Bias from the mouths of babes

Does Ellis's book on the true feelings of Palestinian and Israeli children reveal an unspoken agenda?

wishbook 88 298 (photo credit: )
wishbook 88 298
(photo credit: )
Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak By Deborah Ellis Groundwood Books 144pp., $8.95 It was a sunny day in June 2002 when Canadian children's book author Deborah Ellis received a commission from her publisher at Groundwood Books. The assignment was anything but simple: visit Israel, interview Israeli and Palestinian children and create a book that documents their thoughts and feelings on each other, on how the political crisis in the Middle East is affecting them and on their personal hopes and dreams. " Up until that time, I'd been focused on other subjects, and I had virtually no background on this issue," said Ellis, a London, Ontario-based writer who has penned books about children in Afghanistan, including Looking For X and Parvana's Journey. In November 2002 she boarded a plane for a two-month visit to Israel. Once here, she based herself in Jerusalem and set about recording the testimony of 20 children aged eight through 18 throughout the country and the West Bank. In Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, she attempts to describe the circumstances of their lives before allowing them to speak in their own words. "I asked the children I met to tell me about their lives - what made them happy, what made them afraid and angry and how the war has affected them," she writes in her introduction. "Some of their stories are hopeful. Some are disturbing, even shocking. But they reflect the world these children live in." Published in 2004, Three Wishes achieved acclaim in North America. It was named a finalist in the 2005 Information Book Award in Canada, and was selected by the Ontario Library Association as part of its Silver Birch Reading program, which aims to encourage recreational reading for children in grades four through six. The Pennsylvania School Librarians Association voted Three Wishes among the top 40 books recommended to young adults, while the Cooperative Children's Book Center declared it best of the list for 2005. But not everyone is charmed with Ellis's efforts. Some, like elementary teacher Sarah Burkowski, who teaches in Ontario's York Region, was horrified by a variety of interviews in which the Israeli army was demonized, its soldiers depicted as heartless beasts who inflict misery just because they can. "Killing an Israeli will make me feel glad. It will make me feel strong," says Wafa, age 12. "I am tired of them making me feel small and weak. I want all the Israelis who are trying to take our land to be killed." Twelve-year-old Hakim, interviewed in a hospital bed after being injured by the Israeli army, says: "I don't want to know any Israelis. They are not the same as me. They only care about killing. I fight the soldiers a lot. It feels good to throw stones at them. They should not be in my town, so I throw stones to make them go away. I have only one wish: to get well soon so I can go back to fighting the Israelis." In one interview, 12-year-old Salam, the sister of Aayat, a suicide bomber, describes her admiration for her sister, and her willingness to follow her example. "She is a martyr and is now in paradise. I would like to join her there. I would have to become a martyr like her, to be able to be in paradise with her. I don't think it would hurt if I blew myself up." In several chapters, Palestinian children declare open animosity for their Israeli contemporaries, insisting that Israelis are taught to hate them and that they have nothing in common. Many of the Israeli children, by contrast, offer more balanced, thoughtful insights. "I know there are good people among the Palestinians," declares Yibaneh, 18. "It's impossible for a people to be all bad, every one of them. But the good people aren't talking loudly enough, or they're not being listened to or there are not enough of them." "I don't know why the Palestinians are so angry with us. We're nice people," says eight-year-old Danielle. "If I could meet a Palestinian girl my age, we could play together. That way she could see that I'm nice and friendly and she won't want to blow me up." BURKOWSKI WAS so enraged by the tone of Three Wishes that she contacted the Canadian Jewish Congress and her school board, spearheading the removal of the book from her school district's libraries. "I don't think there are any positive attributes in this book," she said. "It's not what Ellis says in the book, but what she doesn't say that disturbs me." Some of the Israeli children interviewed mentioned their reluctance to enter the Israeli army, for example - an attitude Burkowski believes is highly atypical. "What child in Israel doesn't want to be a soldier?" she wonders. "That's certainly not the norm. The Israeli children she does interview tend to demonize the Israeli army." In particular, she's referring to teenagers like Asif, 15, who hopes "to be a moral voice in the army, to keep other soldiers from abusing the Palestinians." The Palestinian children whose interviews are recorded in this book are presented without a clearly discernible context, says Burkowski. "From my understanding, the Palestinian kids are educated to believe that Israel should not have the right to exist. They're taught to hate Israelis, and yet Ellis doesn't talk about the underground tunnels where the Palestinians try to smuggle in weapons, or the fact that the Palestinians use their own children as suicide bombers and try to get them through the checkpoints." Frank Bialystok, chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress's community relations committee in Ontario, agreed with Burkowski, and formally requested that the Ontario Library Association and 60 school boards across Ontario remove Three Wishes from the Silver Birch Awards program. In a letter to Ontario Library Association Executive Director Larry Moore, Bialystok wrote that Three Wishes portrays Israelis as "brutal occupiers, intent on indiscriminate acts of humiliation and killing, who deserve to be killed in return; [and] the Palestinians are murderers who are so intent on killing Israelis that they are prepared to blow themselves to shreds in order to achieve their goal. Most dangerous, though, is the notion that suicide bombing represents a credible choice and may be worthy of emulation." Moore, quoted in the Canadian Jewish News, said the OLA will "honor the selection committee, who feel quite comfortable about their decision and stand by their feelings about the book." Megan Schliesman, a librarian at the Cooperative Children's Book Center School of Education at UW-Madison, believes that Three Wishes provides great fodder for classroom discussion. "The book shows how living with violence - or with the fear and threat of violence - has a very real and disturbing impact on the lives and perspectives of many children," she says. "Of course reading about a child aspiring to be a suicide bomber is disturbing. I hope everyone who reads that is disturbed by it. But it is also real, and it's important to understand that those feelings exist. The book is courageous in that way; it doesn't ignore what is disturbing to read or comprehend." Miriam Drazin, an elementary school teacher in the York School District for 25 years, disagrees. "I don't think Canadian children would understand these sentiments, and I don't know what they could possibly get out of this," she says. "They don't have the background or context, so I can't even begin to imagine what they'd come away with, but it certainly wouldn't be a positive view of anybody. I think there's a lot of hate represented in that book, and I don't think it's appropriate for kids." Schliesman argues that it's just the age group for which Three Wishes is appropriate that has been misjudged. "I think it speaks to older kids aged 12 through 18 about the world in which they live, and a region that has a huge impact on the world as a whole," she says. "And it does so in voices of children and teens, which means it offers readers a means to connect and identify in a powerful way. "The children interviewed in Three Wishes understand the tensions in a much more personal way than anyone - adult or child - who is not there ever could," she continues. "Whether they understand the political, historical, social and cultural complexities that affect those tensions and their own experiences is a more complicated question." A question Burkowski is struggling with is whether she was misled by Ellis's previous books. "As a teacher, I've read a lot of Ellis's books and used them in the classroom," she continues. "Perhaps in the other books I didn't have the background knowledge to know if what she was saying is wrong or right, but with this book, I do have the knowledge, and I found Three Wishes really biased." While Ellis doesn't agree with the decision to remove her book by the York School District, she says the decision was made "with the best possible intentions." "I know their decision was made without malice," she says. "The Middle East is a complicated place, getting more complicated all the time, and there's no one book that can provide all the information. Each book just raises more questions."