In Part I we talked about authorship, in Part II we talked about precise use of language. Here, in my final piece, I’m talking about how to write responsibly about the Middle East, with a return to children’s literature.
WHEN WE LOSE PRECISION AND FOCUS, WE ALL LOSE
The consistent problem with all of the terms and behaviours I listed in Part II? They’re attempts to sideline the political issues, and, counterproductively, just end up reinforcing them. Say “apartheid” or “genocide” and the Jews of North America rise in outrage to say: “But no, we’re the ones who were there first, we were always first! We’re the truly indigenous population, we were the ones who were oppressed, we faced the genocide—” and next thing you know it’s no more than fisticuffs about who has the greater right to the land, historically, and…
People are hurting today without anyone getting anywhere, which makes the whole situation not merely annoying, but frustrating and angering, because these are political issues.
So, the issue with that knee-jerk use of “human rights issues” terminology? An editorial comes out with the word apartheid, and every organization floods my inbox (despite my having unsubscribed) with campaigns to reply. Enough people do, and the next thing you know, every journalist starts writing “I’m going to get a full inbox for saying this, and, no I’m not an anti-Semite…” And do you even know how awful the optics on that are? They’re bad. Really bad. “The Jews control the media” level bad, and not because of someone sending around The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but because we, ourselves, are genuinely so paranoid we can’t stop ourselves. (I’m only focusing on the Jews of North America here because I am one. I know perfectly well we’re not alone in this, but I’m not going to speak without authority about others’ inboxes.)
“But would you have us let genuine anti-Semitism lie?”
Well, let me ask you? Does this type of alarm and indignation help the Jews of North America or help American relations with Israel? What about helping the Palestinians, who, by the way, also do genuinely need help? No, no it does not. There’s genuine anti-Semitism within every bit of North America, if you want to know, and we do have to vote it out of power, but inundating every opinion piece in the New York Times or an obscure college’s alumni magazine or whatever it is with a letter-writing campaign due to either real or perceived anti-Semitism will only ever serve to reinforce the view that we’re being absurd, not to be taken seriously.
The racism in Israel is genuine, so is the Islamophobia. The anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Arab world is bad, too. And the best thing for everyone is to treat politics as politics, and look to actually help out with genuine attempts at real negotiations if they are in a position to do so.
BACK TO LITERATURE THEN
OK, so what does any of this have to do with children’s literature? Was that just an entry point to talk about voice, sharing perspectives, shutting up when you don’t know something, trying not to speak for other people, and not letting outrage over perceptions get in the way of an honest story? Was it just so I could invent the Mac Barnett Duck Test, which may have been my greatest idea ever?
Yes and no.
I recently saw a book deal (and I’m not going to identify it, so don’t ask) that royally ticked me off. It didn’t seem like a great or necessary book to begin with, the premise was weak, and the author has (elsewhere) spoken out against “Israel” (in quotes due to imprecision, again—I hope by now you recognize the myriad ways that this imprecision in language causes undue tensions and rifts) in ways that were imprecise, aggressive, and truly dishonest, which makes me question the author’s ability to write for children with the honest precision I’d associate with the Mac Barnett Duck Test. I’m being as veiled as I possibly can for the very simple reason that I do not want to be an attack dog, or to lead anyone else to attack. That means I did not engage with the author regarding the issues, and I do not suggest anyone else do so. If, indeed, the book turns out to be as lacking in merit as I think it is, hopefully it will implode; political issues aside, the world doesn’t need more lackluster books.
But I was frustrated because we really do need good books that handle sensitive topics with honesty, genuine thoughtfulness, and impeccable research. Books like Peter Sís’s Nicky and Vera but about the Middle East.
And I’m asking you, if you’re an author or an editor, an illustrator or an agent, I genuinely don’t care if you’re Jewish or not (though, hey, more good Jewish voices would be amazing), Muslim or not (same story there, though) to put yourself in our skins and think about this. It may be, in fact, that we really need an outside perspective here, we’re so emotionally entrenched. I have no idea, and will have no idea until I see what a really good book surprises me with. Books about the conflict, books about the history. Or, perhaps, books of or about Jewish and Muslim poetry, a literary history which is gloriously, poignantly intertwined. What a magnificent book that could be!
But I want more books that are real, honest, true, and have an unfinished quality because this is an unfinished story.
For the rest of us, who are not authors, and who are unlikely to write glorious books about the Middle East:
Do not rise to the bait of politicians who would deliberately provoke racial violence (I’m looking at you, Netanyahu, as well as at Hamas as a whole), and while I can’t really expect an audience outside of my group, I would say Jews of North America have got to do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening. (I’d say this goes for most of humanity, though.)
Vicious anti-Semite that I am to my own people, I would say I’ve noticed if there’s one thing Jews have got in common it’s a complete inability to shut up, but we should practice. Really, we should. And maybe when we do talk, we should speak with our neighbours? Not at them?
Shut up and listen, and do some real, logical thinking about what the ultimate goal is, and how to achieve it. I guarantee, fellow Jews, that calling every journalist out there an anti-Semite is not going to secure Israel’s peace and stability.
If the goal is lasting stability and peace, which, to my mind, is the ideal outcome, and if you disagree, we’re probably not talking on the same page, it’s not going to happen overnight. The best way to get there is to confront nuances and realities, not to subsume them beneath flaming generalizations.
Take several steps back, calm down, and do not respond to everything you see with an aggrieved shriek, do not write snarkily and pointedly on your social media that “I see you, people who are speaking out/not speaking out.” Don’t shame people for responding in a complex way to a complex problem. Complicate yourself, don’t simplify others.
And consider sitting down with a cup of tea and reading something else. It’ll be all right.