EDUCATION

SEEN NOT HEARD

A book about lsraeli and Palestinian children is under fire

NOAH RICHLER March 13 2006
EDUCATION

SEEN NOT HEARD

A book about lsraeli and Palestinian children is under fire

NOAH RICHLER March 13 2006

SEEN NOT HEARD

EDUCATION

A book about lsraeli and Palestinian children is under fire

NOAH RICHLER

"I was eight the first time my house was demolished.” You will not find a novelist anywhere who does not wish that she had come up with an opening sentence as powerful as this. Only this is not fiction, but the truth.

A touchy business, the truth is these days. As America finally gets over the wonderful telegenic silliness of James Frey having deceived its prime-time purveyor of fantasy, Oprah Winfrey, Canada stands to be embarrassed as its educators prove that truth is something they cannot tolerate. Ontario’s York Region District School Board, with the outspoken support of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has removed Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak from consideration for the Ontario Library Association’s annual Silver Birch Award, the jurors some 58,000 students in grades four to six. Several other Ontario school boards are following suit, or making Ellis’s book available only upon request.

“I was quite surprised,” said Ellis, a softspoken woman who describes herself as a peace activist and humanitarian social worker. “It’s a pity, because the Silver Birch is a wonderful program. It really gets kids talking.”

Ellis would like this to happen in Israel and Palestine most of all. “I’d really like to see ways for the kids to be with each other,” she said. “The kids I met who knew their counterparts on the other side at least had a sense that the others were kids like themselves. Those who didn’t were growing up in an atmosphere of

much greater fear and distress. That makes sense. We fear what we don’t know.”

Reading through the 20 children’s accounts is to understand the extraordinary ways even the most dramatic life becomes ordinary. One child complains of being unable to pee as she waits in line to cross the security wall; several of the Jewish children accept, with heartbreaking phlegm, that their world is not safe. Too many from both sides report the deaths they have known.

Says Nora, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl confined to a wheelchair, “I’m not supposed to go out by myself because my mother thinks I won’t be able to move fast enough if the soldiers come.” Asif, Israeli and 15, remembers the combined art classes he used to take. “We didn’t fight because they were Palestinian and I am Israeli. We were just kids doing art.”

Distant days. Now, the disconsolate Asif says, “I understand the suicide bombers.”

Ellis kept herself out of the book as much as possible. Its introduction and chapter prefaces are, contrary to complaints, pithy and balanced. Selection is a form of editorial control, but Ellis insists that the children are representative. She left a few out “because

they were too angry and I didn’t want the words that were coming out of those kids’ mouths to be their legacy.”

Her sensitivity is telltale. Ellis, an internationally bestselling author of young adult fiction, is most renowned for The Breadwinner, the first of a trilogy of novels that tell the story of Parvana, a young Afghani girl who must dress as a boy to acquire an education and help her family get by during the years of the Taliban. Ellis is to CanLit as Clara Hughes is to Olympic sport—a winner whose generosity is exemplary. All the royalties of the first two novels, and half the earnings from a number of subsequent books, she has given away, generating some half a million dollars for charity even as she continues to live modestly in Simcoe, Ont., where she works part-time at a shelter for battered women. Her novel I Am a Taxi, to be published in September, concerns children coopted by the Bolivian drug trade.

The Canadian Jewish Congress has argued that Ellis’s book is tilted toward violence, and protests the portrayal of Israelis as “brutal occupiers.” What the CJC and the York Region District School Board are failing to see is that Three Wishes is such a moving study of the situation of children. Its unsavoury truths brace the stomach, certainly, but suppressing them is yet another crime perpetrated by adults upon these unfortunate children.

The poignant arc of Ellis’s book demonstrates above all the poisonous loss of innocence foisted upon children who come of age in the crucible of war. Ellis’s children begin as young and accepting as any children are. Then they become angry and resort to their faith—before, like Mai, an 18-year-old Israeli girl, they understand that they are adult and can take a measure of responsibility for themselves. “Protest does work,” says Mai. “It is good to let others know what you believe. They might believe the same way, and might get the courage to say so if they see you doing it.”

“Maybe we could even make music with the Israelis one day,” says Yanal, Palestinian and 14. M

Noah Richler’s A Literary Atlas of Canada will be published by McClelland & Stewart in August.