J'lem Writers Conference Offers Breather From Political Turmoil

Meet including Nobel winner Nadine Gordimer and U.S. Jewish writer Nicole Krauss to coincide with Bush visit.

In a country as conflicted as Israel, hosting a group of highly respected authors from around the world who come to talk about literature and life is not a feat to be taken for granted.

So when hundreds of people gathered in the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center Sunday for the opening of the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, the first such meeting to take place in Israel, it looked almost like a dream.

The writers festival - which features authors including South African Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer; U.S. Jewish writers Anita Diamant, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander; and writers from Portugal, the Netherlands and Albania - is taking place the same week that U.S. President George W. Bush is visiting Israel.

It is also happening as the Israeli public gets riled up over the latest corruption investigation against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Nonetheless, the conference represents a snippet of normalcy in the heart of Jerusalem - or at least an aspiration toward normalcy.

The opening ceremony took place outside the walls of the Old City, where most of the writers who spoke had no fears about discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they did not forget the written word, which cries out over injustice, yet also provides consolation.

President Shimon Peres offered a personal touch.

"What does a book give me? It redeems me from isolation," he said. "Every person is alone, and it is really not possible to tell anyone the secret things. And suddenly you read a book and discover that people like you have fears, aches, doubts, just like you. I go out to the world with the feeling that I am alone, but not lonely, not unusual."

Baghdad-born Israeli writer Eli Amir, who welcomed the participants on behalf of the Israeli authors, used his platform for some straight talking.

"Israel is the country of immigrants and refugees, survivors and displaced people from all over the world," he said. "We weren't occupiers, and we didn't want to be occupiers. We were thrown into a historic situation that we have not managed to get out of. We are a torn nation. The occupation is destroying us. We have no right to control another nation. Our leaders and the leaders of the Palestinian people must do everything to get out of this situation."

One of Israel's most venerated authors, Amos Oz, presented an award to a French editor who fell in love with Israeli literature and had many books translated into French. "These are years during which it is not easy to be an Israeli," said Oz after nearby church bells signaled the hour.

"It isn't easy to love Israel and it isn't easy to be a friend of Israel. I must personally admit that I love Israel even when I can't stand it. It's no coincidence that during a year when it's tough to love Israel, it's easier to love its literature. Israeli literature delivers the bill to the Israeli people - for the subjugation of the Palestinians, the occupation, the wars, the internal social injustices, book after book, creation after creation."