teenaged girl who supposedly wants to kill Israelis after reading The Shepherd’s Granddaughter? If you actually read her Goodreads review, you’ll see that she goes on to say the following: “Please allow me to explain that this feeling, luckily, did not last. Once I finished the book and spent a few minutes sitting quietly in a corner, I calmed down. I promise, I no longer want to kill anyone. But I have never, ever read a book that made me so incredibly angry … because of the endless, frustrating parade of injustices that happen to the protagonist and her family. That’s why it gets three stars, by the way—the story really wasn’t that great, but I felt it deserved credit for stirring such powerful emotions in me. … So, I’m asking my more politically-savvy Goodreads friends to please explain the other side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This clusterfuck cannot be nearly as simple as The Shepherd’s Granddaughter makes it seem.”

Does that sound like it was written by someone who seriously wants to kill Jews? Or someone without critical faculties? No. This young reader (she’s 21, as her profile says—it’s unclear where the Jewish Tribune got the idea she was a teenager) is actually asking to be educated. But Brian Henry didn’t quote that part of her review. And being disingenuous and hyperbolically alarmist about the threats posed by novels—as opposed to the threats caused by shutting down all discussion—means we don’t get the chance to elucidate and debate. If The Shepherd’s Granddaughter can teach us anything, it’s that even educated people with a glorious literary tradition sometimes feel justified in banning books. And we’re all poorer for it.

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Fred Friedman says:

Who are these judges that choose the “best” books for the list? They should get a better group of judges, if this is really what they think is good reading. I can’t believe that there are not alot better books out there.

Joshua says:

Excellent Post.

I oppose censorship–and with books, it is too much like book burning. Swamp the papers with letters suggesting the book is very biased and does not tell readers how youngsters are taught to hate and kill Israelis and how grandfather prob ably wants Israel destroyed, and how the neighbors here seen as simply folks have gone to war over and over to destroy Israel.

Garry says:

Here we go again. To be Jewish means to too many Jews to be liberal and understanding of everyone’s point of view even if it means destroying what is left of the Jewish people. Did we learn enough from the Protocols of the Elders of zion and Mein Kampf? I can assure you that there are plenty of well written anti semitic books-but only Jews fight for their enemies to be heard. Arabs would never do it, nor would any other ethnic group. What shall we say “Democracy uber alles? Come on folks-wisen up and get real. After Israel and Jews are secure you can have your fun and tikkun the olom.

Marjorie, you have hit the nail on the head. This is precisely what the debate is actually about. You provide answers where others merely get mad and make gross generalizations. Thank you.

I thought Canada had a hate speech law. How is promoting hatred of Jews, even through a book, not a violation of this law? But then again anti-semitism does run rampant on Canadian college campuses and noone does anything. The only time you hear about censorship is if a conservative or pro-Israel speaker comes to town. Seems the organizers of this award have their own hidden agenda if you ask me.

n eisen says:

very much value the wide scope of this review AND would have more appreciated an immediate indication that there was coming an interesting balance to the heartbreaking, inflammatory while understandable first words of the (non-)teenager. the review itself needs a kind of “more coming/ read on” notice. we all know too many articles are never read to their distant end.. and the continuation and thoughtfulness of the quoted young woman’s response were both valuable and important for the whole story’s significance. thank you.

Strangely ehough, I agree with all these responses. I certainly wish the judges for this program were not so stupid. And, yes, this does call for some inschool discussions.

n eisen says:

(corrected – i clicked “submit” too soon)very much value the wide scope of this review AND would have more appreciated an immediate indication that there was coming an interesting balance to the heartbreaking, inflammatory while understandable first words of the (non-)teenager. the review itself needs a kind of “more coming/ read on” notice. we all know too many articles are never read to their distant end.. and the continuation and thoughtfulness of the quoted young woman’s response were both valuable and important for the whole story’s significance. and please consider: not indicating that the tone and meaning change at the end is inflammatory in itself. thank you. thank you.

Garry you Sound like A fascist.

This Just Goes to Show Zionism has Consumed the Yiddin.

Israel is not A Jewish State, and it Never Was, Israel is A Zionist State!

Ranen says:

It sounds to me from the description that young Jews and adults (!) could greatly benefit from its portrayal of life under occupation and the thuggery of many settler Jews. I am ordering it immediately for possible course adoption.

Garry says:

To Netanel zyon ben yehoshua, if tht is your name. I doubt that you have any idea what a fascist is. There is little difference between extremists of the right and those of the left.If being concerned about Jewish survival makes one a fascist in your opinion, so be it.Of what issue is it whether ISrael is a Zionist or Jewish state. To enemies of Jews it is irrelevant. The existence of Jews is what troubles them and Jews are under no obligation to support their so called right to express their opinion or to act. Being Jewish, dear Netanel, has nothing to do with being a liberal or worshiping Marxism in its various forms.

If those who continue to support Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the ongoing theft of those lands do not want books written about these criminal actions then they should do what they can to end the occupation. I have not yet read the book but I will and will also give it to my children and grandchildren. I know what the author writes about the IDF and settler treatment of the Palestinians is right on the mark. Every incident about which the author writes has happened to Palestinians, the people who paid a high price for the European anti-Semitism that lead to the creation of the State of Israel and their dispossession from their homes and lands. As a Jew I am deeply ashamed of the country that says it represents me. I am also deeply ashamed of those who want to censor the truth so that people can say, “I just didn’t know.”

Bryan says:

Hateful books should not be promoted for youthful consumption. If they are, Canada will devolve into yet another antisemitic State like every Arab State which continuously inculcates Jew-hatred among its youth. Free speech to the raving loonies if fine, but it should NEVER be seen as supported by any State or educational agency. The terrible and complex issues in the MidEast are NOT and appropriate venue for a children’s book – unless one wants to promote rhetoric-based hatred for generations to come.

sheldan says:

First, it is debatable regarding the alleged “theft” of “Palestinian” lands. Whenever I see that phrase, I know someone–and sad to say, too many Jews–has swallowed Palestinian propaganda. At best, the West Bank and Gaza are disputed territories. If people did enough research, they might be surprised to learn that the issue is not as simple as they have portrayed it.

Secondly, yes, there have been abuses of Palestinians by some Israelis. But somehow there is silence by these same people when Jews are terrorized and murdered by the same Palestinians (and don’t try to distinguish between the PA and Hamas–both groups have the same rhetoric regarding Jews and Israel). I think that there is enough mistrust on the Israeli side to understand (but not justify) some of the behavior that has happened. (And don’t even try to condemn the word “understand” when the Palestinians appeal to us to “understand” their rage.)

Thirdly, Israel IS the Jewish state. (Zionism by definition is the movement of the Jewish people to live in the Jewish state of Israel.) Why are we so concerned about living in this particular part of the world if it wasn’t the land G-d promised the Jewish people in the Torah?

Finally, about the subject of the post: Yes, “censorship” is a slippery slope and I do not agree with all the other books that people have proposed to “ban.” But there is a limit to our tolerance. A book that is so one-sided can have the same effect on the reader as Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And remember, these are 7th and 8th graders. There is considerable doubt as to how they are affected by this kind of story–especially one with this kind of bias regarding this particular conflict. I think the Canadian officials involved have to use some common sense when deciding which books are acceptable for students.

Jonathan Usher says:

If Little Black Sambo can be banned, not only for children but for adults as well, surely this book, which promotes greater hatred than Little Black Sambo should also be banned. Alternatively, let’s bring back the Little Black Sambo series so we can show children what racism is about and so that the children can learn from discussing the book. This latter suggetion is the obvious logical conclusion for those who want to put The Shepherd’s daughter on the school shelves.

Michael says:

How about reading the book first, people?

I’m afraid your article mis-states the issue. The problem is not that students are allowed to read the Shepherd’s Granddaughter; my objection is that the book is being actively promoted: recommended to every student in grades 7 and 8 in Ontario as a book they should read.

Our schools shouldn’t promote anyone’s political agenda, but with this book that’s precisely what they’re doing.

The article also understates the book’s offensiveness: it portrays Israelis as child-murderers, commanded by the Jewish God to steal and kill.

The article also fails to note the absence of alternate material about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for kids of this age. A twelve-year-old wanting to know if Israelis really go around killing Palestinian children will find nothing about the conflict in the school library. The fact is that the only people writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for kids are anti-Israeli propagandists.

On the good news side: As noted, this book was recommended by the Ontario Library Association, and this is the second time they’ve slipped a piece of gross anti-Israeli propaganda into the Forest of Reading program. Recognizing this, the Toronto School Board (the largest in Canada) will henceforth review books from the Library Association before they start recommending them to children.

Second, the Toronto Board, the York Board and the Niagara Board (and [perhaps others I haven’t heard about) have all flagged the book as biased or controversial. different school boards use different labels, but the effect is the same: students are alerted that the book is not even-handed and teachers are instructed to guide students in reading it.

Third, the Toronto Board is continuing its review of the Shepherd’s Granddaughter. I hope they’ll acknowledge it was a mistake to recommend a book driven by a political agenda to students and that in providing this book without also providing more truthful and even-handed material, the Board didn’t follow its policies.

Censorship is bad for the Jews. Even Dershowitz would oppose this.

Thanks for all the comments. Next week’s column will offer suggestions of different young adult novels about the “matzav,” as the Israel-Palestinian conflict is called in Israel — it means The Situation (which sounds to me like a great name for a band). It will offer more ideas, short of calling for a book ban, about what to do when you’re horrified by a children’s or young adult book. Right now, I’m frantically reading.

Brian — if you’d like to email me privately about why you think Three Wishes (the first book some Canadian Jews objected to on the Forest of Reading list, a few years ago) was objectionable, I’d love to hear from you. I read it and thought it was a very different book from The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.

I think what makes me the most sad about these kinds of stories is that those who are made angry by the book in question never really talk about what controversial books are best at: promoting discussion. What if, instead of blanket condemnation, they used the book as an opportunity to talk about the real situation in the region and about anti-Israeli propaganda and what it means for the peace process or for the Jewish people?

I might be biased, because I’m a librarian and it is part of our charge and our professional ethical code to not just quietly include controversial books but to promote them as tools for learning, discussion, challenge, and change.

Theresa says:

I love librarians so much!!

Yes, this is the key distinction: …”the threats posed by novels—as opposed to the threats caused by shutting down all discussion”… A lot of popular YA books, including several on the Red Maple list, deal with prejudice and injustice — one story is about child soldiers forced to take part in genocide. And kids can handle it, as much as any of us can, but these books need to be taught with discussion and historical context. If a book seems too one-sided, you can always supplement it with a book from a different perspective. The goal of the discussion is not relativism, it’s identifying *common* values.

If you try to hide unpleasant issues, then when students inevitably do encounter hateful, incendiary literature, they will be more susceptible because they have never faced the deep emotions and complexity of the underlying conflicts. Reading personal stories, on all sides, is an inoculation against both complacency and extremism.

Nancy says:

Palestinian activists have been trying to promote their agenda to youngsters by all means possible. They’ve now succeeded with step one. What useless dupes don’t undertstand is that the Palestinian agenda is not to promote peace but to vilify Israel and the Jews. They’ve done such a good job of it with their own children via children’s shows promoting martyrdom. For people who think it’s a good idea to promote a competing narrative, think again. If the competing narrative would be a truthful account, it would have to include stories of Israeli bodies being torn apart by “martyred” Palestinians, Israeli children’s heads being bashed against rocks, Arab women being genitally mutilated and being murdered for the family’s honour. Are grades 7 and 8 students ready for the truth? I thought not.

Why not have this book available, as well as a book that talks about, for example, an Israeli family affected by suicide bombings or a brief history of Zionism? It’s not right to promote this book (or pro-Israel books for that matter), but if you’re going to do so, have some other books available that frame a more balanced context of the conflict. Although how you get into a discussion of this conflict within the scope of a fast-paced curriculum for 7th and 8th graders is a challenge for someone greater than myself.

Brian Henry, thank you for your sage response:

I’m afraid your article mis-states the issue. The problem is not that students are allowed to read the Shepherd’s Granddaughter; my objection is that the book is being actively promoted: recommended to every student in grades 7 and 8 in Ontario as a book they should read.

Our schools shouldn’t promote anyone’s political agenda, but with this book that’s precisely what they’re doing.

The article also understates the book’s offensiveness: it portrays Israelis as child-murderers, commanded by the Jewish God to steal and kill.

The article also fails to note the absence of alternate material about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for kids of this age. A twelve-year-old wanting to know if Israelis really go around killing Palestinian children will find nothing about the conflict in the school library. The fact is that the only people writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for kids are anti-Israeli propagandists.

On the good news side: As noted, this book was recommended by the Ontario Library Association, and this is the second time they’ve slipped a piece of gross anti-Israeli propaganda into the Forest of Reading program. Recognizing this, the Toronto School Board (the largest in Canada) will henceforth review books from the Library Association before they start recommending them to children.

Second, the Toronto Board, the York Board and the Niagara Board (and [perhaps others I haven’t heard about) have all flagged the book as biased or controversial. different school boards use different labels, but the effect is the same: students are alerted that the book is not even-handed and teachers are instructed to guide students in reading it.

Third, the Toronto Board is continuing its review of the Shepherd’s Granddaughter. I hope they’ll acknowledge it was a mistake to recommend a book driven by a political agenda to students and that in providing this book without also providing more truthful and even-handed material, the Board didn’t follow its policies.

Linda Press Wulf, author of historical fiction for young adults, Berkeley, CA

Toby Harris says:

Thanks for this provocative article. I agree with some other posters that it doesn’t seem like an appropriate book for the teacher’s recommended list. That said, I would not censor it. Like other librarians mentioned, I might use it to begin a discussion – use it as a teaching moment. And I would certainly promote and encourage the many other young adult titles which present a less biased perspective. I say all of this without having read the book. I look forward to seeing the titles offered next week and hope some Judaic young adult librarians are consulted.

Matt says:

While the book does appear to be very one-sided, there is some truth to it. When I was in college I had friends who grew up in Palestinian refugee camps, who had parents that never broke the law and were peaceful people, but were treated with scorn and hatred by Israelis simply for being Palestinians. There are Palestinian towns that have been effectively taken over by Israelis, and the Israelis there literally terrorize and force Palestinian residents to stay inside their homes or risk being accosted by a mob of children throwing rocks and stones at them. What did these innocent people do to deserve this treatment? Being Palestinians. There have also been other instances where a militant right-wing Jewish mob started shouting and throwing things at a Palestinian woman simply trying to walk down the street. To say that all of the hate is coming from the Palestinian side is truly the one-sided picture of things. And I’m not going to get into a “chicken and egg” debate over “who started the hate”, because nobody will ever win that argument.

Jason Price says:

Marjorie argues against censorship but erases posts that disagree with her point of view.

The notion of censorship doesn’t apply to schools since schools make lists of approved readings. List by definition, since some books are judged worthy other not, are a form of censorship.

Finally, why is it necessary to include books about Palestinians in the school curriculum and not about say Sudanese, or Kurds, or books about the victims of Hamas? This is just rank hypocrisy.

Yo Garry, Actually my Hebrew name is Netanel Tzyon Ben-Yehoshua.
My Name is Nethanel Zion Ben-Yahushua. But my Friends call me Net.
And this is me http://www.opinionsfromanoppressed.blogspot.com And if you wish to Wipe Away the 25 years that are my life all you are Doing is Proving my Case Correct.

Hevenu Shalom Aleinu

O and Garry If Zionism is so Grate,
then how to do you Justify
the Zionist-Terrorists
who Attacked Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Home.
The Sickest part of that hole thing is,
Rabbi Michael Lerner is not Even Anti-Zionist,
but some how you and others like you,
want to say Zionism is about protecting Jews..
Righttt OK Gary Right.
You Can’t Justify the Bloodshed of Gaza,
Jews and Muslims are Brother Communities,
your Biggest problem is your lack of history and your trust in the Media.
and I Don’t Care how you Justify it I Know what the Torah and the Mitzvot say You Shall not Murder.

Hevenu Shalom Aleinu

Jason, if I deleted posts that disagreed with my point of view, WHY would I allow the comments to stand that call me a vapid ignoramus, the worst parent ever, a dictator, an incompetent writer who sounds like an uneducated teenager, and a self-hating Jew? even *I* don’t have THAT much self-hate!

trying to find you, what’s your twitter?

I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too short for beginners. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

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Banned in Canada

Jewish groups protesting a pro-Palestinian book are missing the point

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