This piece was also published in Allvoices.
Israel: Bookworm or Maggot?
By Roi Ben-Yehuda
Israel is a bookish country. Its historical roots are traced in a book; its people have been called the “people of the book”; and its founding father, Theodore Herzl, a playwright, liked to write books.
There is something literary, even fantastical, about the existence of Israel. Who else but a playwright would have thought it possible to bring to life a 2000-year-old wish? To revive a people and their disused language? And to transform a barren landscape and make a desert bloom?
One of my favorite facts about Israel is that it leads the world in per-capita new book titles per year. Over 4000 titles a year. Not just any book titles – works by such literary luminaries as Amos Oz, David Grossman, Abraham Yehoshua, Etgar Keret, Aharon Appelfeld, Anton Shammas and Sayed Kashua.
By any measurable criteria, Israel is a bookworm’s fantasy. Yet, to an increasing number of persons around the world, Israel is, metaphorically speaking, more like a maggot than it is a bookworm.
The ‘Israel is a maggot’ crowd has recently come out in protest over Italy’s decision to honor Israel’s cultural achievements at this year’s Turin International Book Fair. Lead by theologian Tariq Ramadan and pundit Tariq Ali, left-wing Italian intellectuals, and Muslim authors in the Diaspora and Arab world have called for a boycott of the event.
The justifications given in favor of the boycott are of two kinds: The first unequivocally rejects the celebration of Israel in its totality. The idea being that as long as Israel is an occupying power, as long as it continues in its aggression toward the Palestinians, it should not be a “guest of honor” in any event.
In a letter to the organizers of Book Fair, Ramadan gives voice to this notion when he writes that: “To choose the State of Israel while you know what was, and still is, happening in the occupied territories – and just after the international community, almost unanimously, condemned the Gaza’s blockage – is neither wise nor fair towards the Palestinian and their dignity.”
The second argument in favor of the boycott rests on the idea that since Israelis and Palestinians are attached at the hip, authors from both nations should have been invited. Moreover, to not do so, to honor Israel at 60 without giving equal weight to the significance that Palestinians accord the same date – the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe)- is to validate Israel’s maltreatment of the Palestinians.
Both of these arguments seem to me to be misguided. The first one, ‘no honor for an occupying power’, fails to differentiate between the subject and the state, between an artist and their state. To the likes of Ramadan it does not matter who is invited to represent Israel’s cultural achievements. If their passport says “Israel” then they represent the actions of their government. In this regard their logic is no that different than a terrorist who says that every Israeli, no matter where he lives or how he votes, represents the policies of the state and is therefore fair game.
In an open letter to Ramadan, Ernesto Ferrero and Rolando Picchio, Director and President of the Book Fair, accused Ramadan of a making a categorical mistake – of confusing the purpose of art and politics. The fair did not invite politicians, they reasoned, it invited artists. The whole mission of art transcends the political and rises to the level of the universal and timeless.
“The reasons of literature and those of politics have always been deeply different and often radically conflicting. Politics think about the “here and now” while literature talks to men of all times and all Countries. It does not divide, but brings together.
With respect to this position, it seems to me that it is precisely because art is not divorced from the political that those who call for a boycott are wrong. Art is not separated from politics – art is the intersection of the political with the sublime; the marriage of the time-bound and the timeless.
The irony here is that by calling for a boycott of the book fair, Ramadan and his ilk are alienating and hurting the one group of people that were in their corner in the first place. After all, it is the artist in Israeli society that serves the function of the proverbial gadfly – the critical voice of dissent that challenges Israel’s leaders and people to be held accountable for their actions. They are also the vanguard of Israel’s peace movement – the few voices calling for peace that command the respect of Israeli society.
The second argument, ‘if you honor Israel you must also honor Palestine’ is more attractive than the first but in the end also fails to compel. The idea being that if you shine a light on Israel, you are bound to get the shadow of Palestine (the reverse also being true). Since the histories of the two people are so intertwined, the argument goes, to honor one without recognizing the other is to commit an injustice.
Of course there is nothing wrong with the idea of honoring the cultures of both Israel and Palestine – on the contrary, it is a terrific idea. It would have been prudent and sensitive of the organizers to have invited on this occasion both Palestinian and Israeli authors. To create, as Tariq Ali put it, “a literary version of Daniel Barenboim’s Diwan Orchestra, half-Israeli, half-Palestinian.” But alas they did not. And their choice, while perhaps myopic, is perfectly valid and not unjust.
The point here is that Palestine is not Israel’s shadow, and should not follow it wherever it goes. As an independent country, Israel has every right to be recognized on its own. It is a disservice to both Israelis and Palestinians to think otherwise.
Rolando Picchioni, President of the foundation that runs the event, answered this criticism best when said:“A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country. What’s next: If we honor Russia, do we also have to invite Chechnya? Or what about China. Do we bring in Tibet?”
Finally, I am quite certain that if the reverse were true, if Palestinian artists were honored at this year’s book fair, the same intellectual activists who are now calling for a boycott would not be arguing for the inclusion of Israel. Nor would they have argued that the inhuman policies conducted by Hamas (who until recently was represented in Palestinian government) necessitate a boycott of Palestine as a guest of honor. I am also sure that there would not be a single Israeli artist calling for a boycott of the event based on the grounds that honoring these artist is like honoring Hamas.
For all of its shortcomings (and the list is long), when it comes to art and culture, Israel has a lot to show for itself. To boycott the honoring of Israel at the Turin International Book Fair is a pathetic attempt to deligitimize the existence and accomplishments of the Jewish state. Instead of rejecting the event all together, instead of saying that Israel should not be honored, the boycotters would do well to attend the event, listen to what the Israeli authors have to say, and engage in dialogue and debate.
After all, is not communication, the reaching out of one soul to another, the raison d’être of books in the first place?