Wishing Upon the Same Stars

Teachers and librarians are often on the lookout for books offering an even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Authors, in both  Israel and the diaspora, have attempted to rise to the occasion: Many employ a device that easily degenerates into cliché – a relationship between two children on opposite sides of a cultural divide who, by the story’s end, become good friends. The message seems to be: If kids can forge a friendship across a great geopolitical, ethnic, or religious divide, why can’t adults? Such books often read as though fashioned whole cloth out of the writer’s hopeful, but ungrounded, imaginings. The recently released Wishing Upon the Same Stars is a case in point.

When Yasmeen Khouri’s Palestinian-Lebanese family moves from Detroit, with its large Arab community, to San Antonio, Texas, Yasmeen wants nothing more than to fit in.  Ironically, of all the girls she meets in her new school, it is Ayelet Cohen, a Jewish girl, who shares her sense of being different.  The two outsiders bond readily.

But there’s a problem. Yasmeen’s grandmother’s Jerusalem home was demolished by the Israelis. Ayelet’s father grew up in Israel, so Yasmeen feels compelled to conceal from her anti-Israel father the inconvenient fact that Mr. Cohen is her after-school Math Lab coach. The tensions between the families are resolved at the end, when the Cohen family helps the Khouris rescue Yasmeen’s grandmother’s garden in San Antonio from a flash flood.

Wishing Upon the Same Stars presents the two friends as agents of this reconciliation, but the price of the families’ friendship is to distance the Cohens as much as possible from Israel.  When Yasmeen’s father accuses Mr. Cohen of being “an Israeli [who] thinks demolishing people’s homes is all right,” Yasmeen protests, “But Baba, Mr. Cohen . . .  isn’t like those people. . . His daughter, Ayelet, says her dad’s family moved to Israel when he was in high school, but he wanted to raise his kids here in Texas. He’s American, too . . . just like us.”

The message?  A good Israeli is one who isn’t like “those people” (read: “like those Israelis”). In fact, a really good Israeli, like Mr. Cohen, doesn’t want to live there.

Nor is Feldman averse to tarring Israel with the A-word:  After explaining that “the West Bank and Gaza Strip aren’t inside a modern-day country Palestine,” without clarifying that they’re under the powerful thumbs of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, she has Mr. Khouri lay this accusation at Israel’s door:

“It is becoming apartheid now,” my father mutters. “Palestinians have no rights.”
“Apartheid?” My sister wipes her wet face with the back of her hand. She grabs a sparkle pen, scribbles the word down, then leafs through her dictionary. She reads aloud, “Apartheid comes from a language in South Africa called Afrikaans. It means apartness; segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race.
She takes a deep breath and blinks at Baba. “What a powerful word,” she says, and he nods.

Feldman leaves the young reader with the impression that Mr. Khouri speaks the truth – that Israel practises “segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race,” just as apartheid South Africa did. It doesn’t occur to her to introduce a character to offer countervailing evidence, like the following:

  • Israel appoints Arab justices to its Supreme Court.
  • It was an Arab judge, George Karra, who sent Israeli President Moshe Katzav to prison.
  • Twenty percent of Israeli doctors are Arab, equal to the Arab percentage of Israel’s population.

Nothing like this was possible in apartheid South Africa.

As for home demolitions, Feldman never explains why the grandmother’s home was demolished. Homes are demolished because they’re built illegally or unsafely, or to prevent future terrorist attacks. But home demolitions in Israel aren’t arbitrary; they must follow strict legal procedures, and home owners can, and do, appeal demolition orders through the court system.

Feldman reads Israeli history backwards, crediting the Holocaust for Israel’s creation and, shockingly, contriving a fanciful parallel between the Arabs’ “nakba” (“catastrophe”) and the Holocaust:  “The Holocaust and the creation of Israel . . .  led to our Nakba,” states Yasmeen.  In fact, by the time Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, the Zionist project was already underway. And the “nakba” meant mass displacement; the Holocaust meant mass murder. It’s only Israel’s enemies who fail to see the difference.

Reviews of Wishing on the Same Stars have been positive. The School Library Journal reviewer writes that the “information, thoughts, and feelings relating to the conflict are expertly done.” This is patently untrue, since the book reflects no expertise about Israeli law regarding home demolitions, no expertise about the history of Zionism, and ignorance of human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Children’s book reviewers, even Jewish ones, aren’t experts in Israel’s history; they look at plot and relatability of characters, not at historical accuracy. Unfortunately, issuing from a major publisher, Wishing Upon the Same Stars will be welcomed for an “even-handedness”  it doesn’t possess. Parents and librarians concerned about how Israel is presented to young readers need to draw attention to its weaknesses, and point to more accurate books. It’s time for Israeli authors to write them!

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