I BLAME IT all on The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it when I was about twelve. I have lived with a faint but constant thrum of fear ever since.The idea that a little girl was not protected, that an entire people was nearly exterminated and other Germans allowed it to happen âe" encouraged it to happen âe" that no one was safe, that few stood upâe¦ It pulverized any sense of safety my middle-class, loving, suburban home could provide.
The Diary of Anne Frank made me become aggressively vigilant against injustice, sexism, racism and classism. Hence, I became a feminist activist Palestinian Canadian woman. I fight shariah law. I gently remonstrate male buddies who use âeoepussyâe to mean someone weak and I write articles about things like books being banned.
When I first found out that award-winning author Deborah Ellis' book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak had been taken off school library shelves in Toronto early last month (during Freedom to Read Week no less), I was shocked to hear that it was because of one letter from the Canadian Jewish Congress to the Ontario Library Association and the Ontario School Boards. One letter.
The letter protested the book's involvement in the Silver Birch program in which around 50,000 children, ages nine to twelve, vote on a selection of books âe" books carefully chosen for their age-appropriateness by experienced librarians and educators; books that in the past have addressed issues as difficult as the Holocaust, poverty and racism.
Three Wishes is a book that shares the first-hand accounts of the lives of Palestinian and Israeli children. It tells the stories of children trying to be children despite a daily life filled with violence and fear. Deborah Ellis met these children on an extended visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories.
The CJC's letter claims that Three Wishes is age-inappropriate because some kids mention suicide bombing and Israeli army brutality. Then the organization almost comically tips its hand by listing the real reasons they object to the book: Ellis' clear and factual summary of Palestinian and Israeli history does not fit theirs. The CJC does not acknowledge that the creation of Israel is largely a result of the Holocaust and they do not admit to the Israeli army brutality that the Palestinian and some Israeli children talk about in the book. Teacher Sarah Burkwoski, who originally brought this book to the attention of the CJC, was most concerned that many Israeli kids talk about not wanting to join the Israeli army, a sentiment that is anathema to right-wing Zionists.
When I first heard about the banning, I was reluctant to write about it. I was burnt out on Palestine and deeply disturbed by the Hamas victory (there goes girl's night out in Ramallah). I had just finished a review of Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, a 400-page litany of the Palestinian's tragic history ending with the Shatila massacre. I had resolved to spend a week buying trinkets and getting pedicures to recover. But I couldn't let Three Wishes go down without a fight and so I laconically pitched it to the news editor at a Toronto alternative weekly, NOW Magazine, for which I am the correspondent on Palestinian issues.
âeoeWell, [the CJC] might have a point, I don't know if I'd want my daughter reading about suicide bombing,âe said Ellie Kirzner, my excellent editor at NOW. I was half relieved to drop the story, but also half heartsick of people tiptoeing around anything that has to do with Palestinians.
Then Ellie read Three Wishes and called me back immediately. âeoeI apologize,âe she said. âeoeIt's just a really sweet book. A sweet and sad book.âe
I asked my nieces to read it and tell me what they thought. It's banned in their Ottawa schools too, so the publisher, Groundwood Books, kindly mailed them each a copy. These are the horrifying lessons they learned:
Michalea, age 10
Probably everyone who reads it will see how lucky we are to be in a country without war. It also taught me to think of other countries and people in need of help like clean water and fresh food and even clothing. I would recommend this book to anyone who is ready to hear of people dying for no reason. It's a really sad book and it teaches every one not to be selfish.
Annie, age 12
Imagine being a child, living in poverty and hunger. Afraid of what is around you, not knowing who is safe. That is reality in Israel and Palestine, but when interviewed, that is not what these children talk about. Their three wishes were, in most part, peace. They had hoped that someday they could live in peace.
Radical stuff, huh?
With Ellie's blessing, now I had to go to the press conference on March 20th presented by Pen Canada, the Writers Union of Canada, June Callwood and others. A Jewish librarian named Bernard Katz called the CJC's letter âeoeunworthy of an undergraduate paperâe and was careful to stipulate âeoethe CJC doesn't represent all Jews.âe Israeli-born Canadian author Edeet Ravel, a Giller and Governor General award nominee, spoke: âeoeWhen I go to Palestinian towns âe" something I've been doing frequently over the past five years âe" as soon as the children and their parents see me with a notebook or a camera, they say repeatedly, âe~Tell them in Canada, tell them what's happening here, tell them.âe(TM)âe
This made me remember what my friend Rula in the Occupied Territories, whose uncle died of a heart attack while an ambulance waited at the other side of a checkpoint said. âeoeIt's like you are living with a person who has raped you and they are pretending they haven't.âe
School Board Trustee Chris Bolton said the Toronto School Board would be revisiting Three Wishes at a committee meeting on April 5th. Damn. Now I had to go to a School Board meeting.
May I speak frankly? I am not really a political reporter. I am a fiction and arts writer. It took them four hours of fretful debate before they voted on a motion to continue the restriction of Three Wishes and the Trusteesâe(TM) personal motivations and agendas were hopelessly transparent and bullishly presented. Trustee Josh Matlow admitted he was a member of the CJC and keenly questioned the reps from The Writer's Union, The OLA, Groundwood Books and Jewish Women Against The Occupation. Somehow, the real issue, the censorship of Palestinian voices, was not discussed but the Holocaust was.
But God forbid a Palestinian kid is allowed to complain about being shot by an Israeli soldier. This year. There was never any mention of the situation in Palestine in the meeting.
But it was a statement made by Trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher that echoed longest for me. She muttered crankily throughout the whole meeting and at one point barked, âeoeStop grandstanding!âe at Trustee Matlow. Actually she and Trustee Sheine Mankovsky, both grandmothers, wanted to restrict even more books.
âeoeI wish I had never read The Diary of Anne Frank as a kid,âe she said. âeoeIt scared me to death and I was never the same.âe âe"Mary-Lou Zeitoun
Thank you for reading this story…
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