An Intellectual’s Shame

Benny Ziffer in Tel Aviv, July 31, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

We have only to encounter “the character of Ziyad, the Gaza-born poet and fighter in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” and the novel “The Bridges of Constantine” by Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi becomes a book that glamorizes terror, according to Benny Ziffer’s review of it (Haaretz, August 2). The book was published in Hebrew translation as part of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute’s Maktoob book series.

I don’t intend to argue with Ziffer’s review, especially since I edited the translation (by Michal Sela). But in his pouncing on every word whose letters derive from the root “Palestine,” Ziffer puts himself on the same side as the world’s greatest anti-Semites, except this time against another Semitic nation – the Palestinians.

Mosteghanemi’s book, first published 26 years ago, has been enormously popular and been reviewed frequently, both positively and negatively. But until now, I’ve never encountered a review that even hinted at the possibility that the book glamorizes terror.

Had it not included the character of Ziyad the Palestinian, who set off Ziffer’s Pavlovian reaction, he presumably wouldn’t have bothered to write about it. After all, Ziyad is portrayed in the context of his relationships with the book’s narrator, an artist, and its heroine. By this logic, any book that includes Palestinians – most of whom have belonged at some point to Palestinian organizations – is one that supports terrorism.

Instead of the intellectual’s first association upon encountering a Palestinian being the photographs of masses of them being expelled from their homes, or of their bleeding in the refugee camps, to Ziffer the character of Ziyad the Palestinian evokes only the killing of Jews, and also “Gandhi” (the nickname of anti-Arab cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who was assassinated by a PFLP member). It’s interesting that to Ziffer, Ziyad brings Ze’evi to mind, yet Ze’evi doesn’t remind him of the incidents reported by the investigative television show “Uvda” – Ze’evi’s helicopter, from which a Palestinian body hung, or the bomb that almost killed journalist Sylvie Keshet when his envoys placed it on the doorstep of her home.

When the ultimate anti-Semite hears the word “Jew,” the pictures that arise in his warped brain won’t be of Jewish suffering – the pogroms or, above all, the Holocaust – but of an ugly, greedy Jew who tries to control the world. It seems like any moment now, we’ll get another brilliant insight from Ziffer: Aside from the many acts of terror that right-wing politicians ascribe to the Palestinians, such as “diplomatic terror,” “the terror of the popular struggle” and “BDS terror,” there’s another kind of terror, fresh from the oven – “literary terror.”

Like a learned scholar, Ziffer explains, “One must realize that intellectuals in the Arab world are often a self-policing community, in which everyone monitors his colleagues to ensure that they don’t violate the ban on cooperation with Israel. Very few of them disregard this ban.” So what is our ultimate intellectual, Ziffer, doing at this minute if not informing on people involved in Arabic-to-Hebrew translations and smearing them as translators of literature that supports terrorism?

It’s important to recall that according to data published by the National Library of Israel in 2017, the proportion of books translated into Hebrew from Arabic is just 1.3 percent. That’s less than the proportion translated from French (5 percent), German (4 percent) and even Swedish (1.5 percent).

Yet now, someone who heads one of the most important literary platforms in Israel, Haaretz’s “Culture and Literature” supplement, is girding his loins in an effort to stop these translations. I knew that nothing good would come from Ziffer’s intimate friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife. But the rapidity with which the editor of the “Culture and Literature” supplement has managed to emulate Netanyahu, who leaves a residue of hatred and incitement on everything that touches him, is astounding.

Note: A recognized intellectual – if he weren’t, he wouldn’t have been made an editor at Haaretz – has become an inciter and distorter of the truth.