Under pro-Israel pressure, South Africa book chain bans ‘River to the Sea’ children’s book

The removal of a children’s colouring book about Palestine from independent book stores in South Africa has raised concerns about censorship driven by pro-Israeli lobbying in a country known for its pro-Palestine positions.

Written and illustrated by Nathi Ngubane and published by Social Bandit Media in February 2024, From The River to The Sea had sold over 3,000 copies before being pulled by the Exclusive Books chain at the behest of pro-Israeli groups recently.

“Exclusive Books stopped promoting the book. The book is no longer appearing on their website, and other customers were told that their orders were canceled. We are still waiting for their official response,” Ngubane told The New Arab.

“We cannot afford not to have Palestinian content on our shelves, and as much as we may not agree on everything, we must all reject censorship.”

Social Bandit Media told The New Arab that pro-Israel activists had complained to Exclusive Books about the children’s title. “Exclusive Books quietly took it off the shelves, thinking no one would notice. But we were not going to remain quiet,” an official at Social Bandit Media said. “Censorship is always an absurd idea. But when you try to censor a children’s colouring book about Palestine while the genocide of Palestinians is taking place, it becomes a parody,” the official elaborated. “The attempts to quietly remove the books from the shelves show how insecure Zionists are about the story of Palestine. It shows how disposable Palestinian life is for Zionists.”

Intimidation and censorship?

The author, Ngubane, acknowledged that he had expected a hostile reaction from Zionists but remained unfazed. “I did feel like there would be some backlash, especially with the title of the book,” Ngubane said.

“I expected the book to cause a bit of a stir. But our aim is to educate young ones about Palestinian freedom and what it means to be an activist and to defend human rights,” he added. “Zionists have misinterpreted the title because ‘From The River to The Sea’ means to me, an inspirational call for freedom, human rights, and coexistence. It is not anti-Semitic.”

Ngubane added that he was inspired to write the book by the genocide of Palestinians, the destruction of Gaza, and the displacement of millions of people.

He was also encouraged by the solidarity movements, the university encampments in South Africa and worldwide, and the South African government’s case atthe International Court of Justice against Israel.

“Artists around the world are painting murals depicting Palestinian resistance, and the South African government is approaching the ICJ against Israel,” commented Ngubane.

He and Social Bandit Media aimed to make the book interactive, providing a platform for children to learn and feel involved in something constructive.

The book covers the history of Palestine, the story of the Nakba, the occupation itself, and the work of various writers, activists, and Palestinian journalists who sacrificed their lives reporting on the war.

Front cover of ‘From the River to the Sea’ illustrated by author and illustrator Nathi Ngubane.

Exclusive Books did not respond to a request for comment from The New Arab. However, the company posted on their Facebook page on June 7, 2024, stating that independent stores make their own decisions about what to order and sell.

“Exclusive Books is a chain of independent bookstores that facilitates the sale of books. As a company, we do not censor or approve books for sale in our stores. Each store independently selects and stocks the books they wish to sell, as we do not have a central purchasing function,” the statement reads. “We are sensitive to the current global issues between Israel and Palestine, as we believe we provide a diverse range of perspectives through the literature we offer. Our intention is never to offend anyone.”

The slogan has long been used to refer to the creation of a Palestinian state within the boundaries of historic Palestine, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

While hardline Zionists and their supporters allege that the slogan implies the removal of Jews from the area to pave the way for a Palestinian state, pro-Palestine activists dismiss this charge, saying it refers only to the creation of a state and the end of Israel’s illegal occupation.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies had condemned the selling of the book, stating, “It is repugnant that this publication, promoting the obliteration of Jews from our historical and rightful homeland, Israel, can be published and targeted at young minds.

“We reject attempts to indoctrinate children. While we are saddened by the ongoing conflict, campaigns like this only perpetuate animosity and prolong the cycle of hatred. We urgently call for the immediate cessation of this extremely irresponsible publication.”

But the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) condemned what it called “intimidation” against Ngubane and the publishers Social Bandit Media.

“The book highlights Palestinian lives and struggles to help children learn about what is happening in Gaza to counter the erasure, silencing, and falsification of history by Zionists. The deletion of the memory of Palestinians is part of the Zionist project to dehumanize and justify the crime of genocide against them,” said a PSC representative.

Some authors have accused Exclusive Books of stocking pro-Palestinian books but failing to promote them to potential readers. Author Suraya Dadoo mentioned that Exclusive Books refused to host the launch of Why Israel? The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective, which she co-authored with Firoz Osman.

Dadoo stated, “We did our own promotion and drove sales there, but they did not want to host the launch of the book. So they have a history of pandering to [pro-] Israeli customers.”

Ngubane concluded by discussing his book: “We had to avoid depicting Palestinians as hopeless. We wanted to highlight their courage and bravery. We also thought it was very important for children participating in this activity book to learn about other children their age who are making remarkable contributions to their fight for freedom.”

“I want Palestinian kids to see freedom, to grow up and become doctors, teachers, and artists. We all want that for the people of Palestine. We are not free until Palestine is free. Palestine needs to be recognized as a state, and their suffering should end because they have been oppressed for far too long”.

Joseph Chirume is a freelance journalist from Zimbabwe based in South Africa, writing on human rights and immigration issues with a focus on the South African landscape.