Traditional children’s alphabet books have taught kids that “A is for Apple,” “B is for Boy,” and “C is for Cat.” But a new twist on the genre aims to teach kids the ABCs of Palestinian culture.
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The book, called “P is for Palestine,” was published last week and has quickly caused a stir among some Jewish parents in New York for teaching kids that “I is for Intifada.”
The author, Iranian-born Dr. Golbarg Bashi, promoted her book and a reading at a local bookstore in a post last week on a closed Facebook page for New York moms.
Her post drew angry responses from women who called “P is for Palestine” anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda, a charge Bashi denies.
"The charge of anti-Semitism is a very severe one and it is not something I take lightly," she told Haaretz. "This is a book written from a place of love not a place of hatred. It is a book celebrating Palestinians and empowering their children without an iota of animus towards any other people—Israelis included."
Comments posted in the Facebook group are off the record, but they have become so heated that its moderators are considering shuttering the page.
Pro-Israeli parents were particularly incensed by the “I is for Intifada” page in the book, with one woman suggesting that if Bashi wanted to promote diversity, "I" could have been for "Israel."
Others called the book thinly veiled propaganda targeting young children’s minds, with another woman suggesting "B is for Brainwashing." Still others were infuriated that the Facebook page’s administrators didn’t remove what they viewed as an inflammatory post which they felt didn’t belong in a moms' support group.
Some tagged the Anti-Defamation League in their comments in hopes it would take action.
Bashi, a history professor at Pace University who lives in New York with her family, founded an educational company in 2013 “to promote progressive early childhood education, diversifying children’s literature” and empower kids through what she describes as “playful gender and race-conscious pedagogy.”
Her company has created wooden blocks featuring the Persian and Arabic alphabets (a Hebrew template has just been completed), and “P is for Palestine” is the first book in a planned children’s book series about diversity.
It joins the ranks of recently published children’s books that aim to bring the kind of progressivism and identity politics that are common on college campuses into the kindergarten classroom.
Bashi’s decision to author a children’s book about Palestine also stems back to her childhood. She spent her early years between southern Iran and London, and her family immigrated to Sweden when she was in middle school.
Even today, she recalls one difficult aspect of her itinerant childhood.
“Having grown up in Sweden as a refugee child, I remember vividly how upsetting it was not to find educational materials, toys or books about my part of the world,” Bashi told Haaretz.
“I come from a family of educators, and the alphabet is something that seems to be in our DNA,” Bashi said. “Over the years, I have amassed a large collection of ABC books, especially about different parts of the world, and I was stunned to find that there was not a single children’s alphabet book in English about Palestine or Palestinian culture.”
The only other known English children’s book about Palestine, she said, is “Boys and Girls of the Near East,” by Bay Robinson and Florence Fremantile, published in 1936.
Rather than pitch the project to children’s book publishers, Bashi turned to LaunchGood, a crowdfunding platform focused on the Muslim community worldwide, with the goal of raising $15,000 for the initial print run of 2,000 copies. They received donations from the United States, Canada and Europe, and surpassed that goal by about $900.
“I consider myself Palestinian at heart,” Bashi said, “and I wanted to write and publish a book that was greatly needed – a classic, playful and pedagogically sound ABC rhyme book with lots of references to the Holy Land (Christmas, Jesus Christ, Bethlehem, Nazareth), Palestinian food, dance, culture, and the geography, multiculturalism of the region.”
Bashi teamed up with a fellow Iranian, illustrator Golrokh Nafisi, to create the artwork for the book, which follows standard ABC book practice in terms of the text. In Bashi’s version, which is sometimes stilted, “A is for Arabic, my tongue, that’s the 4th biggest ever sung!,” and “B is for Bethlehem, my birthplace with the best Baklawas, put it on a plate not in a vase!”
The book goes on to include other elements of Palestinian culture (“D is for Dabkeh,” “E is for Eid”), but has elicited outrage among some New York mothers after Bashi promoted the book and a reading at a local bookstore, where she also frequently holds Persian story hours.
The more controversial pages of the book refer to the Israeli occupation: These include the aforementioned “I is for Intifada, Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you’re a kid or a grownup!” with an image of barbed wire, and “M is for Miftah, Key of Return, Mama’s Mama and My Jiddah's mama’s for which I yearn!”
Bashi said she hopes for peace in the region, but added, "Intifada is an aspect of Palestinian life just as Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Wearing a Palestinian thob (dress), cooking a Palestinian dish, celebrating a Palestinian holiday, protecting an olive tree from being bulldozed . . . is a form of 'Intifada.'
"It is only in the mind of those determined to demonize Palestinians that this term is associated with violence—I am against any and all kind of violence, against any human being," she said.
The book received advance praise from controversial figures including Linda Sarsour, an activist and organizer of the Women’s March, and Columbia University Prof. Rashid Khalidi, both of whom have been accused of being anti-Semitic.
Bashi’s husband, Hamid Dabashi, also a Columbia professor, has also recently been accused of posting anti-Semitic comments on Facebook about Jared Kushner.
Dabashi referred to “Jared Kushner's Zionist kins [sic]" who "kill and rob Palestinians," and described the Jewish White House adviser as a "creature."
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger distanced himself from Dabashi’s views in a statement, saying, "I want to completely disassociate myself from those ideas. They're outrageous things to say, in my view.”
Meanwhile, Bashi said her book is selling well on her company’s Etsy online store. “We seem to be headed to a second edition print very soon,” she said.
Bashi said she ultimately does not want this "so-called controversy" to distract from the "otherwise joyous and important development, namely the publication of the world's first English-language alphabet book about Palestine and Palestinian culture" which she called "a modest step towards diversifying children’s literature in America and in the English language."