A 'neutral' take on the Middle East? Hardly (National Post, March 8, 2006)

In his Monday column, Jonathan Kay gave a thumbs up to Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, a collection of candid musings by Israeli and Palestinian children designed for a readership of 9- to 12-year olds. As the book touches on sensitive issues -- one interviewee expresses a wish to become a suicide bomber -- Three Wishes has ignited controversy in Ontario, where it's been nominated for a literary prize.

My fellow columnist feels the book highlights real concerns even-handedly -- Palestinian children's sense of grievance balanced by Israeli children's fears of terror. He admits to one reservation, however: "The only thing [author Deborah] Ellis might be faulted for is not providing more detail about how Arab leaders encourage such murderous hatred."

But what he perceives as a mere shortcoming I believe corrupts the whole enterprise.

Cultural context is totally lacking in Three Wishes. Nowhere does Ellis mention the disparity in Palestinian and Israelis' treatment of each other in their educational material. Palestinian Media Watch notes that a study of 480 Israeli textbooks, including those of the ultra-religious, didn't find a single hateful reference to Palestinians, but Palestinian schoolchildren are bombarded by schoolbooks, songs ("Allah Akhbar, how sweet is self-sacrifice"), media harangues, posters and cultural activities all promoting hatred of Jews and the virtue of shahada, martyrdom.

As noted in Monday's column, the Israeli children Ellis interviewed discuss the Holocaust. This may seem to provide balance. But children respond emotionally to the living experiences of other children, not those of their dead grandparents. (Witness the ongoing popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank.) So the plight of the Palestinians and the immediacy of their abuses -- roughings-up, maimings, tear gassings -- will have far more impact than the sensitive descriptions of visits to Auschwitz.

Many of the Palestinian narrations in Three Wishes indicate understandable fear of Israeli soldiers. These kids largely interact with the army in situations of mutual frustration and tension -- checkpoints -- or open hostility during raids. But the constant reiteration of soldier-hatred over the course of the book gives the impression that all Israeli soldiers are Nazi storm troopers who delight in menacing children. A wheelchair-bound boy says: "They don't care if they shoot at a child or an older person. My mother is afraid they will shoot at me for not getting out of their way fast enough." (Israeli soldiers deliberately shoot children in wheelchairs? I don't think so.)

Another says: "Soldiers scare me more than anything else ... You don't have to be a bad person to get shot by them. Mostly it is good people who get shot ... here everybody gets shot." Untrue, but Palestinian passion is more emotionally compelling than the Israeli children's rational gratitude for soldiers' protection.

Finally, Ellis is so committed to non-judgmentalism that, wittingly or not, her editorial asides normalize the aberrancies of child soldiering and suicide: "Suicide is usually associated with despair ... and being unable to face another day in their current circumstances."

But if political rather than personal despair were truly a motive for suicide, child suicide would be epidemic worldwide. Palestinian bombers are a "greenhouse" breed of suicidals: They are socially, psychologically and culturally developed, effectively coerced into self-sacrifice. Child readers should know this crucial fact, but they won't learn it here.

Even more misleadingly, Ellis states: "Many Palestinians disagree with the suicide bombings ... But other Palestinians consider suicide bombers to be martyrs, or heroes." This equivocation is disingenuous. While individual Palestinians may disapprove of the practice, the official position is clear: Parents of bombers are financially rewarded by authority figures. Teachers, rock stars, clerics, media pundits and sports heroes are all complicit in advancing child suicide bombing as a cultural norm.

Three Wishes seems even-handed on the surface, but scratch lightly, and it emerges as a paean to wishful thinking by a moral relativist who can't bear to admit that some cultures value life in general, and their children's lives in particular, more than others.

© National Post 2006