(photo credit: Illustrative photo/Bloomberg)
Today we have the depressing possibility of witnessing how our destructive 'gene,' the one we know all too well, is liable to lead us into fratricidal battle. Apparently, after many decades of unrelenting military and diplomatic struggles, of wars and military operations and endless cycles of revenge and retaliation, the suspicion and hostility we have become accustomed to directing at our enemies have become nearly automatic modes of thought and behavior toward everyone else. Toward anyone who is even slightly different - even if he is not a real enemy, even if he is a member of the family, in the broad sense of that term.
Those are harsh words from the pen of David Grossman, one of the country's leading authors, as they appeared last Friday in a front-page piece he wrote for Yediot Aharonot. And they are not words that everyone wants to hear.
I'm not talking about Israelis; after all, this article appeared prominently in the country's leading tabloid. Nor necessarily Israel's supporters abroad; although Grossman's work, especially his non-fiction, is brutally critical of Israeli policy in the territories, he is one of the most successful local authors in the international market, especially among Diaspora Jewish readers.
Nope, in this case it's supporters of the Palestinian cause, especially in Italy, who don't want the words of Grossman - or any Israeli author - to be given a public forum there. Apparently the selection of Israeli authors, including Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, as guests of honor at this year's prestigious Turin International Book Fair in May has sparked protests against the event from left-wing political activists in Italy and elsewhere, including several prominent Arab intellectuals based in Europe, such as Tariq Ali and Tariq Ramadan.
Some are demanding the book fair be canceled, others that the Israelis be allowed to come only if an equal number of Palestinian authors share the stage with them. Similar threats are also being directed at a Paris book fair in the same month that is also scheduled to honor Israeli literature.
"So why did the Turin Book Fair not invite Palestinians in equal numbers? 30 Israeli writers and 30 Palestinian writers...," wrote the Pakistani-British author Tariq Ali in Counterpoint magazine on his decision to boycott the event. "How many times do we have to stress that criticism of Israel's colonial policies is not anti-Semitic. To accept this is to become willing victims of the blackmail the Israeli establishment uses to silence its critics. There are some courageous Israeli critics like Aharon Shabtai, Amira Hass, Yitzhak Laor and others who will not permit their voices to be muffled in this fashion. Shabtai refused to attend this fair. How could I do otherwise?"
So far, the Turin event organizers are not cowed. Rolando Picchioni, president of the foundation that sponsors the event, told The New York Times: "We've never had polemics before. Some years ago we honored Catalonian writers, and they essentially presented themselves as an independent state, but Spain didn't protest. A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country. What's next? If we honor Russia, do we also have to invite Chechnya? Or what about China? Do we bring in Tibet?"
Or for that matter, does any cultural event featuring Arab artists - or Palestinians - demand the inclusion of equal Israeli representation? Of course not - except of course, that none of those other countries are Israel.
It is only the Jewish state, alone among all nations, of whom such treatment is demanded so widely and frequently. Despite Ali's protestations, there is indeed an appropriate phrase for such attitudes when this singular and discriminatory attitude is applied.
IT IS no surprise that despite this, there are some Israeli writers who have chosen to heed the protests and not attend the fair. As in most Western societies, the literary scene here predominantly leans to the left, generally expressing views more progressive than the mainstream, sometimes radically so.
In Israel though, where the existential stakes are considerably higher than in most nations in Europe or North America, these authors have roused greater controversy and have had more considerable public impact than their contemporaries elsewhere in the West.
This is particularly so for some of the writers scheduled to attend the Turin fair, who in their earliest days of prominence were real pioneers of such positions at a time when they were truly groundbreaking stances in Israeli society.
Yehoshua's short story "Facing the Forests," written more than four decades ago, was among the very first literary expressions of Israeli guilt over the destruction of Palestinian villages during the War of Independence. Oz's novels, stories and essays form an almost continuous condemnation of the more militant mindset of the Zionist enterprise, and he is rightly regarded by many as the liberal literary conscience of this society. Grossman's journalistic work The Yellow Wind remains the most influential critical piece of writing on the occupation of the territories.
Yet in honoring such authors and giving them a platform, the Turin fair would - according to a pamphlet distributed by its protesters - "take the side of those who methodically operate to annihilate Palestine and the Palestinians."
The irony here would be absolutely laughable if the matter were not so serious. For the only real objection the Turin protesters could have against the likes of Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman is that they still believe in the vision of Jews and Palestinians living side by side in societies that allow both to fulfill their legitimate political, social and cultural self-determination. For their critics in this matter, such a viewpoint is illegitimate if a Jewish state of any kind is allowed to remain a reality. Apparently, any Israeli author is worthy of condemnation if he fails to reject not only some of Israel's actions, but also its very being.
Such views will certainly not deter those Israeli authors who express their views because they believe them to be for the best of their fellow citizens, and not only out of a sense of justice for the Palestinians. Yet it should be noted that this is another example of why, when historical works are composed some time in the future chronicling the saga of how this land was eventually divided into Israeli and Palestinian states, it will be written that it was these courageous Israeli writers who played an essential role - while it was some of the most ardent supporters of the Palestinians who, through such intolerant and ignorant actions, did an injustice not only to these authors, but to their own self-professed cause, and much higher cultural ideals as well.