Ida, the fourteen-year-old heroine of Nora Lester Murad’s Ida in the Middle, is an insecure eighth-grader with a problem: As a Palestinian-American, she feels invisible and reviled. Her classmates seem to ignore her, or they stereotype her as a terrorist. Uncomfortable as a minority in an affluent American suburb, she hesitates to embrace her Palestinian identity until she eats one of her Aunt Malayka’s delicious home-cured olives, which transports her to her exiled family’s village in the West Bank. It is this immersion in her family’s world, with all its joys and hardships, that prepares her to return to America committed to her identity and to speaking up at school for the Palestinian cause.
A recurrent theme in Ida is that “Palestine” is erased from American consciousness. An American Jew who married a Palestinian, lived in the Middle East, and raised three Palestinian children, Murad actively promotes the Palestinian narrative and is fiercely critical of Israel as a settler-colonialist, apartheid state. Accompanying Ida in the Middle is a 32-page Unit Guide for Educators rife with accusations of land theft and settler-colonialism against Israel and America.
In a November 2022 book panel, Murad spoke openly with other pro-Palestinian educators about her goals in writing this book:
Something that was important to me when I was writing Ida in the Middle is that not only Palestinian kids but non-Palestinian kids would also relate to some of the challenges she’s going through. Her journey is also not just cultural but political. It’s her finding her voice as a truth teller and as an advocate not only for herself but for her people.[i]
In fact, Murad provocatively refuses to recognize that there may be multiple perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict, arguing that “if we start from the beginning of saying it’s a matter of settler colonialism, structural inequality, then we realize we would never have a debate between the slave owners and the slaves. You would never say, ‘You do the slave owner side, you do the slave side.’” To Murad, Israelis are as evil as slave owners.
If Ida is a “truth teller,” then no counterarguments are permitted. You can’t teach children that Jews are indigenous to Israel, that there was an unbroken Jewish presence there from antiquity to the present, or that nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants came on their own, not at the behest of Western powers. If Ida is a “truth teller,” a teacher can’t explain that colonialism is not a uniquely Western sin, but was practiced universally – by the Iroquois against the Huron of North America, by the Comanches against the Apaches in the American Southwest, by Islamic invaders from the seventh to the ninth centuries sweeping from Arabia to Spain and North Africa in the west and to India and Persia in the east, and by Fulani Muslims against African pagans and Christians, from the eighteenth century until today.
When Murad says that Ida’s journey is “not just cultural, but political,” she lets her cat out of her bag: The goal of literary study is political, not, well, literary. For Murad, parents send children to school for political indoctrination, not to learn how to develop sensitivity to the author’s craft – to writing style, structure, techniques of characterization, tone, humor and irony. I suspect many parents would disagree.[ii]
Literary Indoctrination from America
Ida in the Middle is composed in a heavy-handed narrative style that will either muddle or, unfortunately, successfully indoctrinate young readers. Throughout, the author puts in the mouths of her characters the points she wants to drive home about the conflict. And drive them home she does.
At a Palestinian picnic in her town, the friends Ida meets complain about discrimination:
“Nobody even says the word ‘Palestine’ in my school.”
“The teachers are afraid to teach about anything related to the Middle East—even if the topic has nothing to do with politics.”
“I was late starting school in the fall because we got stuck in Gaza during our summer visit. My parents went to talk with the school to explain and the dean of students launched into a lecture about antisemitism, as if Palestinians were responsible for the Holocaust or something.”
“My school fired a teacher for saying they support Palestine” (p. 16)!
Will middle grade readers be gripped by this conversation, or simply roll their eyes at one more political harangue? Perhaps a charismatic anti-Israel teacher reading this passage aloud could engage her students in her cause, though it is hardly of universal interest.
Still, Murad never misses an occasion to instruct her young readers about Palestinian culture, often in the most unlikely places. Even the ants in their kitchen, which disgust Ida and her sisters, prompt a speech from their father: “Don’t you know that Palestinian women are farmers? How can you be Palestinian and be scared of some tiny bugs” (40-41)?
Are Palestinian women really farmers? According to a recent comparative study of Jewish and Arab fertility in Israel and the West Bank, there has been a process of “[i]ntense urbanization [that] has transformed the 70 percent rural Arab population in Judea and Samaria in 1967 to a 75 percent urban population in 2018.” While it may make sense to refer to the Palestinian people’s agricultural past, just as it may make sense to refer to the period when Israel’s rural kibbutzim made a significant contribution to its economy, it is time to retire both these pastoral myths.[iii] For the Palestinian cause, however, the pastoral myth works as propaganda, pitting the innocent, rooted Palestinian peasant against the Israeli interloper who has no deep connection to “Palestinian” soil.
Literary Quality from Israel
Children’s books about the conflict don’t have to indoctrinate, and, unsurprisingly, it is Israeli authors who prove this can be done. One of the best is Daniella Carmi, who understands that the focus of a children’s book should be psychological, not political.
Carmi’s Samir and Yonatan[iv] is set during the First Intifada in a children’s hospital ward in Jerusalem. Samir arrives with a badly broken leg. His brother was shot in the chaos of the conflict, so Samir hates the Jews and, isolated from his community, is terrified of being in “the Jews’ hospital.” But he is well treated there by friendly nurses and by Felix, a clown-social worker with a special gift for communicating with withdrawn children.
As the only Arab child in Room Six, Samir is the Outsider. He is bullied mercilessly by Tzahi, whose adored big brother serves in the IDF, a fact Tzahi remorselessly flings in Samir’s face. Over time, however, Samir is drawn out of himself by his interest in the other children’s predicaments—and especially by Yonatan. To Yonatan, there are no Arabs and no Jews. He inhabits a higher plane—outer space, where he takes Samir by hacking the hospital’s computer late one night, when the adults are out of the picture. This is where, together, they design the topography of a new planet, as Samir explains:
I stand here on the shore of the blue lake that we’ve made, Yonatan and me, my friend from the Jewish hospital. We’re improving a new world, free from troubles. Nothing looks impossible to us, now that we’re together (p. 172).
Unlike Tzahi, Yonatan cannot see Samir as “the Other.” When Tzahi lets all the children but Samir touch his catheter bag, Yonatan whispers to him:
“Samir hasn’t touched it yet.”
Tzahi says, “So what?”
Yonatan whispers, “It’s his turn now.”
But Tzahi doesn’t answer. He just climbs up on his bed and jumps up and down, making the springs creak.
Yonatan insists, “Why not?” but Tzahi goes on jumping (p. 40).
Carmi does not propose a solution to the conflict. Indeed, the metaphor she employs– Samir and Yonatan’s nocturnal voyage to Mars—implies that Jew and Arab will only get along if they voyage to another planet, where they can build a new universe together.
Nor does Carmi harangue her readers about the conflict. (In fact, it is entirely possible that her young readers will miss the metaphorical significance of the two boys’ construction of a new planet where they can live in harmony.) Carmi’s focus is on her characters’ psychological growth, not on politics. But along the way, she paints life through Arab eyes for her Hebrew-speaking readers. With exquisite tenderness, she draws a poignant picture of the trauma that has broken Samir’s family. From the moment of the death of his younger brother Fadi at the hands of the IDF, Samir’s father stops talking to him:
“Why isn’t Daddy talking anymore?” I ask Mom in the kitchen.
“When a man has had his life stolen from him,” she says, “He has nothing left to say” (p. 66).
In striking contrast, Nora Lester Murad uses her characters to force-feed her readers with anti-Israel propaganda. Israeli pain, from the trauma of the Holocaust, from terrorist attacks that provoke the harsh security measures Murad’s characters complain about, and from the deaths of husbands or children in Israel’s endless wars, is conspicuously absent from Murad’s account of life in the West Bank.
Carmi’s book is not propaganda; it doesn’t lie about Israelis, and it humanizes, rather than demonizes, Israel’s enemies. The great Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line between good and evil runs through the human heart.” That is where the focus of good literature lies as well.
Judaism without Zionism
Inaccuracies and distortions about the conflict are promoted as facts in Ida and its accompanying Unit Guide for Educators.
After Ida complains to her parents about her principal’s idea of starting a Muslim club at school, the book offers her parents’ perspective: “The problems in Palestine have nothing to do with religion.” (p. 15) This reappears in the “Misconceptions about Palestine” in the Unit Guide: “[T]his is not about religion. It’s about land theft, expulsion, and ethnic cleansing by foreign settlers to indigenous land.”[v]
At her November 2022 book panel, Murad went further:
I think what I need to do and what I hope we all do is to just continue to push back against the conflation of Judaism and Zionism. Judaism is a people with a history, with a religion, sometimes a shared culture, and Zionism is a political ideology that’s a colonial ideology and a Jewish supremacist ideology and these two things are not the same thing.[vi]
Mere “conflation?” Judaism, from its biblical beginnings, is coextensive with the land of Israel: “Now, the Lord said unto Abram [later, Abraham]: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee’” (Genesis xii.i).
That land, of course, is the land of Israel, promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. Though Murad may not credit the Bible as a historical document, the Jewish people have always traced their identity to that critical encounter in Genesis. From the moment of God’s call to Abraham 4000 years ago, Jewish identity has been honed by prophets and rabbis who pray in the direction of Jerusalem three times a day — not by Nora Lester Murad.
Murad also misrepresents the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism, claiming that under IHRA, “anti-Semitism includes the criticism of Israel.”[vii] Pace Murad, this is what IHRA actually says about Israel:
Manifestations [of antisemitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic[viii] (My italics).
It is only the double standard that marks antisemitism; criticism of Israel should be cast in the same style as criticism of “any other country.”
Mythologizing the Middle Eastern Past
Like the pastoral myth, the myth of historical Jewish-Arab and Jewish-Muslim peaceful coexistence is a feature of anti-Zionist propaganda. Ida’s father, for example, claims that “there used to be peace here and there can be again. Do you think our lives were always like this” (p. 76)?
The Unit Guide promotes the same falsehood, denying any validity to the claim, “These people have been fighting forever.”
Rather, [conflict in the region] can be dated to the end of the 19th century or, more acutely [sic], the beginning of the post-World War I British Mandatory period. In addition to being historically inaccurate, such a claim frames the issue as something unsolvable and intractable, in addition to reinforcing longstanding ideas of Arabs as barbaric and inherently violent.” [ix]
According to this version of history, conflict in the region began with the arrival of European Zionists; what came before was a period of peace and harmony between Jew and Arab. But respected historians dispute that. The venerable Middle East historian Bernard Lewis points to distortions at both ends of the political spectrum:
If we look at the considerable literature available about the position of Jews in the Islamic world, we find two well-established myths. One is the story of a golden age of equality, of mutual respect and cooperation, especially but not exclusively in Moorish Spain; the other is of “dhimmi”-tude, of subservience and persecution and ill treatment. Both are myths. Like many myths, both contain significant elements of truth, and the historic truth is in its usual place, somewhere in the middle between the extremes.”[x]
In The Jews of Islam, Lewis describes the degraded position of Jews in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century from the perspective of Christian travelers:
At a time when Jews in Western Europe were beginning to enjoy the fruits of emancipation, several of the Christian travelers marked the contrast between the Jews they met in Muslim lands and those whom they knew at home. Thus[,] Charles MacFarlane […] reports the current stereotype of the eastern Jew as dirty and cowardly, and goes on to say: “Throughout the Ottoman dominions, […] they will flee before the uplifted hand of a child.”[xi]
Children, it seems, were encouraged to throw stones at Jews. Lewis continues:
The troubles of the Jews in Islamic lands in this period were not limited to poverty and degradation. For the first time in centuries they found themselves exposed to active hostility, not only in Iran, where such things were not uncommon in earlier times, but also in the Ottoman lands and Morocco. From the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, expulsion, outbreaks of mob violence, and even massacres became increasingly frequent. . . . In 1834 a cycle of violence and pillage began in Safed [northern Israel]”[xii] (My italics).
French historian Georges Bensoussan, in his Jews in Arab Countries: Studies in Antisemitism, confirms this perspective, explaining the jubilation of Jews when European governments came into control of their formerly Ottoman-controlled lands during the First World War as a sign of their hope that the Europeans would guarantee them equal rights under the law.[xiii]
Murad also distorts the widely-publicized issue of home demolitions. Ida’s family fears that their home, like others in their community, will be demolished by the Israelis, claiming that “they only give permits to Jewish Israelis” (p. 82). The complexity of home demolition orders is never explained, but the idea that government bulldozers can flatten people’s homes plays well as propaganda.
In 2003, Justus Reid Weiner published Illegal Construction in Jerusalem.[xiv] Although Weiner’s study was restricted to Jerusalem, the legal analysis can be generalized to other locations. Weiner summarizes the accusations against Israeli authorities:
According to the narrative, they [(Palestinians] have no choice but to build illegally, and, as a consequence, they run the risk of being snared by the municipal inspectors. Those caught by the inspectors face economic catastrophe, not to mention psychological trauma, if city bulldozers demolish their unlicensed houses. The argument continues to the effect that Arab Jerusalemites (Arab residents of the city who reject Israeli citizenship), many of whom are poor, are discriminated against in the delivery of public services and amenities. . . . [T]he municipality stands accused of using the artifice of the planning law to force the Arab residents of Jerusalem, and their growing families, to abandon the city.
Weiner contradicts these claims. He found that the wait time for building permits was the same for Jew and Arab, and that home demolitions are not arbitrary, but governed by “[p]recise and demanding procedures.” Unplanned construction, argues Weiner, impedes the construction of safe infrastructure.[xv]
Displacement of Bedouin
The displacement of Bedouin is another accusation: “Entire Bedouin families were being pushed out by settlers,” the book claims. (p. 86) The issue of the legality of Bedouin land holdings is complex, as is that of native land claims in countries like Canada and Australia, where the forces of development confront treaty rights. Virtual Jewish Library explains:
“While in most countries in the Middle East the Bedouin have no land rights, only users’ privileges . . . in the mid 1970s Israel let the Negev Bedouin register their land claims and issued certificates as to the size of the tracts claimed. These certificates served as the basis for the ‘right of possession’ later granted by the government.”[xvi]
When Bedouin are displaced from land to which they hold title, they are compensated. But illegal building happens, and although light structures (like shacks and huts) are treated “forgivingly, . . . construction of houses of stone or concrete without a building permit is considered an offense, since adequate infrastructure and services cannot be provided.” Murad also fails to credit Israel with the many benefits it has conferred on its Bedouin citizens, including universal health care and education. The fact that “[w]ithin a single generation, the Bedouin of Israel have succeeded in reducing illiteracy from 95% to 25%” is no mean achievement.[xvii]
From the opening pages, Ida is cast as a victim – the book’s icon for national victimhood. Ida suffers because “nobody even says the word ‘Palestine’” in school, because the word “terrorist” is scrawled on her desk, because no one knows about the bulldozers and demolitions, because her teacher can’t pronounce the ’ain in her name, because Ms. Bloom (the social justice teacher with an obviously Jewish surname) turns cold on Ida after her passionate speech in favor of Palestinian victims.
But sometimes, this claim of victimization is carried to ridiculous extremes. One day, Ida and her friend go out for ice cream in the mall near her house. Enjoying her treat, Ida carries on the following conversation in her head:
“This is the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever eaten. I could never, ever live in a place where I couldn’t eat this ice cream whenever I wanted to.”
“They don’t have this ice cream in Palestine. The people in Busala won’t ever get to taste it in their whole lives.”
“I know. And two scoops cost more than dinner for a whole family in Palestine.”
“I know. I’m going to throw it away right now.”
“And what will that accomplish? If you throw away your ice cream, will they get to eat dinner?”
“I was selfish to buy it in the first place.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Just because they don’t have nice things doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have nice things. Does it” (pp. 109-110)?
It’s hardly credible that a fourteen-year-old girl would experience a moral struggle over enjoying ice cream with a friend, an expression of angst more likely to emerge from the lips of a twenty-year-old progressive. Even less credible is that high-end ice cream is unavailable to Palestinians in light of the popular Rukab’s Ice Cream in Ramallah, where the prices appear affordable, ranging from 5 to 24 shekels ($1.30 to $6.25 US). What makes the author’s accusation of Palestinian ice cream deprivation even less credible is Lesson Sequence 2 of the Unit Guide, which links to a video of Rukab’s.
The Big Lie
From page 16 of Ida to the end, the word “Palestine” is used to refer to an actual country, which it is not. For those who deny Israel’s right to exist, however, the hope is that saying “Palestine” often enough will work magic—turning it into a nation indistinguishable from, say, France or Canada.[xviii]
According to historian Bernard Lewis, the name “Palestine” has historic roots in the region, referring in ancient times not to the area of the Middle East now known as Israel, but to “the coastline formerly inhabited by the Philistines. It was occasionally extended to include territories further east, but did not, however, include the land of Judea, which was usually and officially known in Roman times by that name.” After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina, they renamed Judea as Palestina or Syria Palestina, to erase its “historic Jewish identity.”[xix]
Historically, it had no boundaries until the British defined them under the Mandate; in fact, explains Lewis, “With the British conquest in 1917-18 and the subsequent establishment of a mandated territory in the conquered areas, Palestine became the official name of a definite territory for the first time since the Middle Ages.”[xx]
For Arabs, the name “Palestine” was unacceptable because it
“seemed to assert a separate entity […] For them there was no such thing as a country called Palestine […] For a long time organized and articulate Arab political opinion was virtually unanimous on this point […] At first, the country of which Palestine was a part was felt to be Syria. In Ottoman times, […] Palestine had indeed been a part of a larger Syrian whole from which it was in no way distinguished whether by language, culture, education, administration, political allegiance, or any other significant respect.”[xxi]
As Pan-Arab ideology grew, during and for many years after the Mandate, the loyalty of Palestinians became more Arab than Syrian. In fact, the idea of a separate Palestinian state was seen as a Western ploy to “divide the Arabs and thus preserve British power,” explains Lewis.[xxii]
Palestinian loyalty was also local, “to kin, sect, or region” like Haifa, Acre, or Jaffa. It was only the refusal of Arab countries to absorb the Palestinian refugees, first after ’48 and then after ’67, that forged a distinct Palestinian identity. Then, violent resistance groups like the PLO seized upon the grievances of these refugees to forge the Palestinian identity now embraced by people like Murad. Palestinian identity reflects a departure from past loyalties, not an identity from time immemorial disturbed by Jewish interlopers.[xxiii]
Why “Teach Palestine?”
The pressure from pro-Palestinian advocates like Murad to study the Arab-Israeli conflict in American schools (for example, through the Teach Palestine and Liberated Ethnic Studies curricula[xxiv], begs the question, “Why? What is the proper place of this conflict in an American middle school or high school curriculum?”
To answer this question, I looked at the comprehensive, well-designed middle school (Grades 7 and 8) world history curriculum developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation.[xxv] The curriculum takes two volumes, running from Ancient Mesopotamia to the present, totaling just over 500 pages. Of these, only four pages are devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the birth of Israel.
That seems about right to me. One of the most common criticisms by left-wing critics of education today is that it is Eurocentric. But we live in the West, our heritage is European, and it only seems reasonable that our curriculum be Eurocentric.
What people like Nora Lester Murad are proposing is a Palestinocentric curriculum for American students. They are offended if you “can’t say Palestine” in schools.
I suspect no one is saying that a Palestinian child “can’t say Palestine,” but to devote an entire unit of study to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the United States is disproportionate. The Core Knowledge curriculum has great breadth–from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the Indus Valley civilization and Ancient Greece and Rome, covering early China and Islamic civilization through West African kingdoms, then on to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. No culture is excluded, all cultures are embraced; it is to be hoped that many schools will adopt it.
It is understandable that people of Palestinian descent feel passionately about what they perceive as their loss, but it is not the job of America’s public schools to center the education of American students on one small sliver of the population’s grievances.[xxvi] It is our schools’ job to create good, historically literate American citizens.
[i] Book event, “Educators Discuss Palestine in U.S. Schools,” November 14, 2022, accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hl-uLJ00XAM&t=4085s
[ii] Murad is not alone in this undertaking. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, the virulently anti-Israel book A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird is mandated reading for all sixth-grade students. With its vitriolic stereotypes of Israelis as brutes and its sympathetic portrayals of Palestinian youth as victims, it will poison the image of Israelis for those young readers.
[iv] Daniella Carmi, Samir and Yonatan. Trans. Yael Lotan. Arthur A. Levine (Imprint of Scholastic Press), 1994. Translation copyright 2000.
[v] Unit Guide for Educators, “Misconceptions about Palestine,” by Marc Lamont Hill, p. 7. Accessible at https://idainthemiddle.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Unit-Guide-Ida-in-the-Middle-3-May-2023.pdf
[vi] Book event, “Educators Discuss Palestine in U.S. Schools,” November 14, 2022, accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hl-uLJ00XAM&t=4085s
[ix] Unit Guide, “Misconceptions about Palestine,” p. 7.
[x] Bernard Lewis, “The New Anti-Semitism,” https://theamericanscholar.org/the-new-anti-semitism/
[xi] Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam. Princeton: 1984, p. 164.
[xii] Ibid., p. 168.
[xiii] Georges Bensoussan, Jews in Arab Countries: Studies in Antisemitism, p. 151. Bensoussan cites Justin Alvarez, French consul at Tripoli, who reported, “the idea of a legal and political equality between Muslims and non-Muslims […] appears particularly unacceptable to the Arabs.” Bensoussan cites Norman Stillman, Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, p. 48, for this quote.
[xiv] The book is out of print. For an excellent executive summary, see https://jcpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/illegal-construction.pdf. You can also find highlights of the book at https://www.jcpa.org/jlmbldg.htm
[xv] From Executive Summary of Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon, by Justus Reid Weiner, 2003, https://jcpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/illegal-construction.pdf
[xvi] “Minority Communities in Israel: The Bedouin,” https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-bedouin-in-israel
[xvii] Ibid. “[T]hose still illiterate are aged 55 and above,”according to the article.
[xviii] Denying reality, the book’s Unit Guide labels the statement “Israel has a right to exist” a misconception, while classifying “Palestine” as a “nation-state.”
[xix] Bernard Lewis, “The Palestinians and the PLO,” Commentary, January 1975. commentary.org/articles/Bernard-lewis/the-palestinians-and-the-plo/
[xxiv] Both these curricula are discussed on the CAMERA website. See links above.
[xxv] Core Knowledge History and Geography for Middle School – World History, accessible at https://www.coreknowledge.org/curriculum/history-geography/core-knowledge-history-and-geography-for-middle-school-2/
[xxvi] Palestinians comprise less than half a percent of the American population, according to the 2021 American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau).