When Wafa’ Tarnowska’s Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day was released in 2021, it was swiftly enmeshed in controversy. Its decorative two-page map of the Middle East and North Africa immediately captures the reader’s attention with its eye-catching illustrations: a camel seated in the center of Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian pyramids, a traditional Turkish headdress, and the soaring skyscrapers of the UAE. But something else will strike alert readers: The arrow-shaped country wedged between Jordan and Egypt is labeled “Palestine,” not Israel.
Noticing this error, parents, teachers, reviewers, lawyers and librarians approached libraries and bookstores to reconsider the purchase and distribution of this inaccurate book. Complainants pointed to another erasure as well: Among the twenty-five “amazing women of the Middle East,” none was Jewish or Israeli– unless you include the Queen of Sheba.
In the UK, an organization called UK Lawyers for Israel sent Pikku Publishing a letter noting that the book, together with resources for teachers, is promoted on their website. UKLFI’s letter cautions that the firm could be in violation of the Education Act:
UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) has now written to the publishers of the book to point out that it is likely to be illegal to use this book in UK schools. The book misinforms children about international geography and appears to have a racist exclusion of the Jewish state. UKLFI believes that if the book were used as a teaching aid in schools it would be likely to result in a breach of Section 406 of Education Act 1996 headed “Political indoctrination.” This section forbids the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.[i]
The book was removed from Pikku’s website.
In the US, in response to a patron’s request for reconsideration of the book, the Abbot Public Library in Marblehead, Massachusetts decided as follows: “[D]ue to the incomplete nature of the illustrated map included in the book, we will not feature this title in displays. We will also add a bookmark to provide more information on the inaccuracies portrayed in the map.”[ii]
In contrast, the New York Public Library “determined that at no point in the book does it purport this is a complete or accurate depiction of the region, either current or historical, and that there are numerous other countries within the artistically rendered geographic area that are unlabeled.”[iii] This is disingenuous at best, because Israel is not “unlabeled;” it is labeled “Palestine.” The naïve young reader would take that map as a faithful rendition of the situation today, as the Abbot Public Library implicitly acknowledged in its response. If the editors had intended to reflect the historic naming of the region, they could have labeled it “Palestine/Israel,” reflecting the Romans’ renaming of Judea as “Palaestina,” after the coastal Philistines, in the wake of the last Jewish revolt.
In fact, the editorial decision to erase the name “Israel” from the map is no accident. The acquisitions editor of Interlink Publishing, home of the book’s U.S. imprint, Crocodile Books, is Hannah Moushabeck, whose recently-released picture book, Homeland, the story of her father’s childhood in East Jerusalem, erases the Jewish presence from the Old City.
Amazing Women of the Middle East opens with Queen Nefertiti of Egypt (1370-1330 BCE) and ends with UAE ice skater Zahra Lari, (born 1995). It includes a wide range of interesting women from ancient times to the present, including some unfamiliar and fascinating figures: the Sufi mystic poet Rabi’a al Adawiyya (717-801), Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari (born 1966), and former ISIS captive and Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad (born 1993).
Jews are indigenous to the Middle East, where their nation, religion, and culture were born; they fled countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Iran in large numbers only when their lives were endangered in the wake of Israel’s military victories in 1948 and 1967, so Jewish women belong in this book.
Given the author’s clear antipathy towards Israel, I would not expect her to include the Zionist builders of the state, like Golda Meir, prime minister from 1969 to 1974, or Hannah Senesh, the young Zionist who fled Budapest for Palestine in 1939, parachuted back to Hungary in a clandestine operation, was captured by the Gestapo, resisted torture, and was shot by firing squad in 1944.
But Tarnowska might have recognized the humanitarian work of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, whose revolutionary reforms to medical care in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s benefited children of all faiths and ethnicities.
And if she’d wanted to acknowledge the presence of Jewish women from ancient times, she could have included Bruriah, who lived in Judea in the first and second centuries and was recognized as a sage in the Talmud.
Tarnowska includes many women accomplished in the arts, like Lebanese singer Fairuz (born 1934) and actress and film-maker Nadine Labaki (born 1974). Jewish women also contributed to the arts in Middle Eastern countries, but it didn’t occur to Tarnowska to include Egyptian Jewish film stars of the 1930s and ‘40s like the beautiful Rakia Ibrahim (Rachel Abraham Levy) and Liliane Levy Cohen (known as “Camelia”). As for singers, Jewish Baghdadi chanteuse Salima Mourad could also have been introduced.
Israeli children’s publishing presents a striking contrast to the petty bigotry of Amazing Women of the Middle East. In 2019, Kinneret Zmora Dvir Publishing released Agadot Amitiyot (Real-Life Legends): 50 Women to Grow up with in Israel,[iv] by esteemed Israeli children’s book author Shoham Smit. The book profiles fifty Israeli women representing a wide range of backgrounds.
Israel is twenty percent Arab, and the book doesn’t achieve proportional representation. Still, it recounts the life stories (and struggles) of four accomplished contemporary Arab Israeli women
In Agadot Amitiyot, which has not been translated into English, young Israelis will meet Mona Maron, a Christian Arab scientist at the University of Haifa who researches fear and investigating ways to reduce trauma. They’ll meet two ambitious Bedouin women: Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a shepherdess in her youth, who became a community organizer determined to better the lot of Bedouin women, and Rania al-Oqby (Cronin), the first Bedouin woman to become an obstetrician. Lucy Arish, an Arab of the Muslim faith, is famous throughout Israel as a journalist and broadcaster.
In fact, Israeli children’s books haven’t erased Arabs, or the Arab perspective, since the mid-1980s, as outlined in Nira Fradkin’s 1998 article, “On Arab-Israeli Relationships as Depicted in Hebrew Children’s Literature in Recent Years.”[v] Fradkin tracks the portrayal of the Arab from the early period, when he was “either . . . a monstrous figure or . . . a charming folkloric figure” [vi] to a period of compensation for the earlier stereotype. “If in the past the Arab was depicted as wicked and hostile,” Fradkin notes, “now he is described as essentially good, regardless of the fundamental conflict. The general trend is de-dehumanization and his portrayal as a man . . . not as part of a hostile community.”[vii] Indeed, she cites one survey which found that “[i]n the majority of novels published . . . the Jew does not behave properly and the Arab behaves properly. The Jew causes injustice to the Arab because he is an Arab.”[viii]
Books that depict Arab children with sensitivity are not rare in Israel. Daniella Carmi’s Samir and Yonatan (1994, translated in 2000), set in a children’s ward in a Jerusalem hospital, paints with great sensitivity the relationships formed among a cross-section of children in a Jerusalem hospital. Among these are one deeply traumatized Arab boy whose brother fell to an Israeli bullet during the first intifada. Anna Levine’s Running on Eggs (1999) uses a conflict over a strip of land between an Arab and a Jewish community in Israel as a metaphor for the larger conflict, and shows how a friendship between two teenage girls, one Jewish, one Arab, is forged.
At a time when book banning by zealots on the right and left is in the news (with Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen banned for nudity and classics like Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird banned for “racism”), I am uneasy calling for the withdrawal of a very attractive book that has a lot to offer. I don’t want to be assimilated to book banners of any political stripe. But non-fiction books should be just that – non-fiction.
Public libraries are our staunchest defenders of the freedom to read – and to read offensive books. The American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement is crystal-clear: “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.” My own public library system in Toronto chooses “contemporary materials representing varying points of view and which are of current interest and possible future significance, including materials which reflect current conditions, trends and controversies.”[ix]
But Israel is real and on the map of today’s Middle East. The lying map and the erased Jewish women should not have passed muster. In selecting books for school and public libraries, acquisitions librarians should be aware that the Middle East is a minefield. In the case of Amazing Women of the Middle East, the author’s motives are dubious at best. Apparently, both writer and publisher want to condition young readers to the fanciful notion that there is a country called “Palestine” in the Middle East, and no Israel. The book’s message is that Jews never lived in the Middle East and Jewish women contributed nothing to its culture. The desire to educate young readers about accomplished Middle Eastern women is laudable, and I wish I could recommend this book. But the desire to erase a country and a community integral to the region is pernicious.
[i] See “Children’s Book Deletes Israel from the Middle East,“ December 21, 2021, at https://www.uklfi.com/childrens-book-deletes-israel-from-the-middle-east
[ii] Personal correspondence with complainant, April 8, 2022.
[iii] Personal correspondence with complainant, February 7, 2022.
[iv] אגדות אמיתיות: 50 נשים לגדול איתן בישראל ( Agadot Amitiyot), Shoham Smit. (Real-Life Legends: 50 Women to Grow up with in Israel). Kinneret Zmora Dvir Publishing House Ltd., 2019.
[v] Nira Fradkin, על יחסי ערבים-יהודים כפי שהם מתוארים בספרות הילדים העברית בשנים האחרונות [On Arab-Jewish Relationships as Depicted in Hebrew Children’s Literature in Recent Years]. Bamichlala 9. Jerusalem: David Yellin College of Education, 1998, pp. 35-46. My translation. Fradkin taught Israeli children’s literature at a teacher’s college in Jerusalem and worked in the Ministry of Education, where she campaigned for including books in the curriculum portraying Arab families as well as Jewish ones.
[vi] Fradkin, citing the research of Adir Cohen, An Ugly Face in the Mirror: Reflections of the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Hebrew Children’s Literature, Reshafim, 1985.
[vii] Fradkin, p. 37.
[viii] Fradkin refers to a 1994 survey by Smadar Zek, but fails to cite this source in her bibliography.
[ix] Toronto Public Library Materials Selection Policy: www.torotopubliclibrary.ca/terms-of-use/library-policies/materials-selection-policy.jsp