No Bookstore Branches in Arab Towns?

Steimatzky and Tzomet both blame the absence of outlets on a lack of local Arabic publishers, and the hassle of importing from the Arab world.

Tal Laor
Tal Laor
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Tal Laor
Tal Laor

The veteran Steimatzky bookstore chain created a mini-furor recently by advertising for non-Jews to work in some of its branches. The ad, which on the face of it violated the equal opportunity law, triggered numerous responses and interpretations in the world of labor law. The concern was that by not accepting applications from Jews for certain jobs, Steimatzky was practicing religious discrimination. But any naïve readers who might think that the country’s largest bookstore chain was seeking to recruit employees for its branches in Arab cities and towns, are invited to think again. In fact, Steimatzky was looking for people to work in those of its branches that are open on the Jewish Sabbath.

In fact, it turns out that neither Steimatzky nor its major competitor, Tzomet Sfarim, has even a single branch in an Arab city or in the large population centers of the Arab society in Israel. Is this due to business considerations, or is it a cultural and political matter?

Israeli publishers say that there is little demand for literature in Arab locales and that few books are translated into Arabic in Israel. Beyond that, the importation of books in Arabic from Arab countries is still subject to approval of the military censors, a situation fraught with bureaucratic red tape. This remains the case even though most of the books that might be candidates for import belong to the realm of belles lettres, culture and other fields – the kind of material that is already readily available on the Internet.

The consequence of all this is that Arab citizens of Israel who want to read Arabic literature in the original can find it mainly in public libraries and small local bookstores.

“Censorship still exists, but its influence has not been as great since the tenure of Shulamit Aloni [as minister of education and culture],” according to Saleh Abassi, Israel’s largest importer of Arabic-language books. “There is less demand for and less awareness of literature in the Arab community,” he notes. “We hold fairs in the most remote Arab villages in order to acquaint the public with literature. This is also an educational issue.”

Asked about the subject, Steimatzky CEO Iris Barel offered the following comment: “I have asked Arab MKs several times to help locate Arab-language publishers, but regrettably there are hardly any. As a consequence, it’s not possible to open Steimatzky stores in locations with a clear-cut Arab majority and ensure that they will have the appropriate mix for that population. If enough publishers can be found, I will immediately open a branch in Arab locales, in addition to those that exist in places where there is a mixed [Jewish-Arab] population.”

Barel additionally notes that her chain “has for many years employed personnel from all ethnic groups and religions, including female Arab store managers.”

A spokesman for Tzomet Sfarim told Haaretz: “Tzomet Sfarim operates about 100 branches across Israel and sells the greatest possible variety of books in different languages. Because of a shortage of books that are translated into Arabic and the problems entailed in importing Arabic-language books into Israel, the number of Arabic-language books sold is relatively small. Lately, we have launched a pilot project of offering a selection of books in Arabic – those that are available from local publishers and distributors – in our new branch in Upper Nazareth. In the future, Tzomet Sfarim will examine the possibility of opening branches in the Arab community as well.”

From the deputy chief military censor, Lt. Col. Ron Karnieli, Haaretz received this following statement: “Military censorship carries out its tasks and missions according to the law. The military censor’s office examines publications, including the importation of books from Arab countries. As to the question of what influence this has on the market for books in Arabic in Israel, my subjective opinion is that it has no influence, but as the saying goes, a person shouldn’t blow his own horn.”

A branch of the Steimatzky bookstore chain. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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