Sami Michael
Sami Michael, right, and Eugene Schoulgin, left, visiting Haifa mayor Yona Yahav in his office. Photo by Municipality of Haifa
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There is a strange tendency in Israel to portray the outside world as a solid front of hostility directed against us, perhaps because of the mistaken view that a siege mentality befits the development of national unity. Though the Scandinavian countries head the list of "Israel haters" in the collective consciousness, I have not found even an echo of this hostility at the literary conferences in those countries to which I've been invited. On the contrary, when I have described my city, Haifa, as a model of relative coexistence in this troubled region of wars, conquests, and the subjugation and persecution of minorities, I have found listeners to be attentive and even interested in researching the "Haifa miracle."

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It turns out that extremists from Arab countries who take a tough line against normalized relations with Israel are not the only ones to throw a wrench in the works of dialogue; that is also true of some of those who shape Israeli policy and ignore the Haifa model, since it undermines the policy of seclusion and sword-sharpening.

At a PEN international writers conference in Slovenia, Norwegian poet Kjell Olaf Jensen, a board member of the worldwide writers association International PEN, came up to me and made a suggestion that surprised me: As a city of tolerance and coexistence, Haifa would become a city of refuge for persecuted writers, making it the first modern city of refuge in the Middle East.

The International Cities of Refuge Network, or ICORN, consists of more than 20 cities of refuge for persecuted writers in 10 countries around the world (including Norway, Sweden, Germany and Spain ), and partners with International PEN. In these cities, writers who are at risk of being cruelly persecuted or whom PEN is able to free from dreadful prisons are given humanitarian living conditions for a set time, which can range from one to three years. Then a long-term solution in another country is found through which the writer receives permanent resident status.

ICORN was established with the goal of protecting both freedom of speech and writers who are seen as a target for threats and persecution. It also acts to offer shelter to writers exposed to danger. How many such writers are there? I was invited to Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway and the site of the ICORN administrative center (which operates with city support ), where I met with organization members and persecuted writers. We discussed how to add Haifa to this important network.

Supporting persecuted writers

An ICORN city of refuge is required to pay an annual membership fee of some 2,000 euros and provide a place to live for those writers who have been extracted from the jaws of subjugation. In addition to the residence, which must be provided for a set period, the city must also provide a grant of 1,100 euros a month. Cities usually have no more than one persecuted writer living there at any given time.

When I returned to Israel, I excitedly took the idea to Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, who was enthusiastic about it. Some time later, in August 2009, Norwegian writer Eugene Schoulgin, the chairman of the board of International PEN, came to visit me in Haifa. Yahav arranged a reception for him in the mayor's office and sent a letter to ICORN executive director Helge Lunde, saying he was happy about the offer to add Haifa to the list of cities of refuge and, in light of the importance of the matter, would transmit the request to the city council for approval.

The city council voted in favor of Haifa's becoming a refuge for writers and ICORN made plans to mark the network's expansion with an event at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

But mayors don't operate in a vacuum. Yahav sought Foreign Ministry approval, and the ministry wrote, in a February 2010 letter that I also received, that the matter requires authorization from the Interior Ministry as well. "The Foreign Ministry position is positive with regard to the initiative, but granting refuge and support to a writer for two years requires coordination and agreement with the Interior Ministry, since the city is committing, among other things, to help the writer and his family get a visa," the letter read. As a result, the Foreign Ministry was asked to submit all the relevant material to the legal adviser of the Interior Ministry's immigration authority as a step toward securing the approval of the interior minister.

It appears that when it comes to opening a window to the outside world, the Interior Ministry is good at maintaining a stubborn silence. Since then we have not heard a peep from them.

I have personal experience with the travails of a persecuted artist, since I risked my life when, in the middle of the night, I stole across the Iraqi-Iranian border on foot in 1949. In 2000 I met my double in Vienna - a writer from Yemen whom PEN had rescued from a lethal prison in his country where he had been incarcerated for more than a year. I looked at the Yemeni writer and discovered that he was acting as I had for a long time after I fled those who hate brave words. The whole time he kept looking behind him, fearing imaginary pursuers. He walked on the cobblestone path as though it were a treacherous swamp. He did much better when we got to a closed place with four solid walls. The whole time I spoke with him, he looked at me suspiciously, and I realized he didn't believe a single word coming out of my mouth. It was only two days later, when our mutual friend showed up - the late Palestinian author Izzat Ghazzawi, who headed the Palestinian PEN center - that the Yemeni writer came back to me, apologizing for his suspiciousness.

It is not in their dreams alone that persecuted writers carry around their tormented past. Even when they reach a safe haven where they can consume bread that is not blood-soaked, they desperately need a place to stay that does not double as a doorway to hell. For those of us who have been extensively persecuted, it is difficult to describe to writers who have never known persecution or abuse just what it means to pay for brave words in a place ruled by fear.

Embarrassing silence

Filled with a feeling of deep embarrassment in the face of Helge Lunde, ICORN and International PEN, I am still awaiting a response from the Interior Ministry. When I looked into what was happening with the proposal, which has been on the table of the ministry's Population and Immigration Authority for nearly two years, I was told that it isn't under the authority's jurisdiction and that I would have to ask Interior Minister Eli Yishai's bureau. I sent a query to Yishai's bureau and was told that "the request has not yet reached the desk of the minister in conjunction with a recommendation from the professional ranks." I was also told: "The interior minister understands the significance of a humanitarian request like this one, which he is encountering for the first time in the wake of the question from Haaretz. The minister is currently abroad, but when he returns he will immediately request a professional and legal opinion about the significance of the phenomenon, its scope and all other angles. After examining the matter, he will be happy to personally update Sami Michael."

I turn now to anyone who has any influence over this matter to help break the ministry's odd prolonged silence.