Israel Is Not the Only Country in the Middle East That Censors Books

As in Egypt and other neighboring countries, the view that literature that damages the hegemonic ideology should disappear has actually taken root in Israel as well.

Israel's Minister of Culture Miri Regev. Singing a tune similar to that of her counterparts in Egypt, when they demanded that local authors write in accordance with “Egyptian values” if they want their books to be published by government printing houses.
Tomer Appelbaum

Amid the uproar over the Israel's Education Ministry ban on including Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” – with its story about unrequited love between a Jew and an Arab – in the national curriculum, books with similar themes are also being published in the Arab world and are being subjected to censorship.

In 2009, Yemenite writer Ali al-Muqri published a historical novel called “The Handsome Jew,” which tells the story of the romantic relationship between Fatima, the daughter of a mufti, a Muslim scholar, and Salem, who is Jewish. Their relationship, as expected, runs into opposition from the couple’s parents, but Fatima is unwilling to give up and at the end of the novel, tells Salem she will marry him if he agrees.

Along the way, Al-Muqri depicts the situation of the Jews of Yemen in the 17th century. He recounts the harassment they suffered at the hands of the authorities and their relations with their Muslim neighbors.

The Abjad Arabic literature website asked its readers for their opinion of the book. Among those who weighed in on the subject was one reader who used the pseudonym Shams al-Haq, who wondered about the positive manner in which the Jews are depicted, and about their portrayal as victims “in the face of what we know about them today, about their crimes in our occupied land and in other countries.”

By contrast, Lebanese poet Iskander Habash praised the novelist’s courage, writing: “A meager minority of Arab writers demonstrates such daring, leading to rethinking our relations with the peoples and the minorities who live in our countries.”

Four years later, the Tunisian author Khaoula Hamdi published a book, whose title would translate roughly as “In My Heart a Female Hebrew.” This is a novel about an orphaned Muslim girl who grows up in a Jewish family in Tunisia. The girl, Nada, who is raised Jewish, falls in love with a Muslim and returns to her Muslim faith.

It can be assumed that if these books had been included in a list of reading recommended by Israel's Ministry of Education as part of the regular curriculum, they would also be disqualified. After all, how could we dare to confuse the tender minds of young students who perceive Arabs as the enemy, and see marriage between Arabs and Jews as a sin? Indeed, those opinions were reflected in protests staged by far-right-wing demonstrators in 2014 outside a hall in Rishon Letzion, where a wedding was taking place between a Jewish woman, Morel Malka, who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man, Mahmoud Mansour.

It’s not as if there aren’t books that are banned outright in the Muslim world. Hundreds of titles fall victim to the censors, including George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” “The Diary of Anne Frank" and “The Da Vinci Code” (in Lebanon); “The Satanic Verses” (in Iran); and a book about the family of former President Hosni Mubarak that was banned in Egypt, and “The Dirty War,” in which Algerian General Habib Souaidia presents his recollections from the period of the brutal war his government waged against local religious movements. Particularly prominent on the list are books that are seen as offending religious sensibilities.

By contrast, the policy of Israel's Education Ministry is directed at books that are taught in schools – not what is sold in stores. Thus the country isn’t in the same league as Egypt, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, which until 2013 censored about 23,000 books and publications. But it seems as if some of the disparities between Israel and her neighbors in this realm are shrinking, and the view that literature seen as damaging the hegemonic ideology should disappear has actually taken root in this country.

So, for example, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev is singing a tune similar to that sung for some time by her counterparts in Egypt, when demanding that local authors write in accordance with “Egyptian values” if they want their books to be published by government printing houses.

In 2001, the important Egyptian author Gamal al-Ghitani, who died a few months ago, said in response to the cultural despotism in his country: “In my 45 years of writing, I hadn’t felt limited as I do now, after the siege that has been imposed on writers who are deemed reckless and as people who encourage atrophy and permissiveness. The only judge of literature is the reader and the literary critic . We must not forget that in 1959 a ban was placed on a book by [Nobel Prize winner] Naguib Mahfouz and in 1994, there was an attempt to murder him.”

Two years later, another Egyptian author, Sonallah Ibrahim, sparked controversy when he refused to accept a prestigious Arabic literature prize from then-Culture Minister Farouk Hosny. After accusing the Egyptian government of having overly friendly relations with Israel, he attacked restrictions on freedom of expression in his country.

“We have no theater, film, scientific research or education left,” Ibrahim declared. “We have no agriculture or industry, health or justice Under such circumstances, the writer cannot remain silent and evade his responsibility.”

The culture minister responded euphorically, telling the prize event audience: “These statements shows the extent of freedom of expression in Egypt.”

Some 12 years have elapsed since then and it seems like Israel is trying to "catch up" with Egypt. The only thing remaining to do here is to censor newspapers and journalists and, if necessary, arrest the latter as well. In Turkey, that is a routine practice.

In Egypt, the board of Communications City, the most sophisticated production location in Cairo, recently decided to prevent TV presenter Tawfik Okasha from appearing on the air for three months. Okasha “makes trouble.” He has dared to criticize the interior minister and to dub the “2013 Revolution” in which Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a “theatrical production.”

In Israel, authorities have simply made do up to now with publicly criticizing theatrical productions.