Ala Hlehel's permission to travel to Beirut to receive a prestigious literary prize came from the High Court of Justice and not from the person authorized to grant it - Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also failed to understand the significance of the trip to Lebanon and turned down the request.
The "accepted" view in the Arab world holds that a visit to Israel by an Arab author, artist or filmmaker is an act of treason, or at least a violation of the bylaws of professional associations. As a result, for example, the noted Egyptian author and playwright Ali Salem suffered the prolonged ostracism of his Egyptian author colleagues, who viewed his visit to Israel as a gesture of normalization.
Other Arab artists and writers who wish to visit Israel must do so surreptitiously to avoid the backlash. And now none other than Israel, which has made normalization a precondition to the peace process and is demanding at least tiny gestures of normalization as a show of good intentions, has joined the coalition of the ignorant.
It is doubtful that Yishai or Netanyahu have read the writings of Hlehel, who is among the most highly regarded Arab writers. It was enough for them that an Israeli citizen would ask to visit an enemy country to justify banning the request. The event, conferring awards to 39 Arab writers up to the age of 39 as part of a UNESCO project, was seen by the Israeli government as a plot to link Hlehel to evil organizations whose very essence is to harm Israel.
It should also be noted that in the Arab world the status of Israeli Arabs is not reasonable. While in Israel they are looked at like suspicious objects, in the Arab world they are seen as collaborators. One can imagine what political tribulations the prize jury underwent before deciding to give the award to an Israeli Arab writer. With foolish glee, Israel rushed to play into the hands of opponents of normalization and banned the trip. Very fortunately, Hlehel chose not to throw up his hands and appealed to the reason of the High Court of Justice, which did not disappoint.
The ministers of education and culture would do well to congratulate Hlehel on his award and the members of the jury on their choice. The interior minister would do well to embrace the High Court ruling and draft proper rules for visits by Israeli citizens to enemy countries.
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