Israel puts great value on the written word. In Israel, streets are named for poets – writers who have revived a people and its ancient language. It is the pen and imagination, more than the sword and muscle, that have been responsible for the creation of this nation. Israel’s historical roots are traced in a book; its people are called the “People of the Book”; and its founding father, Theodor Herzl, a playwright, liked to write books. It is no surprise then that Israel leads the world in new book titles per capita, per year.
What is a surprise, however, is that this summer the Israeli government cracked down on a Palestinian literary festival (Palfest) which opened in East Jerusalem. The event in question, which was supported by the British council and UNESCO, was a week-long festival featuring some distinguished international literary figures.
Since the Israeli government prohibits Palestinian political activity in east Jerusalem (which it annexed after the 1967 war), it felt justified in closing down the cultural event. The spokesperson for the Israeli police explained that the event was shut down because Israel believed it was organised or funded by the Palestinian Authority. The organizers of the festival deny this allegation.
The following are videos of the event. I have also included a poem written as a response by Kevin Coval. The name of the poem is “Burning Books, A Bebelplatz in Jerusalem.” You can read the poem here. More below.
* I came to the attention of this poem by a friend (also a Jewish poet) who was upset by its contents. In his letter to me, he wondered why even though he had no prior knowledge of this event, he instinctively got riled up when watching the video. As he wrote: “Am I just genetically programmed or socialized to be offended when someone criticizes Israel?”
Here is my response:
“As for your gut reaction. We all have it – a product of our zionist superego. But it is important to be able to transcend it. Israel is an amazing place, a place of great material, cultural and spiritual achievement, but it is also a place where an injustice is continually carried out. One should not ignore or be apathetic to this.
I believe it is the job of writers and poets to expose this dark shadow. Their ability to speak truth to power is very powerful (apparently the Israeli government agrees with me). Keep in mind that speaking truth to power is also a profoundly Jewish thing to do. Think of all the prophets who challenged God and king(s) alike to walk the path of justice. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think of poets and writers as modern-day prophets. At least that is how I like to think of them.
The key to it all, the ethical litmus test, is to do it out of a place of both knowledge and love: knowledge and love for humanity, knowledge and love for Israelis, knowledge and love for Palestinians, knowledge and love for Jews, knowledge and love for Jewish values, knowledge and love for humanistic values. I never heard of Coval before, but it sounds like that is what he did. So he passes my ethical litmus test.
Power to the peaceful.