Naomi Shihab Nye: Maligning Israel for Young Readers

2022.02.08

2022.02.08

The books we read as children stay with us all our lives. In our earliest stories, big, bad wolves threaten innocent children – and few of us grow up with warm, fuzzy feelings about wolves. Replace that wolf with an Israeli soldier, and you have an indelible image. That is the danger of the writings of Palestinian-American children’s poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye. 


Nye won the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature in recognition of her entire body of work in 2013, placing her on a plane with eminent children’s writers Vera Williams and Katherine Paterson.[1] She was named Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2019-2021 by the Poetry Foundation. Her blank verse is accessible, employing a conversational style to evoke natural beauty (“sprig of succulent rosemary, bowing mint,” 19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 63) and to charm readers with homely details of Middle Eastern life (“At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,” 19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 3). Nye can also be bitingly sarcastic, especially when the subject is political: “I’d like to take Donald Trump to Palestine. . . They’d like to make their country great again, too.” (Voices in the Air, p. 11)


Palestinian on her father’s side (her mother is American), Nye credits a visit to her grandmother in a West Bank village for its impact on her political perspective. Running through her poems about “Palestine” is her conviction that her homeland was stolen by the Zionists, a loss to which she is not reconciled. Nye casts Palestinians solely as victims, while accusing Israel of misdeeds which she fails to document. The danger is that young, uninformed, and impressionable readers will leave her books with a negative impression of Israel and Israelis.


 Since the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a pressing political issue for most Americans, Nye would not have garnered the recognition she has without delivering a more universalist message; she positions herself as a fair-minded and humane champion of social justice – nonviolence, gun control, minority rights. She appears not to be personally antisemitic; her poems refer to her Jewish friends and affirm the shared humanity of Jew and Arab:

My Jewish friends are kind and gentle.

Not one of them would harm another person

even if they didn’t know that person.

My Arab friends are kind and gentle.

Not one of them would harm another person

even if they didn’t know that person.

(“Before You Can,” in Everything Comes Next, p. 74)


What is this supposed to tell us? “Kind and gentle” applies better to flower children than to complex individuals. Real Jews and Arabs are selfish, generous, foolish, wise, stubborn, and pliant; they’re built for aggression as well as kindness. Today’s Middle East isn’t like the America where Nye lives, and being “kind and gentle” doesn’t help much when two communities are at each other’s throats.


Taking the Jew out of Antisemitism


 Nye admires Jewish poets: she dedicates her poem “Double Peace” to Israel’s Yehuda Amichai; a poem by Amichai and another by Andee Hochman – “we are cut from the same rock, breathe the scent of the same lemons & olives”— provide epigraphs for her novel Habibi. Yet these verses serve as Jewish fig leaves that mask Nye’s ambiguity about what antisemitism really is.


In the author’s note to The Tiny Journalist, Nye declares unequivocally, “Since Palestinians are also Semites, being pro-justice for Palestinians is never an anti-Semitic position, no matter what anybody says.” (The Tiny Journalist, Author’s Note).


 Never antisemitic?  It was German antisemite Wilhelm Marr, in his book The Victory of Germanicism over Judaism (12th edition, 1879), who devised the term expressly to distinguish his racial antisemitism, which he argued was based on “science,” from the German term “Judenhauss,” which had religious overtones. Marr didn’t want to be accused of old-fashioned religious bigotry. His coinage, which has been widely accepted, had nothing to do with Arabs, and to argue that it is “never anti-Semitic” to criticize Israel after redefining the term to take the Jew out of antisemitism is sophistry.


Righteous Victims?


Nye’s condemnations of violence are poignant and moving:

You cannot stitch the breath

back into this boy.

A brother and sister were playing with toys

when their room exploded.

In what language

is this holy? (19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 133)


 Yet if Nye is opposed to violence, some of her heroes have different ideas. The Tiny Journalist is dedicated to “Janna Jihad Ayyad and her cousin Ahed Tamimi – all young people devoted to justice and sharing their voices.”


But who is Ahed Tamimi?


In December, 2015, sixteen-year-old Ahed Tamimi deliberately provoked a confrontation with an Israeli soldier outside her West Bank home by slapping and kicking him; he chose not to fight back. Tamimi comes from a family notorious for supporting terrorism. According to an article in The Tower, her aunt Ahlam Tamimi “planned and helped perpetrate” the murder of fifteen Israelis, half of them children, in the 2001 suicide attack on the Sbarro pizzeria and her mother used social media to instruct would-be terrorists on the best places to knife Israeli victims.[2] Two years before the 2015 incident, Ahed Tamimi was photographed biting a soldier who tried to arrest her brother. She revealed her true colors in late 2015, when she addressed a conference of the GCRP (Global Campaign to Return to Palestine) in Beirut – a conference of terrorist leaders. Attending were Deputy Secretary-General of Hezbollah Sheikh Naeem Qasim, Vice-President of Islamic Jihad (now President) Ziyad-Al-Nakhalah and Hamas’s representative in Lebanon Ali Baraka. So this is the company Tamimi keeps – Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas — yet Nye admires her as “devoted to justice.”[3]


Her poem “America Gives Israel Ten Million Dollars a Day” (The Tiny Journalist, pp. 47-48) protests the incarceration of West Bank columnist Lama Khater, mother of young children. Israel forbade her to write about politics, a restriction viewed by Nye as a violation of Khater’s freedom of speech. But Khater’s platform was a Hamas website where she praised the terrorist organization for its evolution “from rock to knife to rifle to explosive vest to rocket and to tunnel.” [4]


In the same poem she points to Salah Hamouri, a French/Palestinian lawyer “detained without charges or trial for more than a year.”  Hamouri, too, is no innocent victim; in fact, he served seven years for an attempt to murder former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef, and was suspected of belonging to the terrorist PFLP.[5]  


Child Victims


Since the days of medieval blood libels, which accused Jews of killing Christian children to make matzah with their blood, the child victim has been a staple of antisemitic accusations. That is what makes the deceptive gimmick of Nye’s recent collection, The Tiny Journalist, so insidious. Nye admits in her Author’s Note that the poems in this book are hers, claiming to have based their content on Facebook postings of Janna Jihad Ayyad, a girl living in the village of Nabi Saleh on the West Bank. In “Harvest,” for example, the words of suffering, putatively spoken by the “tiny journalist,” touch the reader’s heart and shut down discussion of why guns might be pointed at her people:

The doctors say they are shocked to see.

we don’t know what it would feel like,

not having guns pointed at us. Guns

have been pointed at us all our lives.” (The Tiny Journalist, p. 41)


 


“For the 500th Dead Palestinian,” in an earlier anthology, poignantly evoked the story of a thirteen-year-old girl:

Little sister Ibtisam,

our sleep flounders, our sleep tugs

the cord of your name.

Dead at 13, for staring through

the window into a gun barrel

which did not know you wanted to be 

a doctor.

I would smooth your life in my hands,

pull you back. Had I stayed in your land,

I might have been dead too, for something simple like staring

or shouting what was true

and getting kicked out of school.  (19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 53)


 


What were the circumstances of Ibtisam’s death? We’re not told.


In “Before I Was a Gazan,” she weaves a poem about a Gazan boy’s loss of his family in an Israeli bombing raid. The boy returns home to pick up the math homework he’s left behind:

everything got subtracted

in a minute

even my uncle

even my teacher

even the best math student and his baby sister

who couldn’t talk yet. (Voices in the Air, p. 138)


It is likely that this poem (published in 2018) was written in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge (2014), an action the Israelis launched after a dramatic increase in rocket fire against civilians in the south. Nye’s poems highlight Palestinian suffering, not Palestinian provocations.


The poem “All Things not Considered” catalogues the deaths of children (including. to Nye’s credit, two Jewish boys who were stoned to death in a cave.) One of the children in Nye’s list is Mohammed al-Durra:

Mohammed al-Durra huddled against his father

in the street, terrified. The whole world saw him die.

(19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 133)


 But al-Durra’s “death” in 2002 may not even have happened. France 2 TV first reported it, and though the IDF initially accepted responsibility, on further investigation it retracted that claim. The initial footage may even have been staged.[6]    


“For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15” (Everything is Next, pp. 86-87) opens in outrage: “There is no straybullet, sirs,” implying that the “stray bullet” Israeli investigators may cite to explain a civilian casualty is never credible. What would Nye say, then, of the report that three Gaza fishermen were killed in a Hamas misfire on March 7, 2021? Did Hamas fire on them deliberately?[7]


Adult Victims


Like many Palestinian writers, Nye employs tropes evoking a romanticized past:  grandparents symbolize a pastoral way of life and prepare traditional foods (home-baked pita, home-cured olives). Though today’s Palestinians are among the most educated and sophisticated Arabs in the Middle East, in Nye’s Orientalist poems they are peasant farmers. Rooted in the land, they are passive victims of gun-toting Israeli soldiers.


“The Garden of Abu Mahmoud” sets up a deliberate contrast between these two caricatures:

Across his valley the military

settlement gleamed white.

He said, That’s where the guns live,

as simple as saying, It needs sun,

a plant needs sun

He stooped to unsheathe an eggplant

from its nest of leaves, . . .

(19 Varieties of Gazelle,, p. 20)


The Arab unsheathes an eggplant; the soldiers will unsheathe their swords. The reader is left to guess why there is a military presence in the vicinity of Abu Mahmoud’s farm.


The Palestinians are passive victims of a “Clean Rinse,” drained of agency by Israeli persecution:

you are real, 100% cotton,

you can wrinkle, accept that as a gift

and accept these rinses,

they are tedious

they will come

again and again

and after awhile, you will have

nothing more they can take.

(19 Varieties of Gazelle, p. 24)

 


Jewish Chosenness          


Nye also attacks the core Jewish belief that Jews are a chosen people, taking the word “chosen” at face value, imputing to it a simplistic, almost childish, meaning.


Liyana, the teenage heroine of Nye’s Habibi, voices discomfort with Jewish chosenness.  She doesn’t think that anyone should believe they’re chosen over anybody else: ”It seems like big trouble any way you look at it,” she tells Omer, the Jewish boy she befriends in Jerusalem. “I’m sorry, but I don’t like it. Do you believe you’re chosen? It sounds like the teacher’s pet.” [8] (Habibi, p. 178-179)


Her unease with chosenness surfaces again in “Double Peace,” dedicated to Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: 

Not for him and his people alone

But for all who loved that rocky land

Everybody       everybody       Sing it!

No chosen and unchosen but everybody chosen

Sing it!

(Everything Comes Next, 102-103)


 In fact, Judaism doesn’t believe that Jews are favored by God over anyone else. It believes that God charged the descendants of the patriarch Abraham, who first acknowledged God’s oneness, to communicate that radical idea to a pagan world. In other words, it believes that God gave the Jews a heavy responsibility: to live a model life, guided by God’s Sinaitic commandments, in the land of Israel. If being chosen had meant that Jews are better than anybody else (“the teacher’s pet”), the Jewish prophet Amos would not have chastised the people with these words: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) Nor would the Jews believe that the Messiah will descend from Ruth, a non-Jew born among the Moabites, the Hebrews’ enemies.[9]


Perhaps, at bottom, Nye attacks the Jewish idea of chosenness because it underpins the millennia-long Jewish claim that God selected them to live in the land of Israel, a claim that Nye herself cannot accept. But the misreading of Jewish chosenness echoes an antisemitic trope that has perpetuated resentment of the Jew throughout history. 


Unsubstantiated Accusations


Habibi presents a litany of Israeli regulations and practices that make life miserable for Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. Sitti, Liyana’s grandmother, complains of “how mean the Jewish soldiers are to us. They don’t even know who we are!” Uncle Daoud is demeaned at a checkpoint. A Jewish man in a yarmulke calls Arabs “animals.” Soldiers searching a home (for what, we’re not told) break plates, smash bathroom fixtures and tear apart comforters. A marketplace bombing by Palestinians isn’t exactly justified (the family condemns it), but Liyana tries to explain it:


“Maybe it was done by the Arab father whose ten-year-old son was shot by Israeli soldiers last week. Maybe it was done by the brothers of the tortured prisoners Poppy met all the time, or the cousin of the mayor who lost both legs when the Israelis blew up his car. Did people who committed acts of violence think their victims and their victims’ relatives would just forget?” (Habibi, p. 235) How many of these accusations are verifiable, and how many are based on unsubstantiated hearsay? We can’t know. But they pack emotional punch, conveying a negative image of Israelis that that may be the only one young readers will encounter.


Everything Comes Next fires a fusillade of false accusations at Israel: separate roads in the West Bank for Jews and Arabs, bulldozed homes, polluted water in areas where Palestinians live. Yes, some roads in the West Bank were closed to West Bank Arabs after the eruption of the Second Intifada, when suicide bombers used them to infiltrate Israel, but these roads are open  to  all Israeli citizens—Muslims, Christians, Jews, Circassians.[10] Home demolition is a measure highly restricted by Supreme Court rulings; it is permitted not as punishment, but to deter future terrorist attacks and save innocent lives.[11] As for water pollution, it is the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, who is responsible for water management and who fails to use the funds it receives through UNRWA to maintain water quality.[12]


 


Finding a Way Out


On the one hand, Naomi Shihab Nye wants young readers to share her rage at Israel. On the other, she fails to offer any hope of a workable solution. A solution she hints at, in the epigraph to her poem “One State,” is one proposed by Arab intellectual and critic of Israel Edward Said: “I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together and sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen.” (Voices in the Air, p. 90)


”Sharing the land” is what the UN offered in 1947 when it voted to partition Palestine – a partition the Arabs rejected. But partition is not what Nye is suggesting. The title of her poem, “One State,” envisions a single state in which “returned” Palestinians would outnumber Israelis. That would mean the end of Israel. And that is something Israel will never accept.


 


Works Discussed


Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997


19 Varieties of Gazelle:  Poems of the Middle East. New York, Greenwillow, 2002


Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners. New York: Greenwillow, 2018


The Tiny Journalist:  Poems.  Rochester:  BOA Editions, 2019;


Everything Comes Next:  Collected & New Poems. New York: Greenwillow, 2020.


[1] In her nominating statement for Nye, Palestinian-American children’s author Ibtisam Barakat praised Nye’s “incandescent humanity and voice [that] can change the world.” But Barakat herself is a biased critic; her memoir of her family’s experience of the Six-Day War, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (2007), distorts history, accusing the Israelis of initiating that conflict, and her memoir essay about that event, “Marked for Destruction,” in Why Do They Hate Me? Young Lives Caught in War and Conflict (Laurel Holliday ed., Simon & Schuster, 1999), falsely accuses the Israelis of aiming at “mass destruction” of the Palestinian communities in the course of that short war.


[2] thetower.org/5815-advocates-for-terror-why-ahed-tamimi-and-her-family-are-no-heroes  Accessed January 11, 2022.


[3] David-collier.com/terror   Scroll down to “The third conference and the Scottish attendees.” Accessed January 11, 2022.


 


[4]  See MEMRI site:  https://www.memri.org/reports/hamas-marks-its-29th-anniversary-reiterating-its-adherence-armed-struggle-liberate-palestine  Accessed January 12, 2022


[5] See MEMRI site:  https://www.memri.org/reports/network-french-municipalities-grant-marwan-barghouti-honorary-citizenship, which cites the Committee for the Support of Palestinian with French citizenship Salah Hamouri. Accessed January 12, 2022


 


[6] A subsequent investigation concluded, “[t]he possibility that [al-Dura and his father] were shot by Palestinians is higher than that they were shot by Israelis.” Broadcast throughout the world, the footage was a propaganda bonanza for the Palestinian cause. See https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-mohammed-al-dura-case for a complete account of the multiple investigations


[7] Times of Israel, Three Gazan fishermen killed in suspected Hamas rocket misfire, March 7, 2021.


[8]Nye, Habibi, pp. 178-179


[9] Telushkin, Joseph.  Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. NY: William Morrow, 2001. p. 557.


[10] https://www.commentary.org/michael-totten/the-myth-of-jewish-only-roads/  Accessed January 10, 2022


[11] https://www.lawfareblog.com/israeli-supreme-court-debates-counterterrorism-home-demolitions Accessed January 10, 2022


[12] https://besacenter.org/truth-behind-palestinian-water-libels/ Accessed January 10, 2022. According to this February 24, 20”4 report, “The Palestinians refuse to build water treatment plants, despite their obligation to do so under the Oslo agreement. sewage flows out of Palestinian towns and villages directly into local streams, thereby polluting the environments and the aquifer and causing the spread of disease.”