Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Shepherd's Granddaughter, an open letter

Dear Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Education:

I have a child in a Toronto elementary school, and it's come to my attention that children in her class and children across Ontario in grades 7 and 8 are reading The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter, a book that seems designed to teach kids to hate Israelis.

The book is part of the Red Maple program – ten supposedly outstanding books selected by the Ontario Library Association and which teacher-librarians across the province are innocently encouraging children to read.

The heroine of The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is an adolescent shepherd girl named Amani. In her first encounter with an Israeli, he shoots one of her sheep. Amani flees before the Israeli can kill any more of her sheep – or her. Later, the Israelis poison her whole flock.

What provokes them to do this? Nothing at all. In this book, it’s just the sort of crime Israelis commit – all the time. Indeed, I can barely begin to list the atrocities these fictional Israelis heap on an innocent Palestinian family.

They build a settlement on the family’s grazing land, and when the Palestinians stage a peaceful sit-down protest, the Israeli army punishes them. They chop down the family orchards, crush their houses and barns with bulldozers, and shoot the heroine’s dog.

The father rides up on a donkey, shouting at the Israelis to stop, so they shoot the donkey out from under him. Then they beat the father, kicking him as he lies on the ground and striking him with their rifle butts.

When Amani throws a stone at one of the bulldozers, the driver pursues her, attempting to crush her to death.

The author has Israelis speak, too, but only to reinforce her damning portrayal of them. At a roadblock outside Hebron, an Israeli soldier informs the family: “We shoot Palestinian boys.”

But the main Israeli spokesperson is the son of one of the settlers, a sixteen-year-old American kid who befriends Amani. He explains to her that the Palestinians should simply leave because God gave this land to the Jews.

Amani says, “Your God says kill us? Steal our land?”

“They don’t see it as stealing,” the Jewish boy replies. “They’ll provoke you, kill you if that’s what it takes to get back their Holy Land.”

Note that the boy doesn't deny that the Jewish God commands Jews to kill; he rather confirms it.

In fairness, there is also a very minor second sympathetic Jewish character in this book - a rabbi. However, again, this character does not present the Israeli side of the debate. Rather, he's a good Jew because he takes the side of the Palestinians.

Also, anyone familiar with anti-Israel propaganda will recognize the theme of ethnic cleansing enunciated by this book. Of course, that Israel's supposed policy of forcing Palestinians to leave is pure fantasy can be seen by the population explosion in the West Bank over the past 40 years. But the depiction of Israelis as not merely brutal but genocidal helps build the rationale for terrorism – as it does in this book.

The heroine’s uncle Hani declares: “They want our land, our water. They want to drive us out, village by village.” Significantly, this character continually urges violence and applauds news of a suicide bombing that kills 11 young people, aged 14 to 21.

“No Israeli is innocent,” he declares.

It should go without saying (but apparently doesn’t) that the Israeli army doesn’t go around shooting children – boys or girls – and doesn’t favour crushing girls with bulldozers. This depiction of Israeli evil is so over the top it’s medieval, though admittedly the Jews in this story don’t poison wells, just sheep.

Further, Israel hasn’t built new settlements since 1999, and most settlements were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Continuing disputes about the settlements concern building within the boundaries of existing settlements.

Back when the sort of isolated settlements described in this story were being built, they were generally situated on barren, unused land, and contrary to the claims of this book, Palestinian villages were not mowed down to make way for them.

Israel has indeed torn down Palestinian houses – in particular the homes of suicide bombers in an attempt to discourage further mass murder, but not as this book claims, to punish Palestinians leading peaceful protests.

It must be noted that the heroine’s father is appalled by Uncle Hani’s enthusiasm for murder as a political tool, and the book’s author clearly prefers peaceful opposition to Israel. Nonetheless, Carter portrays terrorism – “resistance” as she calls it – as a legitimate side of the Palestinian dialogue. Indeed, with this book, Carter has made her own small contribution to the legend of Israeli evil, which is the narrative that fuels terrorism.

On “Goodreads” a website where readers review books, I came across this comment from a girl calling herself Madeline: “Reading this book made me want to go to Palestine and kill Israelis” (here). Unfortunately, that’s a perfectly natural reaction to this book which our kids are being encouraged to read.

You must realize that for the large majority of our children, this book will be their first substantive introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and having read the book, its contents will comprise their entire knowledge of the subject. And not only are they not being encouraged to also consult better and more even-handed sources, but for this age group, such books don’t even exist.

I don't want to this book banned, but our teacher-librarians should not be encouraging our children to read a biased, one-sided and prejudicial account of such a complex and sensitive issue.

The Shepherd's Granddaughter should be withdrawn from the Red Maple program immediately.

Moreover, this is the second time in a few years that the Ontario Library Association has slipped anti-Israeli propaganda into their Forest of Reading Program. Two years ago, the OLA recommend Three Wishes, a book that normalizes terrorism, including an interview with a girl who admires her older sister for having become a suicide bomber and murdering two Israelis. The OLA recommended this book for 10- and 11-year-olds.

Generally the Forest of Reading is a wonderful program. But as the OLA seems determined to to use our schools to promote a particular extremist political view, the school boards must review how they vet books recommended by the OLA.

Finally, on a personal note, as a parent I’ve always known that my children will eventually encounter anti-Israeli propaganda, but I'd hoped it wouldn't be something we'd have to deal with in elementary school. I’m sick at heart to see that I was wrong.

Yours truly

Post script: "Madeline," the girl who wrote: "Reading this book made me want to go to Palestine and kill Israelis" turns out to be 21, not a teen as I'd supposed, and she had the good sense to realize the book's depiction of Israelis couldn't possibly be right. I guess this shows the difference between a 21-year-old and the 12- and 13-year-olds who were being encouraged to read this book.

To see how the kids in grades 7 and 8 reacted to the The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, we can go to RedMaple OnLine, a site maintained by the Ontario Library Association where Ontario students reading books in the Red Maple program make comments.

There are only 18 comments about the Shepherd's Granddaughter, because students were much more interested in the other, much better books in the Red Maple program. But of those 18, only one student, book_freak1011, noticed the possibility of bias. I think we can assume this student was already aware of the Israeli-Palestinian issue beforehand and, from the vehemence of his/her response, perhaps felt the book as an assault.

The other students all accepted the book as a factual depiction of the supposed cruelty Israelis inflict on Palestinians, expressing no awareness of the possibility of bias or misrepresentation. See the student remarks below:

Taylorgirl Dec 20, 2010 BORING! But I guess they want us to kno how bad the Jwsh are.

McDj27 Apr 22, 2010 looked at it didnt read but want too

Ecogirl101 Apr 20, 2010 This book was ok, but I found it too sad. I liked how it was about real life, though, because it can help people understand what's happening in the real world.

robin15 Apr 06, 2010 This book was an amazing book! it brought tears into my eyes to see how human biengs like us are bieng treated like this in palestin! This book got me thinking, that we take soooo many things for granted. But in this book, it opened a new point of view for me.

1knigh Mar 26, 2010 I think that the sheperds granddaughter is a great book for beginner readers. This book is really interesting when the girl that wants to be a sheperd but her uncle and her father thinks that it is to risky and she might get shoot by the settlers and the armys trying to build the highway on top of the property.

Silvy Mar 25, 2010 A very gripping story. I'm glad the piano got saved :) On April 22, it's either this one, or submarine outlaw!

zezedaoui Mar 25, 2010 The Shepherd's Grand-daghter is a pretty good story. I thought it was sad. And i cannot believe that events like that happen today aswell. I really recommend this to people , and i think everyone would really enjoy this book.

darkdaughter2 Mar 24, 2010 boring

bhaloon Mar 23, 2010 This book was pretty good and eye-opening for me, but I found it kind of boring.

patmunroe Mar 23, 2010 The Shepherd's Granddaughter is a story of faith and fearlessness in times of trial. It's about a young girl who follows her dreams and brings with them the true meaning of friendship and family. Her story is very sad, but her strength is admirable.

spookum Mar 11, 2010 I think it was so sad but very realistic for those living in Palestine.The relationship between Amani and Johnathon was very lifelike and is amazing for the language barrier between the two.

Nixknox Mar 10, 2010 A very lifelike and realistic book. You could believe it was true, and the read wasn't bad.

GlobalGenius Mar 05, 2010 didn't really like this book much, it had a slow writing style and took me a week to read (I can read the Harry Potter series in one day, so that means I was morer then a bit bored by it. This was the #10 book in all the Red Maple books, i honestly think they should've switched this book with Vanishing Girl, by Shane Peacock, he's an awesome Canadian author. One of the few parts I found entertaining in this book was when the house collapsed, but the piano was unharmed. Overall I wasn't a big fan of this book, but I did read it all the same.

Aberacadabera Mar 04, 2010 This is a saddening book, but really opens the eyes of the reader.

peacebellreads Mar 04, 2010 this book was really sad. i cant beleive this is still happening today. it really opened my eyes i definitely recommend it

Hermione905 Mar 03, 2010 Report This not a great book it was just boring

book_freak1011 Mar 03, 2010 This book was very horendous, it was boring and i don't agree with the author!

beloved12 Mar 02, 2010 this book was good, really good and although it was sad it had a ----- ------

(Shepherd's Granddaughter at RedMaple online: here)