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Israeli Publisher Shelved My Anti-occupation Book to Avoid ‘Upsetting Customers’

Nir Avishai Cohen
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Book store (illustration).
Book store (illustration).Credit: David Bachar
Nir Avishai Cohen

I’ve felt for a long time that things are getting darker. Each time the light is dimmed a little more. Countless words have been written about things going on among us, and in recent years I really feel the incitement against me because of my opposition to the occupation. There are many like me and better than me, of course. However, I admit that what has happened very recently has shocked even me. This moment when the dark prophecies about Israeli society are meeting you in reality is a powerful, upsetting moment, like a powerful punch straight in the face.

I have spoken with thousands of pre-army students in recent years. Those pre-army academies invite me to present to the students my political worldview. I see it as a true opportunity to conduct a long, profound discussion with those young people. At the end of the lecture I’m repeatedly asked the same questions – in every lecture and conversation with high school students and even those who recently finished their military service. After thousands of times supplying answers, I understood that it’s worth answering in organized fashion, in writing.

I wrote a book called “How I Became Like This – An Israeli Story.” The book is meant firstly for the young generation, but it’s definitely not just for them. I describe in the book the environment in which I was educated, leftist Zionist education as it was called in our community, and my military service as a Golani Brigade officer in the territories. Then I cover my public work in Meretz and as spokesman for Breaking the Silence, all the while serving in the reserves as a brigade operations branch officer with the rank of major. I even wrote in the book about the experience of participating in the “Big Brother” reality show as the “leftist from Breaking the Silence.” The book expresses other directions of thought and perhaps for some people it could cause cracks in that wall of silence that exists in Israeli society.

After I finished writing the book, I signed a contract with a publisher. We started intensive work on the book and after several months of editing, proofreading and binding, one copy was printed as a galley. The cover speaks for itself: an illustration of a combat officer looking in the mirror at a person wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “End the occupation.”

Nir Avishai Cohen on Twitter: "My book cover is ready! Exciting."

The book was completely ready for print and mass distribution. Right before the book was to be printed, I received a call from an executive at that publishing house. He informed me that they decided not to print and distribute the book. I asked why, as we had a contract and the book was ready. His answer stunned me. He hemmed and hawed at first, but when I pressed him, he answered directly and clearly: “We fear the book will upset our customers.” He said the issue was controversial and on second thought they decided they didn’t want to be identified with such a book.

Every publisher has the right to decide for any reason which books to publish. However, the story here was different. This was an expression of the fear gripping Israeli society. This publisher had already decided to publish the book, the work was done. I don’t know precisely what the decision was based on. Probably the words “occupation,” “Breaking the Silence” and “Palestinians” disturbed them. I can also speculate they feared that some famous person or another would call for a boycott against them because they gave me and my opinions a platform.

I’m not talking about fear of expressing a different opinion, but rather something even worse: Fear to give voice to another opinion that expresses opposition to the occupation. Sowing fear is an important part of the state’s ability to control the narrative and prevent a dialogue involving dissenting opinions.

There’s a reason I’m not divulging the publisher’s name. The publisher is not the problem, but is rather a side effect of the incitement and fear going on here. While the publisher didn’t show any bravery and could have acted otherwise, I have no interest in quarrelling with that publisher, but rather in spreading the word about this issue.

Only in dark places are publishers afraid to publish, and the darkness is spreading in Israel. One time it’s a play, another time it’s a movie and then it’s a book. The incitement is working. The fear is in every corner.

The book will be published, one way or another. I will do everything so that as many people as possible read it, especially young people. I won’t let anyone shut me up. But my book is a small, secondary issue. The story here is much bigger than any book or play. We as a collective must wake up. If we operate as individuals, we’ll probably go on losing. Only a large, unified force can take on the waves of incitement that overwhelm and drown us time after time.

Nir Avishai Cohen is a human rights activist and former Breaking the Silence spokesman.

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