Netanyahu Does Everything He Can to Stop Israelis From Reading

Not reading is fundamental for Israel's Prime Minister

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A woman reading a book at a cafe in Jaffa, Israel, September 2020.
A woman reading at a cafe in Jaffa, Israel, September 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz
Racheli Edelman
Racheli Edelman

“No Israeli leader encourages and advances the reading of books more than” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his spokesman Jonatan Urich wrote in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition this week. But certain facts don’t jibe with this claim.

If Netanyahu sought to encourage the reading of books, he wouldn’t have appointed as culture minister a woman who was so clearly inappropriate for the job, and wouldn’t have let her rescind the so-called Book Law – which required a fixed price for any Israeli book during its first year and a half on the market and set minimum rates for Israeli authors' royalties.

The revocation of the law abandoned Israeli book publishers to the predatory duopoly of the bookstore chains, and deprived most Israeli book publishers of their economic independence. As a result, a raft of important books haven’t been published in Hebrew because the impoverished publishers don’t have the money to finance them.

Reading at a cafe in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 2020.

There is no relation between production costs and the ludicrous prices that books are sold for in Israel as a result of the duopoly, so the book publishers can’t invest in translation and publishing. I’ve often seen Netanyahu on television holding a thick book in English that I recognized and even considered publishing, but couldn’t.

All people for whom reading books is important must ask themselves how we’ve reached this state where, as a routine matter, publishers are asking authors to share in a book’s production costs. In this situation, publishers often publish books that have no justification to be published – just because they need the money.

We’ve seen the results in recent years in the form of a market flooded with works that are merely cheap entertainment for the masses – because these books are easy to finance. Many of these readers can’t distinguish between good translation and not good translation, and often it’s not good because the publishers are saving money anywhere they can in an effort to survive.

A woman reading a book in Tel Aviv, September 8, 2020.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

If books and reading were important to Netanyahu, he would have instructed the Education Ministry to design a curriculum that didn't require students to be tested on five examples of Spanish poetry, five modern poems, one short novel and maybe another book or two. He would ensure that they studied literature, history and civics on a proper level, as in the past. He would make sure to know what books the students were reading and what the schools were doing to encourage reading.

How many times as prime minister has Netanyahu shown an interest in the curriculum? After all, the demands on students are constantly shrinking.

They don’t even need to read books anymore; it’s enough that they read the Israeli equivalent of CliffNotes – the pamphlets that sum up the parts of the curriculum that will be on the bagrut matriculation exams and are published immediately after the Education Ministry announces which parts.

I haven’t seen one tweet from Netanyahu on the fact that the payments to authors from libraries have been postponed year after year. I haven’t seen him comment on the fact that you can’t find on the internet – even though today all libraries are computerized – reports from libraries on how many copies of each book in Hebrew are read annually.

Why isn’t it possible to produce such a report every year and pay authors what they deserve on time? Why do we always have to pay them many years late?

On January 1, 2019, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law on intellectual property rights allowing the stealing of the rights of authors and other rights holders by permitting libraries, archives and museums to quote from books without permission. The unfair and tired term invented to allow this is “fair use.” This happened when Netanyahu was prime minister.

Anyone who encourages the reading of books knows that in a small country like Israel where it’s impossible to make a living form writing, every shekel that authors receive is important and defends their rights.

Anyone who thinks reading books is important would have ensured that intellectual property rights for books were the same as in high-tech, which Netanyahu takes such pride in. For stealing lines of code, the fine can reach 100,000 shekels ($29,480), while according to the new book legislation, entities can use a work without fear of sanctions.

A prime minister who thinks reading books is important – especially one who allocates billions for religious studies – would be horrified by the tiny budget Israeli libraries receive for buying books. He would ensure that a library with worthwhile books was opened in every school.

To tell Israeli children every year to “read books” is to suffice with an empty slogan that doesn’t cost anything. Anyone who really wanted to encourage the reading of books would have done something – and not just talk.

Unless, of course, this is Netanyahu’s rebellion against his father, who was without a doubt a man of the book.

Racheli Edelman is the publisher of Schocken Publishing House.