Arabs are shut out of Israel's bubbling culture scene
Jerusalem's International Writers Festival invited writers from across the globe, but shunned the culture in front of it.
Sometimes it feels as though the cultural separation barrier in which Israel envelops itself is even higher than its concrete one. At least the security wall has holes to pass through. The organizers of this month's International Writers Festival in Jerusalem rigidly shut out the bubbling culture of the Arab world that shares the city.
Mishkenot Sha’ananim - a bastion of liberal Jewish thought overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem - invited writers from across the globe, but shunned the culture in front of them. It devoted a half-day to Indian literature, but leapfrogged the Arabic and Persian literature in between. The only Palestinian Israeli on the podium writes in Hebrew. The token Arab on the guest list is an Algerian known for comparing Islamism to Nazism, and publishes in French, not Arabic. If the wall in which Israel surrounds itself were made of books, there would be few Hebrew-speaking bookworms trying to munch their way through it.
At a time of the Arab awakening and an outpouring of secular as well as religious creativity, the cultural denial is numbing. It cannot be explained by Hebrew chauvinism, for the International Festival dedicated itself to "building bridges of cultural amity and understanding", and was awash with Western writers speaking Western languages. It cannot be explained by Jewish tradition, for Arabic was the language of the greatest classical Jewish thinkers and writers. Nor can it be dusted away by citing an external boycott, for the erosion of the Arab world's security regimes means the city has seen a rash of visitors from across the Arab world - from Yemeni preachers to Egyptian university professors and Hashemite princes. And there are after all five million Palestinians in Israel's midst, many of whom would have welcomed a permit (for those who need one) to attend. If the organizers did try, I suspect it was not hard enough.
Sadly, the decision can be explained by the deep-seated and untreated prejudices gnawing at social strata across mainstream Israel. Liberal Jewish society has a tendency to condemn right-wing national-religious Jews for the denial of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, disregarding the logs in their own eyes. The flagship of the liberal arts leaves unchallenged the perception that all that happens outside the wall is dangerous, threatening and best avoided.
Haifa University, which promotes itself as a model of co-existence, denies that it has airbrushed its long-standing Arabic translation from its logo, saying that it never had one. Worse, while its website promotes the university in six languages, Arabic – a supposedly official language in Israel – is not one of them. The state censor bans the import of an Arabic edition of Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari -Arabic being its original language – because, though it was edited by a Ben Gurion University academic, it was printed in Beirut, that is, enemy territory. And in 60 years of existence, Israel's newspapers - Haaretz included - have never produced an edition in Arabic, despite the broad appetite that exists in the Arab world for coverage of Israeli affairs. For those who doubt it, see the copious space Palestinian papers give the Israeli press, an interest which is sadly not replicated.
The denial - whether overt or tacit - is not just bad for bridge-building, it is bad for Hebrew culture as well. One balmy evening I passed by the Festival tent. The readings of David Grossman's latest work, "Falling out of Time", echoed through the night-time air. I wanted to delight in its lyrical haunting prose, but something got in the way. For a culture which closes itself to others should not expect the world to open to it. By denying or delegitimizing the value of other cultures, the organizers risk delegitimizing themselves. Rejection begets rejection. Boycott begets boycott. Across the way, a simultaneous Palestinian cultural festival responded in kind.
So a final plea for the next festival's organizers. Send out your invitations in Arabic as well as the plethora of other languages you use. Open an Arabic as well as an English website. Cultural exposure is not a zero-sum game. Allow yourself to delight in the cultures around you, and open a gateway for them to delight in yours.
Nicolas Pelham is a correspondent for The Economist based in Jerusalem, and a writer on Arab affairs for the New York Review of Books. He has been based in Cairo, Rabat and Baghdad and is the author of A New Muslim Order (2008) and co-author of A History of the Middle East (2010).