Monday, March 31, 2008

Misreading the Paris Book Fair Boycott

Nidra Poller | 3/27/2008
Israel was the guest of honor at this year’s Salon du Livre in Paris, provoking a Muslim boycott which in turn provoked a torrent of well-mannered reprobation.

Egyptian novelist Alaa el-Aswani, disheartened that France would honor “a country guilty of crimes against humanity,” vowed to temper his presence by distributing photos of Palestinian and Lebanese children, victims of “Israel’s policies.” La Fabrique, a small press specialized in post-Zionism that has always snubbed the Book Fair, decided to attend in an act of résistance and display large format photos of Palestinian suffering. A. B. Yehoshua, interviewed on France 2, said he hopes next year’s honored guest will be the independent state of Palestine. Despite an 8% drop in attendance, 165,300 people visited the Salon between 12-19 March. Israeli president Shimon Peres, on a state visit to France, inaugurated the Book Fair. A small cohort of protesters distributed tracts. The exhibition hall was evacuated only once, at 5 PM on Sunday, apparently for a (false) bomb alert. The Israeli stand, crowned with Yisroel in bold Hebrew letters, was a haven of peace and a beehive of activity. Every inch of space around the book tables was occupied, every encounter with one of the 39 featured writers was filled to overflowing, 21,000 books were sold in 6 days. It seemed at times that all the energy of the vast exhibition hall gravitated to the bright, warm, welcoming oasis of Israel. Writers, organizers, translators, interpreters, and the French publishers of the invited writers were delighted.

The absence of Muslim countries, from the UAE to Yemen, was neither audible nor visible. By contrast, Israel was ever-present in literary magazines, literary sections of national papers, and on the airwaves.

If the purpose of the boycott was to close down the show, pack up the books, and send the Israelis home in disgrace, it was a complete failure. But if it was one small gesture in a relentless strategy to destroy the Jewish state, it was a smashing success. It imposed an insane equation on a supposedly intelligent debate: Israeli writers should be respected because they make the sublime effort to accept their Arab neighbors, while these same neighbors refused to stand under the same roof with Israel on the hallowed cultural ground of a book fair! States like Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy to join a Mediterranean Union of peace, harmony, and prosperity wouldn’t even stand side by side with Israel at a Book Fair.

The naked message -- prove you are willing to dialogue with the Other who is determined to exterminate you -- was played out in infinite variations in French media, directly, in interviews with authors, indirectly in political broadcasts about the Middle East, surreptitiously in newscasts. Charles Enderlin (of Mohamed al Dura fame) proudly presented his new book, in which he demonstrates that the state of Israel was founded on Zionist terrorism, as indicated by the title Par le feu et par le sang [with fire, with blood]. Deftly associating a slogan of the Jewish underground—“In blood and fire Judea fell, in blood and fire Judea will rise”—to the war cry currently belted out by jihadis thirsting for Jewish blood, Enderlin justifies his portrayal of Palestinian terrorism as a natural outgrowth of the Zionist variety.

An interview with Ron Leshem, author of Beaufort, was the occasion to take digs at the meaningless death of Israeli soldiers in the useless 1982 Lebanon war. Followed by stabs at Jews from Arab countries who should have been able to help Israelis get along with their Arab neighbors but failed because of an inexplicable hatred of Arabs. In political broadcasts, the United States was tongue lashed and invited to get out of the Middle East; Israel and the U.S. were told to accept Hamas and Hezbollah if they ever want to see peace in the Middle East; and the recent “tragedy” in Jerusalem [the murder of eight students at Mercaz Harav] was accepted as a logical reaction to the “tragedy” in Gaza [the Warm Winter operation].

Such an opinion was shared by an editor at the Fabrique stand. Pointing to large format photos of demolished buildings, long lines at checkpoints, the infamous wall, and holes in the walls of Palestinian homes--“Israeli soldiers go from house to house through the walls” —she declares: "All of Gaza is rubble today. Eighty of the 120 killed were civilians. When you do that you should expect to be attacked."

At the Israeli stand, bestselling novelist Eshkol Nevo, laureate of the France-Israel Foundation prize, wonders how anyone can write in this dazzlingly beautiful city of Paris … where there is no matsav. His face shines with goodness as he explains that perhaps his novel Homesick is appreciated because of a Palestinian character, a construction worker who reflects on the Nakba in interior monologues. This effort to portray the Other from within has brought him international success. He had a long cordial conversation with a Palestinian professor who attended his talk in Cambridge. He’s not sure why individual writers from the boycotting countries didn’t attend. Maybe because they see Israel as an aggressive country that is doing harm…

Outlandish claims that were once limited to far-out Islamist websites are now comfortably seated in the mainstream media. Susan Abulhawa is indignant because the Paris Book Fair honored Israel “a 60 year old country established in place of the ancient land of Palestine” (Libération March 18). The Jews have turned a “once multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural land” into a place reserved for Jews only. "Jesus was Palestinian, some Palestinians are Canaanites, Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and turning Gaza into a concentration camp. Palestinians are forced to negotiate for their basic human rights." Abulhawa, invited by Fox News to comment on the Annapolis meeting politely, explained to a dimwitted reporter that the Palestinians should not be asked to negotiate with their oppressors. The prestigious Buchet-Chastel will publish the French translation of Albuhama’s novel Scar of David, in which a Palestinian child stolen by an Israeli soldier in 1948 becomes a soldier in turn and discovers his Palestinian brother Youssef…

And we discover, thanks to the intrepid Khaled Abou Toameh, that a Fatah leader is asking Palestinians from all over the world to peacefully invade Israel on May 14th to reclaim their homes and their land.

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