Israelis will always have Paris
Even when relations between the two countries are rocky, Israelis still love French culture, says France's new cultural attaché in Tel Aviv.
Three black-and-white photographs hang in Olivier Rubinstein's office at the Institut Francais on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Their choice reveals something about the new cultural adviser to the French Embassy and director of the Institut Francais in Israel, as I learned from my recent conversation with him.
On one wall is a large picture of the illegal immigrant ship Exodus, which embarked from France for Palestine in 1947 carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors; the ship was not permitted to dock and the survivors were returned to displaced persons camps in Germany. Next to this photo hangs a smaller one from the 1920s, showing two bearded Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island, with Manhattan in the background. On the opposing wall is a photo of a young Bob Dylan.
We could go on about Olivier Rubinstein's Gallic charm, but in our conversation he actually tries to distance himself from French cliches and make it clear that the culture he comes from is not only foie gras and chansons.
Paris-born Rubinstein, 53, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, was a publisher in France for 33 years: He was co-founder of the imprints Austral, Climat, Mille et Une Nuits and Le Dilettante, and co-founded with Alain Finkielkraut the political journal "Le Meilleur des mondes." Until recently he ran Denoel, the publishing house that Antoine Gallimard placed in his care 13 years ago.
In the course of his career as a publisher, Rubinstein published such French writers as Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Claude Lanzmann, Andre Glucksmann, and comics artists such as Joann Sfar and R. Crumb.
But when he was offered the posting in Israel, Rubinstein decided to change tack.
"I was a Parisian, and I was very involved in the intellectual scene. I got tired of that and had an opportunity to come here. It was a real challenge for me. I have felt connected to this country all these years," he says.
If you had been offered to go to Africa instead, would you have gone?
"To be honest, the first thing they offered me was to go to Kabul or Baghdad. I asked if they did not think that with my name, Rubinstein, that would be a little complicated. I said that I had to think about it and a few weeks later they called me again and offered me Israel. I left everything within weeks. When you live in a city that is perhaps the most beautiful in the world, you don't see things because you pass by them every day: It's not like being a tourist. At my age if you don't choose to make a serious change, you never will. It was a challenge."
Cuisine and politics
Rubinstein grew up in France. Though some members of his family immigrated from there to Israel in the 1950s, his parents remained in Paris. He never attended university. "To be honest, I refused to go. At the age of 20, I decided to open a bookstore. That was in the 70s. After that I was involved in the publishing house Gallimard as a marketing man. In the process I set up a little publishing house and another one after that.
"Fifteen years ago Gallimard" - perhaps the country's most prestigious literary publisher - "proposed that I join the Gallimard group with my publishing house, and that is what we did. I published many books. Among my best-sellers were the books of Irene Nemirovsky," the Jewish-born French writer killed at Auschwitz, whose novels were rediscovered during the past decade and published worldwide. "She was a big success also in Israel," says Rubinstein. "I also published many French writers, like Gilles Rozier, and many translations from Yiddish, because I thought Yiddish was a dying language and I was interested in discovering the masterpieces of its literature. We published important works by all sorts of writers like Leib Rochman," a Holocaust survivor who later came to Israel.
One of the changes he has already introduced at local branches of the Institut Francais, which offer French-language courses and promote French literature and culture in various forums through ongoing programs, performances and lectures, under the auspices of embassies worldwide, is "to open it not just to the French community in Israel, to French speakers, but to the general public. So now the events we organize here have simultaneous translation into Hebrew. My job is not just to talk with the French community in Israel but with all Israelis."
Rubinstein seems already to be familiar with Tel Avivians and Israeliness when he declares, "Israel is not only Tel Aviv." He adds, "We have an institute also in Be'er Sheva, in Nazareth and in Haifa. I want to organize events in these places too. In the fall we will organize at the Cameri Theater another 'Books on Stage' literary evening like there was last year. And I want to organize one in Dimona. There is a new theater there and I met the mayor. It surprises me greatly when I talk with Tel Avivian friends that they never go outside of Tel Aviv."
What else do you have planned?
"My goal is to promote French culture, and that means not only cuisine and music, but also political ideas and science. We have ties with the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute. In my work as a publisher I met a lot of writers, thinkers and philosophers, and I will try to invite some of them here, because most of them know nothing about Israel and have prejudices about it. These are the people I am interested in inviting here, the ones who have certain bad feelings about Israel, rather than my Jewish friends."
He is also planning a television and film forum to bring together people from these industries in France and Israel, and a big exhibition here by the fashion house Balenciaga. Plus Rubinstein has already begun thinking about next year, when he would like to organize a conference around the theme of nationality, patriotism and citizenship.
"It interests me to compare the different situations in Israel and France" he explains. "The question of patriotism is interesting. Today to be a patriot in France is considered fascism. In Israel it is different. You can be on the extreme right or the extreme left and still be a patriot. "
Do you think culture can make a difference?
"I am not naive, but I think that culture is a bridge. Even when the relations between France and Israel on the political front are not so good sometimes, the Israelis still love French culture. Look at the success of a writer like Michel Houellebecq. Culture in a way constitutes a new path for diplomacy."
There are also branches of the Institut Francais in Ramallah and Gaza, but they do not fall under Rubinstein's jurisdiction: There is a separate French Consulate in the Palestinian Authority. Does he think there can be cooperation involving the institutes' branches, between the Israelis and Palestinians?
"It is difficult and it is not because of us but because of the Palestinians. For example, a few months ago, we invited Jane Birkin for a few concerts here and she was also invited to appear in Ramallah. When the Palestinians saw she was in Tel Aviv, they cancelled her performance in Ramallah. It is a great pity for them.
"A few weeks ago we held in Tel Aviv the forum on religion and democracy [which was co-sponsored by Haaretz] and I tried inviting Palestinians then too; they all refused to come to Tel Aviv. On the other hand I invited several Arabs from France - such as the imam of Paris, a Moroccan artist, a filmmaker from Tunisia - and everyone said yes. [Algerian author] Boualem Sansal was also here in May. So things are changing a bit. I am sure that people of this sort would not have come five years ago."
Rubinstein also has plans for a roving film project in the fall, aimed at the Arab population in the Galilee, involving the screening of French films with Arabic subtitles. "In my eyes, it is important not to leave out such places," he says.
Another example of an initiative that seeks to reach places which Rubinstein says are often neglected by mainstream culture is called "Moliere in the Negev." Under its auspices, Bedouin girls from the village of Hura staged "The Bourgeois Gentleman" this spring, under the guidance of French-Israeli director Yaacov Amsellem.
Rubinstein: "It was interesting to watch a populace that is outside of everything, that comes from an archaic world, discover a new world. We are trying to bring [the production] to France now."
Do you intend to place more emphasis on literature as part of the institute's activity?
"Because I was a publisher, it would be easy for me to do that, but it's too easy ... We will be part of the Jerusalem International Book Fair in February and we will invite many important writers, but I don't want to do only things of this sort. We have to be multidisciplinary."
For several years, now there has been an uproar surrounding the possibiility of Israel adopting what we call "the French law" [which prohibits retail bookstores from discounting or otherwise changing the price of a book during the first two years after its publication]. Are you familiar with the subject?
"Yes, and it is the French law. The situation here is not good. The free market has destroyed the independent bookstores and now there are only two big chains. It is always a big surprise for me, as I walk the streets of Tel Aviv, to see that there are no independent bookstores here. There are maybe three of them. If the chains decide not to sell books of a particular kind, then those books have no chance. The French law is important not only for the market economy, but also for art and culture. If you protect the independent stores and the publishers, you also protect the writers. It is a pity, because the Jewish people are the People of the Book, no?"
In closing, let's talk for a moment about [the photo of] Bob Dylan. Why on earth Bob Dylan - and where is Serge Gainsbourg?
"That is a good question! It's the only good question you asked! Bob Dylan is my good friend since age 15. To me he is a very important poet; he is like Arthur Rimbaud with an electric guitar. The picture goes with me everywhere, it was at the publishing house in Paris - it is a beautiful photograph of him."
And the Exodus behind you?
"That is the story of my whole life, between Bob Dylan and the Exodus."