The Cat at the Wall

Deborah Ellis’s The Cat at the Wall paints an idealized picture of Palestinian schoolchildren yearning for peace and of Palestinian teachers encouraging peaceful values while the Second Intifada rages in the streets of Bethlehem.

In this fanciful book, a self-centered American eighth-grader from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is hit by a car, only to be reincarnated as a cat in the West Bank’s Bethlehem. Clare — the girl/cat — ends up in a building with Omar, an abandoned Arab boy who has been quietly building a model of his “City of Dreams” on the apartment’s floor. Also in the apartment are two Israeli soldiers, Aaron the sabra (good cop) and Simcha the right-wing American (bad cop), sent there to assess the security situation in a tense neighborhood of the city.  Linking Omar and Clare, however improbably, is Desiderata, a treacly but popular poem introduced by both their teachers to inspire an attitude of serenity amidst life’s inevitable chaos.

Ellis attempts to maintain balance in her account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which she presents as a giant misunderstanding with neither side listening to or understanding the other. When Israeli troops attempt to keep a lid on an impending riot in Bethlehem, it is the devoted schoolteacher, Ms. Fahima, who approaches the angry young rioters (some former students of hers), to chastise them about their behaviour. In an absurdly contrived scene, Omar’s teacher and classmates approach the building, hoping to extricate the boy:

Ms. Fahima, with fear all over her face, tried again to open the door.

“Let me inside!” she cried out in Hebrew. “Let Omar go and take me in his place” (p. 132)!

Painted as a self-sacrificing pacifist, this saintly teacher counsels her students that “misunderstanding the context could lead to a conflict” (p. 118), absurdly warning them not to look in the windows of the apartment: “Children, it is not polite to look in someone’s windows. Just because we are under occupation, that’s no reason to forget our manners” (p. 95). It strains credulity that Ellis, who has visited many conflict zones to write about victimized children, witnessed a scene like this in Bethlehem during the Second Intifada.

Ms. Fahima is Deborah Ellis’s idealized creation, but how typical is she?  Although Ellis may not have understood this when writing the book in 2014, the radicalism of teachers working for UNRWA (the UN special agency devoted exclusively to Palestinian refugees)  has been documented since 2015 by UN Watch; in their latest report, UNRWA’s Terrorgram, they expose UNRWA teachers’ ecstatic support for Hamas’s October 7 slaughter of innocent Israelis. Another organization, IMPACT-se (the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education), has issued a report (UNRWA Education: Textbooks and Terror) demonstrating how the curriculum and textbooks in UNRWA schools glorify martyrdom.

Ellis cites difficulties in communication (between Hebrew and Arabic) in the case of the death of both Omar’s parents at a checkpoint. As Omar’s mother goes into labor, the couple are delayed when they fail to present their papers. The soldiers are fearful that the pregnant woman’s moans are a terrorist ploy, and the father’s violin case is mistaken by soldiers for a weapon. In fact, the IDF has remote means of detecting explosives, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is not rooted in misunderstanding. Each side understands the other all too well: it’s a conflict between a state that believes in its right to exist, and a people that wants to annihilate that state.

As in her earlier book, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, Ellis looks to dialogue to resolve conflict. But The Cat at the Wall is both naïve about the cause of the dispute and dated. The full exposure of UNRWA collaboration and its pro-Hamas sympathies makes Ms. Fahima, the book’s emblematic Palestinian teacher, impossible to credit. The events of October 7th also reveal the naiveté of the “misunderstanding of context” argument; it is not misunderstanding, but deep-seated hatred of Jews, that animates the enemies of Israel.

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