TORONTO – "Reading this book made me want to go to Palestine and kill Israelis," commented a teenaged girl who "likes Jews" and has attended three Bat Mitzvahs. Her comments on the book she refers to – The Shepherd's Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter – can be found on the book-promoting goodreads.com web site.
On the same site, another young student who read it compared the Israeli regime to Nazis.
As a quick read of the book shows, The Shepherd's Granddaughter is a work of fiction based on the political situation in the West Bank that demonizes the Jewish state, presenting a completely one-sided, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel view with absolutely no balance or background information. For example, in the novel, the Israelis poisoned the likeable Palestinian protagonist's sheep for no reason, and the driver of a bulldozer tried to run her over. The Palestinians are portrayed as completely innocent and helpless victims, while the cruel Israelis pursue a goal of ethnic cleansing.
The book came to the attention of the Jewish Tribune through writer Brian Henry, a contributor to this paper. The father of a Grade 6 student in the public school system, his open letter of concern to Ontario's education minister is on page 14.
Recognized as a Book of the Year for children by the Canadian Library Association (CLA) and nominated for the prestigious Red Maple Award 2010 (geared to grades 7 and 8) of the Ontario Library Association (OLA), The Shepherd's Granddaughter is highly recommended by Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teachers and librarians. The Jewish Tribune, after seeing Henry's letter, picked up the book – which was in high demand – at a local library. There were 44 copies of the book in circulation in Toronto libraries and only one was available.
The CLA did not return any calls on this issue before publication deadline.
According to Shelagh Paterson, OLA's executive director, "the committee did not think this was propaganda; otherwise, it wouldn't have been chosen."
She defended the choice with the assertion that children in the Red Maple program could "pick their favourite author. They don't have to read all the books. It is not part of the curriculum. It's recreational book club material and encourages love of reading and discussion…. Usually discussions are welcome. Teachers help sort out thoughts."
Ruth Dameron, a teacher at Eitz Chaim's middle school who is not a member of the Jewish community, said: "I find it difficult to believe that this book, which [I think] encourages antisemitism, is being circulated in Ontario schools for young, impressionable children.
"Every teacher has a different perspective on politics, therefore, how could the OLA be so sure that a teacher would necessarily provide another point of view or challenge the message in the book?"
"I don't know of any books that are balanced or unbiased," Paterson declared. "I think the best opportunity to be exposed to controversial issues is when they're learning. The committee does carefully select [each book]…. It is not setting out to upset anyone. They want to ensure there's a richness to it."
Asked whether the committee would have considered a compelling and well-written work of fiction with an equally biased message against another ethnic group – for example, insinuating that African-Americans are intellectually inferior – she responded: "They read To Kill a Mockingbird."
(To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, published in 1960, is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novel taught widely in North American schools. Its message is a powerful condemnation of racial injustice.)
Trustee James Pasternak (York Centre) said that he "received a complaint and forwarded it over to our executive director of equity, Lloyd McKell. He said it was starting to get on our radar screen. We're going to be reading it.
"The initial reports are that this book is disconcerting to us and it is unbalanced political propaganda. However, senior staff is looking into it. We have a responsibility to follow up on all complaints and this is one of them. We will take it very seriously. We have very strict rules governing political activity in schools. Everyone must abide by them regardless of their political views. We would vigorously forbid the distribution of materials that smacked of political agendas, especially views from conflict zones."
McKell was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Shari Schwartz-Maltz, the Toronto board's manager of media, said there is a formal process for parents to deal with this kind of situation and the first thing they should do is discuss it with the school principal. She was unaware of any formal complaint.
"Decisions about the use of books are the responsibility of the school board," asserted Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ontario education ministry. "District school boards select and approve all supplementary learning resources. Boards and schools have their own internal procedures for selecting and approving various books and resources."
"It concerns me that this book is getting positive reviews and students are reading it without any guidance," said Associated Hebrew Schools librarian Bev Birkan. "This is one book that definitely should have unbiased adult supervision."
"I'm Israeli," said Ettie Stubbs, president of the Association of Jewish Libraries. The book "neglected to mention any background. Kids that know nothing about the conflict will read it and that is the impression they will get."
Ross Virgo, spokesperson for the York Region District School Board, was "very familiar with the book. We have provided some advice to our teachers and librarians. It is considered to be a sensitive issues text, raising subject matter and concepts that merit some informed, contextual discussion. They would certainly understand that it carries a distinctive point of view."
The book "was researched by the OLA, which is fairly representative of Canadian communities," he added. "We have 162 elementary schools and I believe it is probably in many of the school libraries."
Frank Dimant, B'nai Brith Canada's executive vice-president, has written to the provincial education minister calling for the removal of the book, which is "so clearly biased against Israel," from any school's recommended reading list. "This is not just a matter of political differences with Israeli policy. Having these types of one-sided books in the classroom marginalizes Jewish children and is definitely not in the spirit of the TDSB, which recently banned the hate-fest known as 'Israeli Apartheid Week' from its schools."