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Partisan Review: Of Dreams and Hallucinations

It must be awful to be a Republican these days. So many reasons to be terrified: immigrants flooding across our borders, gender subversion from within, swarthy people rising from below, and so few of “our nation’s core principles” left unassailed. Even Sean Hannity, culture warrior supreme, can’t seem to keep up. How on earth to fight so many foes at once?

Enter Ethan Keller, a Hannity Show producer as well as cofounder and executive director of the Locke Society, an organization with its sights set on “ensur[ing] that the next generation of Americans is not overwhelmingly socialist.” Only by “encouraging the conservative youth to pursue careers in public and private education,” the Locke Society jaws, “can [we] turn the tide against the radical leftist orthodoxy that has come to dominate our nation’s classrooms.”

Apparently a conservative takeover of “public and private education” is the cure-all we desperately need. Offering no mere step in that direction, an op-ed written by Keller for the Hannity website last week begins with a dizzying leap: from “young Americans [who] have flooded the streets in support of Hamas” (where?) to “a pro-Palestine book that is written for children as young as four years old.” The text in question was recently promoted by First Book, an organization dedicated “to ensuring that all children, regardless of their background or zip code, can succeed, by removing barriers to equitable education.” Apparently Keller imagines that the demonstrations currently sweeping our nation’s campuses (not “the streets”) will soon be joined by legions of four- to nine-year-olds. He doesn’t mention that First Book is founded to support literacy and serve children in need, since he’s convinced that what they’re really after is “getting sexually explicit books, as well as anti-American and racist books into classrooms across the country.”

If a non-profit supporting literacy truly has such nefarious ends in mind, why then would they promote Hannah Moushabeck’s Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine? At first, Keller himself doesn’t seem sure: he cites the book’s synopsis—a “Palestinian family celebrates the stories of their homeland in this moving autobiographical picture book debut”—and then comments, “The book is well-written and will pull on the heartstrings of those that [sic] read it.” He summarizes its story: it’s about “how a father of two [sic] girls lost his home and everything his family owned, and how he only has a rusty old key left.” In addition to getting the number of daughters wrong, Keller gives us nothing about the book’s marvelous evocation of their father’s homeland, the focus of every other review I’ve seen. Here, for example, is a quote from Kirkus:

Moushabeck vividly describes the streets of East Jerusalem—the many languages spoken, the “colorful vendors” selling “everything from olive oil soap with rose water and heaping bags of za’atar to gold jewelry and embroidered textiles,” and “the chanting of the muezzin’s call to prayer mixed with the ringing of church bells.”

When an op-ed lacks any clear description of its ostensible subject, you have to wonder what its real aim is.

Where Keller’s going is never stated clearly, though we are asked to imagine it ourselves. The key is apparently that rusty key, which for Keller, “opens the door.” He uses this phrase twice, first in one of many sentences that would have been blue-penciled if he’d had me as an editor. Keller notes that:

The author, publisher, and organizations that promote the book will claim that it is not an anti-Semitic or anti-Israel book as neither Israel nor Jewish people are mentioned in any part of it, but the reference to Jerusalem will open that door to discuss it.

What, Keller’s readers may ask, does he mean by “the reference to Jerusalem”? And what is “that door” or the “it” that will be discussed? Thus far in the piece, Jerusalem has not been mentioned at all; only in the next sentence does Keller tell us that, “The memories recalled in the book focus on Jerusalem.” Apparently any picture book that recounts an Arab child’s recollections of life in the Old City or any story tracing an Arab family history in Jerusalem is potentially anti-Semitic, even if Keller himself has already admitted there is no such evidence in the book itself.

Just to be factual, clear, and transparent, Hannah Moushabeck’s father does have those memories, and those are the stories he told his daughters when they were young—so they wouldn’t forget where they came from. I know this, because I know them; Hannah’s father is one of my closest friends. His daughter’s book, in addition to being a lovely, funny, playful, and poignant read, is also a beautiful portrait that perfectly captures the man I know. Michel Moushabeck has not an ounce of prejudice in his soul, and he is the best possible ambassador for the musical and literary cultures of the region. He was also recently voted 2024 Arab American of the Year by ACCESS, the largest Arab American association in the United States.

What, exactly, then, are we supposed to be afraid of? What caused this cog in the Hannity machine to target a picture book and encourage Hannity’s legions of followers to ban it from library shelves? Another open door. Keller repeats the phrase, noting that,

The book ends in a way that will lead the reader, or listener, to ask “why can’t they go back?” This opens the door for the adult in the room to politically sway any young reader.”

In other words, this book is condemned by Keller because it doesn’t contain any overt political message or condemnation of Israel. So, what really worries him? Again, he imagines the worst: “This book in the hands of a teacher […] if the teacher is an anti-Israel advocate.” So, the book is no problem at all, unless we also imagine that there are problem teachers, perhaps even legions of them? What sort of nightmare world does this man live in?

Everyone has heard of educational systems like the one hallucinated here by Keller. In autocratic regimes worldwide, certain histories may not be mentioned, certain realities cannot be spoken of. As Anne Applebaum recently reminded us in the Atlantic, the violent suppression of the Tian'anmen Square uprising, begun by students then joined by workers, has been written out of official history in China; in contrast, the killings at Kent State or the police attacks during the ’68 Democratic Convention are living, active memory in the US, shaping the resurgent political scene of today. In Russia, it’s illegal even to call the invasion of Ukraine a war, and Masha Gessen, a leading critic of the Putin regime, has authored a book about the gulags called Never Remember.

Is that how the cofounder of the Locke Society proposes we should teach our children? By removing books from our libraries simply because they record a history that Israel would prefer to forget? Palestinian lives and stories don’t count, because they may reflect poorly on our ally? This form of suppression is how autocracies manage and maintain their power, though I suspect the author of Two Treatises on Government would not approve of such methods. I suspect Locke today would find them more reminiscent of China or Russia than of liberal democratic ideals of the West.

One last comment, a nod to one aspect of the Keller report that I’ve largely neglected until now. Hannity’s producer also does his best to link Hannah Moushabeck’s picture book to the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023 (though he doesn’t mention the genocidal slaughter in Gaza that Israel unleashed since then). Keller intends his readers to view this children’s book as a weapon, a story that is somehow planting sleeper cells in libraries all across our land. He lists libraries in 41 states that have copies of the book, hoping to enrage and direct angry parents to storm the bookshelves. He does not mention that Hannah’s book was published six months before October 2023, nearly a lifetime in the publishing industry. Instead, he again prefers to hallucinate, dreaming up “pro-Palestine teachers and librarians, who […] have these books proudly displayed and are hoping every child will read it [sic].” So, we’re not just besieged by problem teachers, it’s also those horrid, socialist librarians we need to fear? What kind of person is scared by librarians?

There is, of course, another possible explanation, one that won’t sound like a rejected script from some Hollywood horror show (call it American Carnage II). Perhaps both teachers and librarians intend to include as wide and diverse an array of stories on their syllabi and shelves as possible, to represent fully the richness and variety of human history on this planet and in their country—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Perhaps the real gift Hannah Moushabeck inherited from her father is her resilience and her ability to remember, along with her talent for celebrating their heritage with positive, uplifting, and nonviolent narratives. Perhaps it’s just a great book, one that every child will love. Perhaps what is truly frightening is what happens in the Hannity hive-mind.

The good news, of course, is that you’ll have a chance to see for yourself and decide. We have Ben Franklin to thank for that; he started the first public library, and libraries continue to be among our greatest institutions. By the way, when Ethan Keller penned his piece, the World Cat search engine had apparently listed “292 libraries across the country” that had a copy of Homeland. My Father Dreams of Palestine. As of today, that count is up to 381.

Don’t mess with librarians. They’re the best.

JIM HICKS is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.




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