Mitchell Cohen on the Turin Book Fair

Dissent magazine has a great interview with Professor Mitchell Cohen on the controversy surrounding Israel’s place as a guest of honor at the Turin International Book fair.

Among many highlights, Mitchell takes Tariq Ramadan to task for his insistence that he is only against Israel the country being honored not Israeli authors being invited to speak.

But now, consider Ramadan’s famously elliptical positions about stoning women. If you look on his website you will find his sponsorship of a petition supporting a “moratorium” on stoning women for certain behavior in Muslim countries. This is, he explains, so that a debate can begin. A “moratorium”? To begin a debate about religious legitimation of stoning women? Please! Let’s imagine that someone takes the quote by Ramdan in your question to me but makes a few changes: “we cannot recognize the legitimacy of celebrating Islam, which leaves death and desolation in its wake – like 9/11 and the stoning of women. Islam cannot be given an honorable status but since we are liberal we allow Muslims free expression.” Ramadan would denounce anyone who said something like this as a slick, double-talking bigot and he would be absolutely right to do so. But what shall we say when someone refuses to distinguish the state of Israel (which was a response to centuries of persecution), from various policies of Israeli governments and then adds, well, we refuse to grant this country any honorable place in the world of nations, even at a book fair, but of course we allow Israeli writers free speech. I’d ask: Why do you bother? Why will you give them this free speech? So you can have a “conversation” explaining to them how their country spins on its own axis of evil? Has Mr. Ramadan posted a petition calling for a moratorium on relations with Sudan so a debate can begin on the religious legitimacy of what is happening in Darfur? Will he seek to blacklist any book fair that honors any states from the Arab League, of which Sudan is a member?

Another key point is Mitchell’s critique of the idea that since politics and art are two separate value spheres, the two shall not be intertwined. As the French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun (himself against the boycott) put it: “Criticize the policies of a state. Criticize a novel on its literary merits.”

Actually, I don’t separate literature and politics so easily. Good literature has to be about important things, compelling aspects of human life. Politics is certainly one of them. There is good political literature and bad political literature; it is bad when it is tendentious. The relation between politics and culture is complicated. There are great novels animated by bad ideas and bad novels animated by good ideas. I guess I think we must address the various ideas in them along with the literary qualities and see how they interact.

So, yes, inviting Israeli writers is not politically neutral just as boycotting them is not just a matter of “conscience.” You do have to make a choice, as Sartre used to say: does the state of Israel have the same right to exist as other states or is it to be demonized like none other (and, I should add, rather like the Jews were once singled out in Europe)? If you believe it has a right to exist (say, within the 1967 borders), then it is perfectly legitimate to criticize this or that government policy (and it is not at all anti-Semitic to do so). It is another matter if your goal is really Israel’s abolition rather than a real compromise between Israelis and Palestinians to end this long, painful conflict.

Could not have said it better my self – well, maybe I could – check out my piece “Israel: Bookworm or Maggot?” in allvoices.

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