Sunday, July 11, 2010

Final(?) arguments re The Shepherd's Granddaughter

The Toronto School Board committee struck to consider The Shepherd's Granddaughter finally got around to issuing their report a few weeks ago. As expected, it was long, carefully worded and about as intelligent as one should expect from any report written by a committee of bureaucrats. The committee sent the report to me and to the Director of Eductaion, Chris Spence, for his final decision.

I sent a note the Chris Spence, as well...

Dear Mr. Spence,

I believe the committee struck to consider The Shepherd’s Granddaughter has gone astray; though with reservations, I support eight of their nine recommendations.

I do hope that, in future, school librarians spend scarce dollars on better books, but I am not concerned that the committee recommends The Shepherd’s Granddaughter simply be available. The book has a large cast of poorly developed characters whom the reader can’t keep track of, while the author is utterly humorless, incapable of irony and possessed of an earnestness that’s exceeded only by her ignorance. Few children will ever read the book without encouragement.

My complaint was never about whether The Shepherd’s Granddaughter should be available to students, but rather that the schools shouldn't have been recommending this book to students. Unfortunately, the committee simply ignored this objection.

If schools are going to promote a list of 10 books to all students in grades 7 and 8, the schools should ensure that the list of such highly recommend books are actually good. I would have thought it obvious that the standard must be higher than for a book that is merely available to students in the library.

If I were to amend the list of recommendations, I might simply amend recommendation #8 to read that in considering whether a book should be actively promoted to students (as in the Forest of Reading program, for example), The Shepherd’s Granddaughter should be taken as an example of a book that should be excluded, because:

- The book’s obvious bias throws into doubt its veracity. That is, in the absence of certainty about contested events, a book that is so obviously one-sided should be assumed to be both unfair and untruthful. Rather than being a good faith attempt to portray a complex situation, the book should be recognized as being mere propaganda.

- The book portrays people of a certain nationality (Israeli) as arbitrarily violent, as child murderers. The presence of a few exceptions to the norm who show they are good Jews by siding with the Palestinians does not mitigate the hateful depiction.

- The book defames a religion, depicting Jews as commanded by their God to steal and kill. It must be noted that this depiction is voiced by the novel’s main character and confirmed by the only developed Jewish character.

- The author clearly prefers non-violent “resistance” to the evil Israelis, but the book represents violence as a legitimate option. While there are many purely villainous Israelis in this book, the author depicts dear Uncle Hani – who champions suicide bombing and declares no Israeli is innocent – as a sympathetic character. The book also refers to friends of Omar who are engaged in violent “resistance” in an approving way.

The committee agrees the book is biased but underestimates the extent of that bias and overestimates the practical ability of teacher-librarians to deal with the problem. For example, I strongly concur with recommendation 7: “that school libraries provide students with access to a variety of resources which give them an understanding of the contexts of the controversial issues contained in their independent reading.”

This recommendation restates what’s already contained in the Board document on dealing with controversial material. But in fact, school libraries don’t have resources that might provide context and act as a corrective to the bigoted portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contained in The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.

Nonetheless, after the Board designated this book as controversial, schools continued to promote it as part of the Forest of Reading program, even in the absence of corrective resources. Indeed, schools still continue to make the book available to students without providing resources that could place the book in context and act as a corrective to the book’s bias – contrary to Board policy.

When schools make controversial books available (never mind actively promoting them), resources that can provide balance and act as a corrective to bias must be in place first.

In dealing with The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, the Board was clearly at fault in that it’s failed to withdraw the book until corrective resources can be provided.

Of course, for that to happen such age-appropriate resources need to exist, and in regards to the Middle East, I don’t think they do.

Moreover, for all that we have many marvelous teachers in the Toronto Board, very few of them have any expertise in the Middle East, and while they might be able to support critical reading of The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, they’ll be unable to provide context and will be just as clueless as the students as to which parts might be true or half-true and which parts are wholly false.

The committee acknowledges "that the novel portrays the Palestinians in a sympathetic light as compared to the Israelis depicted in the novel." But to pretend that Israelis are merely portrayed less sympathetically is a gross understatement, a whitewash. The Israelis are depicted as villains, as continually and mindlessly violent, as child-murderers.

The committee engages in special pleading on behalf of the book. They claim the book can be defined as "oppositional reading"; that is, as a work that encourages readers to see events from a viewpoint in opposition to the preferred, mainstream or dominant perspective. The committee evidently means to suggest that Canadians don't usually get a Palestinian perspective; rather that they usually get a perspective sympathetic to the Israeli point of view. This is wrong in three ways:

First, it's simply untrue. In general Canadian media give the Palestinian narrative at least as much weight as the Israeli view.

Second, it's out of touch with the reality of children in grades 7 and 8. The overwhelming majority of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds aren’t familiar with some dominant perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they've had almost no exposure to the issue at all. For nearly all of them The Shepherd's Granddaughter will have been their first substantial exposure to the issue and for most will be their last substantial exposure, as well. As such, this book, which the committee agrees is biased, will likely form the students’ perspective.

Third, The Shepherd's Granddaughter does not give a Palestinian perspective. It shows the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as appropriated by a Canadian anti-Israel activist; and there's no reason to suppose that its depiction of Palestinians is any more authentic than its depiction of Israelis. If "oppositional reading" simply means propaganda, if it means the book shows an off the wall perspective not taken seriously by anyone outside the Libby Davies wing of the NDP, then this is indeed "oppositional reading," and as such certainly should never be recommended to students.

The committee claims a good feature of the book is that it represents characters from different religions. But in regards to Jews, the committee is confusing representation and defamation. In The Shepherd’s Granddaughter the main character “represents” Jews as having a God who commands them to steal and kill and the only significant Jewish character confirms this defamation as being true.

The committee chose a member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations to aid them in their deliberations, a woman named Tam Goossen. It’s a pity they didn’t choose someone with some knowledge of Jewish issues. On the contrary, Goossen is prominent in Toronto NDP circles, and as it’s well-known that most NDP activists have an anti-Israel bias (see here), her inclusion on the committee cannot generate confidence.

The Committee claims a good feature of the book is that it addresses issues from a variety of perspectives. This is facile. Which perspectives are chosen is obviously far more important than the mere number of perspectives. The book does not represent any mainstream Israeli perspective. Rather, a group of murderous religious settlers are depicted as the Israeli norm.

Another supposed Israeli perspective depicted in the book is voiced by the Israeli soldier who claims that "We [Israel's soldiers] kill Palestinian boys." Again, this is defamation, not representation. The committee fails to recognize the difference.
In addition to these false and grossly negative portrayals there are a couple very minor Jewish characters who don’t represent any distinct Israeli position but simply side with the Palestinians. The main Jewish character is an American boy who, we’re told, doesn’t know enough Hebrew to take a bus.

On the Palestinian side, there is no perspective represented that is in the least critical of the Palestinian leadership; no Palestinian character wishing that their own leaders would pursue peace.

Rather, the perspectives provided all conform to the author’s vision of Palestinians as victims, unable to do anything but resist the evil Israelis who are intent on cleansing them from the land. In short, the book is a mere a collection of anti-Israel clich├ęs.

It’s good that the committee confirmed the earlier recommendation that someone from the Board should actually read these books recommended by Ontario Library Association before encouraging students to read them. What’s needed is a clear statement from the Board that The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is an example of the kind of bigoted text that teachers and librarians should never recommend to students, either within the Forest of Reading program or elsewhere.


P.S. I have lots more to say, but no time to say it.