As the NY Times reported last month, Israel is being honored at the Turin Book Fair this year and predictably there is some controversy:
The selection of Israel as guest of honor at this spring’s International Book Fair in Turin has set off a furious debate among Italian, Israeli and Arab authors and intellectuals, including calls to boycott the event, Italy’s largest annual gathering of the publishing world. Those opposed to the decision say that offering such an honor at a fair opening in May, when Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary as a nation, is to ignore its policies toward Palestinians.
“A prestigious event like the book fair can’t pretend it doesn’t know what’s happening in that part of the Middle East,” said Vincenzo Chieppa, a local leader of the Italian Communist Party, who was one of the first to raise objections to the selection of Israel. Subsequent calls to boycott the fair — coming both from extreme-left-wing Italian political activists and prominent Italian and Arab intellectuals and authors — have prompted a wave of newspaper articles, some raising concerns about censorship and others extolling the need to place art above politics.
Performing the usual category mistake, the call to boycott is another misguided knee-jerk campaign to slander a group of people who are quite critical of many of the Israeli governments policies. As novelist A.B. Yehoshua commented in an op-ed column in La Stampa: “The aim of culture and literature is not to build barriers among people, but to open up to others.” The organizers of the fair are not backing down: “A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country,” Mr. Picchioni said. “What’s next? If we honor Russia, do we also have to invite Chechnya? Or what about China? Do we bring in Tibet?”
I think it is the right decision in both cases. Israel has had a remarkable history, often tumultuous, sometimes unhappy, but remarkable nonetheless. Its ties to Europe are profound and important. Israel was created in response to centuries of persecution and therefore deserves solidarity. That is not the same thing as supporting all Israeli policies, just as having sympathy for the plight of Palestinians ought is not to be confused with apologetics for every act done by a Palestinian. It is not just Europe and Israel that gain when the Jewish state is honored at these book fairs. The Middle East peace process gains too. Israel has a vibrant literary culture and it is worth noting that many of the Israeli authors who are invited are outspoken doves and supporters of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Unfortunately, there is a campaign these days from within parts of the western intellectual world, especially within parts of the left, to de-legitimize the Jewish state. This campaign is wrong-headed, often slanderous, and betrays the best ideals of the left and democracy.
I say this, indeed I would insist on this, as an American leftist who has in fact opposed many Israeli policies, especially the settlements, for decades. When these anti-Israeli campaigners hiss at “the Zionists,” they remind me of American neo-conservatives hissing at “leftists.” The hiss itself should tell you that there is something wrong. And note the fact that attempts in Britain to boycott Israeli universities were thwarted because they contravened anti-discrimination laws. From a political point of view, the efforts were also ridiculous. Israeli universities have been major bastions of dovish sentiment. Israel’s 60th anniversary should be celebrated and Israeli-Palestinian peace should be sought at the same time. If the only thing you can say to Israelis – and especially to their literary doves – is that a Jewish state incarnates evil, that Israelis should have no place of honor anywhere at any time, that Israelis are the original sinners of the world, that only Jews have no legitimate claim to the right of self-determination, then don’t expect Israelis to listen to you if you urge compromises on them. If your real point is that the state of Israel should not exist, they won’t listen to you either. And they shouldn’t. If your real point is a peace settlement based on a fair compromise, for example the idea of two states – one Israeli and Palestinian – then they should listen to you.
There are some more interesting exchanges in the interview that touch on the boycott, the Book Fair, and the more broadly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
In a recent exchange, Martha Nussbaum, a liberal and very moderate voice, said she disagreed with the decision to invite only Israeli writers to the Turin and Paris Fairs. “I don’t see why,” she writes, adding “Palestinian academics need all the help they can get, given the bad state of their universities, so I am all in favor of inviting them to all conferences. No, I still don’t think it’s an ideological request; it’s like saying, don’t have conferences that are whites only or men only. Assuming that there are competent people in the other group, as I know there are in Palestine, it is a just demand for equal inclusion.” Tariq Ali has likewise asked, “Why did the Turin Book Fair not invite Palestinians in equal numbers? Thirty Israelis and thirty Palestinians writers might have been seen as a positive and peaceful gesture and a positive debate might have taken place.” Do you consider this request to be legitimate or does it represent an excess of political correctness?
I have great esteem for Martha Nussbaum’s work – I am happy to say that you can read some of it in Dissent Magazine which I help edit – but I don’t agree at all with her approach here. It takes the Turin controversy out of context: a campaign across borders to de-legitimize one state and apply standards to this one state that are applied to nobody else. A book fair should be able to honor Israel like any other state. Obviously there is no reason why Palestinian scholars – or, for that matter, Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews – shouldn’t be invited to a book fair honoring Israel to discuss Israeli literature and also to argue about Israeli policies. But there is every reason to oppose a campaign that aims to hound Israel and Israelis everywhere and that is what is involved here. There are many places in the world where universities struggle to survive under bad political circumstances and they should all be helped, but Nussbaum’s analogy to inviting men only or whites doesn’t hold up and in my view lends itself to current efforts to depict Israel as an “apartheid state,” which is also a false analogy. The country has democratic elections in which every citizen, Jew or Arab, can vote and a parliament in which both Jews and Arabs serve as well as in the cabinet. In any event, Hamas poses much more of a threat to Palestinian intellectual and academic life than book fairs in Europe that honor Israel by inviting literary figures who, as it happens, have opposed many Israeli policies. Nussbaum took a very honorable position in the argument over the British boycott (we published it in Dissent) and I think both Israelis and Palestinians should listen to and argue with her.
Tariq Ali is another matter. His position represents a classic case of what I call “the left that doesn’t learn” and it seems to be pretty similar to parts of the Italian far left from what I hear. In Ali’s case, it is really warmed over Trotskyism. I read his article about Turin. First, he says that he has “always” supported the right of Israel to exist, but then he declares immediately that Israel should be replaced by a “single Israel/Palestine.” This is the “only long-term solution,“ writes Ali, although he admits it is perhaps utopian. Let’s be serious: this means that Israel should not exist, and that is the position of the fundamentalist left rather than the open-minded left. Eliminate the twists and turns of his assertions and that is the real basis of his suggestion for the Turin Book Fair. Israelis might be forgiven by responding with an observation once made by Abba Eban, the late, dovish Israeli foreign minister: Israeli national suicide is not an internationalist obligation. Ali’s article depicts Israel’s birth as nothing more than a story of expulsion, killing, rape. But a left-wing Israeli might provide a different narrative. She might tell you that Israel’s independence was declared by the leader of a socialist party, David Ben-Gurion; that it was three years after a third of the Jewish people were exterminated; that during the extermination, the leader of the Palestinian national movement, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, was in Berlin cheering on the Third Reich. She might tell you that when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in 1947, those hideous Zionists accepted compromise and the Arab world refused it. She might tell you that sixty years ago, the day after Israeli independence was declared, the country was invaded by half a dozen armies of the Arab League whose head, Azzam Pasha, stated, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.” So, yes, the Israelis fought back and might perhaps be forgiven for doing so. She might tell you too that some rotten things happened in the ensuing war; she might well acknowledge that Israel’s hands were not entirely clean, but she might add that she would like to hear an Arab dove make a similar admission.
And she might say to Tariq Ali: ok, perhaps we’ll follow your advice. We’ll give up Israel for “Israel/Palestine” and even ask for European help in achieving this utopia. But please excuse us if we are just a little skeptical after all these decades of war and because of the West’s record when it comes to stopping genocide in our times. The slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, for example. The slaughter of black Africans in Darfur, for example. So persuade us a little more before we create “Israel/Palestine.” First convince Indians and Pakistanis to give up their countries and to create “India/Pakistan.” And insist that the 10-12 million Germans who lost their homes at the end of World War II be given the “right of return” to Poland, the Czech republic and elsewhere. Let’s see how these utopian experiments work. If, in the interim, a book fair honors Poland, demand that there be an equal number of Polish and German authors. If a book fair honors Palestine, blacklist it if it does not invite one Israeli – a Zionist! – for each Palestinian author.
Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Muslin intellectual, has called for a boycott of the Turin Book Fair and the Paris Book Fair. He declared that “we cannot recognize the legitimacy of celebrating the state of Israel, which leaves death and desolation in its wake.” The issue, he said, “is not an Islamic or Arab question, but a matter of world conscience.” He clarified his remarks by saying that the boycott campaign was “intended as criticism of the ‘guest of honor.’ It is not an attempt to prevent Israeli authors from attending or from expressing themselves. It does not refuse to engage them in debate.” Sergio Chiamparino, Turin’s mayor, replied by saying that Ramadan’s position effectively denied Israelis “the right of free expression” and represented a “fundamentalist line” that was “unfortunately….invading Europe and corrupting many people, especially on the left.” How do you view Ramadan and the boycott in this context?
I have the impression that too many people on the left have a romance with Ramadan. It reminds me a little too much of romances with Stalinism seventy years ago. Of course it is not precisely the same thing. Double talk then was masked by the word “dialectical.” But Stalinists always had someone who could “explain” things properly to intellectuals, who turned out to be gullible when they thought they taking critical stances on their own societies. In fact, their societies needed a lot of criticism (as ours do today), but with a better basis. Those who saw things straight, like George Orwell or the American socialist Norman Thomas were roundly chastised for not being “truly” radical. In my view, the left ought to have been on the side of dissidents in the Soviet bloc, and not on the side of Leninist ideological acrobats. Today, the left should side with dissidents in the Muslim world all while protecting the civil rights of Muslims living in their societies (or anywhere else it is needed, for that matter). Look around today and you will find that instead of the old Stalinism, which was itself a species of left fundamentalism, there is a fetishism of “otherness.”
Instead, of using “otherness” as the useful analytic tool it should be, it has become the basis of apologetics and self-deception. Instead of being a real weapon against prejudice and for pluralism, it has made people susceptible to double-talk. I think all forms of fundamentalism and apologetics for fundamentalism need to be exposed. Here’s an Israeli example. Since 1967, Israeli extremists have argued for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. They insisted often that this was for “security” reasons when their views were really derived from fundamentalism, either of a nationalist or religious a variety. But it is obvious that armies supply security, not settlements of fanatics. So legitimate arguments about Israeli self-defense were corrupted by this double-talk. Some Israeli governments spoke finally of a “moratorium” on settlements, but they should have stopped them, period. The state of Israel is as legitimate as every other state, settlements of religious-nationalist extremists beyond the 1967 border are not.
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? Let’s imagine that someone takes the quote by Ramadan 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 invites states from the Arab League, of which Sudan is a member?
The French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun opposed the boycott, arguing it would “give the state of Israel grounds to present itself not as an occupier of the Palestinian territories, but as a victim.” He also said that “Boycotting the next Turin Book Fair won’t pave the way for peace and reconciliation.” He adds, “Criticize the policies of a state. Criticize a novel on its literary merits.” One of the better arguments in the entire debate about Turin is that literature and politics are two separate zones and criticisms of the two areas should be distinct. But what if someone objects that an invitation of Israeli writers to Europe to celebrate the Israeli state’s 60th anniversary cannot be, by definition, politically neutral.
I think Ben Jelloun’s refusal to boycott should be saluted and I, for one, hope he goes further and visits Israel, not just to lecture about French and Arabic literature but to present his critical views about Israeli policies in a public dialogue with Jewish and Arab Israeli intellectuals. I would urge Israelis to listen well to him, especially to what he has to say about the Palestinians. There is a basis for serious and honest conversation, which I don’t see in Ramadan or Ali. And wouldn’t it be a good thing if he invited Israeli writers to similar exchanges with Arab and Arab-European writers in Paris and Morocco? 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.
The full interview (and the discussion with Arato) which touches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cosmopolitanism, the Left, Antisemitism, secularism, religion and social protest is here. See also Cohen’s article in Dissent, Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn, which cites a funny remark remark by British novelist Iain Pears that: “anti-Semitism is like alcoholism. You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with a vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it.” (International Herald Tribune, August 11, 2003).