Academic journal article Humanities Research

This Is Not a Game: Testimony and the Making and Unmaking of the Child as a Political Subject

Academic journal article Humanities Research

This Is Not a Game: Testimony and the Making and Unmaking of the Child as a Political Subject

Article excerpt

In Canada in May 2006, Deborah Ellis's book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli children speak became an object of controversy when the Canadian Jewish Congress protested its availability to junior elementary students in the Toronto school system. The Ontario Library Association (OLA) had nominated the book for its Silver Birch reading program. The books chosen for this program are not mandatory texts on the school curriculum. Rather, the program is designed to encourage children in grades four to six (nine- twelve year olds) to read recreationally. School libraries distribute Silver Birch books and the children who read them can vote at the end of the school year on their favourite fiction and non-fiction works.

Under pressure from the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Toronto District School Board restricted access to the book and removed it from school libraries serving children below grade seven. PEN Canada, an association of national and international writers that exists to protect, among other things, freedom of expression, the House of Anansi Press, the Canadian publisher of Three Wishes, and Ellis herself protested the decision made by the Toronto District School Board.

In an article from the Canadian Jewish News, Paul Lungen explained that

the OLA describes Three Wishes as allowing 'young readers everywhere to see that the children caught in this conflict are just like them, but living far more difficult and dangerous lives. Without taking sides, it presents an unblinking portrait of children victimized by the endless struggle around them.'

Critics, however, argue the book presents a uniformly negative image of Israel, provides little context for young readers about a conflict whose details are beyond their understanding, and introduces students to Palestinian youths who aspire to be suicide bombers and kill Israelis.1

In addition, a teacher in the Toronto school system was quoted as saying that 'I didn't feel, and neither did the other teachers, that the children here have the knowledge to understand the difference between opinion and fact'.2

The controversy over Three Wishes raises several important questions relevant to pedagogical issues and social pohcy about the kind of role educational institutions, poUtical lobby groups, community and reUgious organisations, and book sellers should play in the regulation of extra-curricular reading practices for Ontario elementary school children. The oppositions of opinion and fact, the regulation of children who produce testimony and those who read it, and the targeting of children with or without the knowledge to comprehend the meaning of testimony or poUtical conflict beg to be disentangled from one another. Also notable with regards to the controversy was how the poUtics of the debate straddled the 'rights' spectrum, from those in support of the right of free speech to those insisting on the right to participate in Canadian policy making on education as part of the multicultural grid work of 'Canadian society' - the latter clearly achieving its objectives here.3 In order to comprehend these competing human rights' discourses, it is important to reflect on how the controversy mobiUsed children as poUtical subjects within a transnational framework of testimonial discourse. Of particular interest is how these competitive rights' discourses generate notions of childhood, fantasy and the meaning of the Palestinian and IsraeU conflict in the Canadian context.

Three Wishes belongs to an increasing number of pubUshed books in the field of testimonial studies charged with endowing the child with the role of bearing witness to traumatic events. In so doing, the child as testifier is empowered to produce historical truth and authentic, reaUstic representations of events. In considering what enables this newly authorised voice, we need to address the contexts in which children testify. In what forms, for example, do children's testimonies appear and how are they circulated? …

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