A dismal decision

A modern, enlightened and democratic country cannot afford to ban a book that tells a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian.

Bride Morel Malka, 23 and her groom Mahmoud Mansour, 26, celebrate with friends and family before their wedding on August 17. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bride Morel Malka, 23 and her groom Mahmoud Mansour, 26, celebrate with friends and family before their wedding on August 17.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I HAD never heard of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” until the Ministry of Education banned it for high school teaching.
The ban naturally aroused my curiosity and that of countless others. Within days the bookshops reported a sharp rise in sales prompting the publishers to print a huge second edition.
I have just finished reading it. It is beautifully written and easy to read – a remarkable love story between a young Israeli woman and a young Palestinian man in wintry and distant New York.
To my surprise, there is hardly any trace of politics in the book. With the exception of one brief discussion between the lovers and some relatives on the merits of two states, Israel and Palestine, as opposed to one binational state, there is virtually no mention of the political issues concerning the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
On the other hand, the book is full of love of country and yearning on the part of both young people for their families, their homes and the environment in which they grew up. True, New York is described as stimulating and exciting. But it is certainly not presented as a superior alternative to the home country, especially with regard to the young Israeli woman.
What then bothered Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his minions? There is no way reading the book could intensify hostility between the two peoples. It does not inculcate hatred.
On the contrary, the opposite is the case. So what is so frightening about it? It seems that these days the very mention of a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man constitutes some sort of threat. Apparently it raises deep-seated demographic and even existential fears for people like Bennett, both as Israelis and as Jews.
But, it seems to me, they are more concerned about something else. Rabinyan depicts the young Palestinian as a human being, with strengths and weaknesses, a creature of flesh and blood.
A young man you can like and even love. A young man with whom you can identify. That is the more relevant and immediate threat.
It is not the threat of conventional or non-conventional weapons, of knifings or other forms of terror. There is nothing in the book that comes close to violence. The fear is rather of the very humanity of the protagonists and the fact that they see each other as human beings, and even fall in love, even if it is a complex, complicated and, ultimately, perhaps impossible love.
What does this say about our Ministry of Education? What does it think might happen to the tender minds of young Israelis if they imagine their Palestinian counterparts as flesh and blood human beings? People like themselves with a wide variety of character traits, aspirations and dreams? Do the ministry officials fear that this might make the enemy more human at a time when the conflict on the ground is getting worse? In other words, at a time that necessitates the mobilization of all patriotic feelings? Do they fear that such a humanistic outlook might make it difficult for Israeli youth to do what they are required to in their military service immediately after they finish high school? What they really should be thinking about is what this clumsy attempt at thought control will do for Israel’s reputation, especially after the book is translated into other languages. It will wipe out at a stroke many of the PR gains Israel has made over the past decade by presenting itself as a modern state blessed with an inordinate amount of talent and new ideas, the consummate “start-up nation.”
Because a country that bans a novel of this caliber from its schools cannot be considered open-minded. It cannot hope to be seen primarily as innovative and original. Indeed, the banning is almost certain to cause considerable damage to Israel’s image.
To avert this the Education Ministry will have to prevent the translation of the book into other languages (mission impossible) or lift the banning (mission unlikely).
A modern, enlightened and democratic country cannot afford to ban a love story, especially one between a Jewess and a Muslim, an Israeli and a Palestinian. In the 21st century you cannot ban a book like that without your image being seriously tarnished.
Alon Liel is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry and former Israeli ambassador to South Africa