Democracy and the man of letters

Censorship is a means to the survival of Jewry and Zion.

Boualem Sansal_370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Boualem Sansal_370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Early in 2012, the Algerian author Boualem Sansal won the Arab Nobel Prize (the Prix Du Roman Arabe) for his book “Darwin Street” (Rue Darwin). However, much to his chagrin, in May when he attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair, Sansal wound up under fire from a 22-member jury of representatives from Arab League countries who have sponsored the prize for the past three years.
“A winner of the Prix Du Roman Arabe appearing in the Zionist capitol along with the likes of Jewish artists and bards?” This was not proper to the jury of Sansal’s peers. “Plus, his subject matter, so progressive, so threatening, and his understanding of Jewish history must endanger the Arab League’s convictions.” Arab ambassadors working out of Paris wrote the jury of the prize that the reception ceremony should be canceled and the 15,000 euros awarded to Mr. Sansal as prize money revoked.
Doubtless this occurrence left the sponsors of the Jerusalem International Book Fair, as well as Sansal, nonplussed. However, the liberal anti-Zionist camp will scoff at their surprise and label Israeli policy as hypocritical; the Jewish state has long been accused for an alleged affront on democracy. “So, don’t be surprised when Arab writers are penalized for fraternizing with Zionists... ” say the anti-Zionist camp.
JEWISH CULTURE has seen many revolutions since Rabbi Akiva taught in the Sanhedrin Mishna that all of Israel has a place in the world to come. Even for this ancient decree there are a list of provisos, among which are the ban on the learning of secular books. However, this law most likely only applied to the Jews of Roman-occupied Judea. In fact, the most liberal and aesthetic of writers and thinkers have been Jewish, from the Hellenists to the Romans, from the medieval writers to the modern and postmodern. Such censorship is a means to the survival of Jewry and Zion.
Perhaps the jury of Arab League nations believes that by penalizing Sansal, they are fighting for the survival of the Palestinian people. But they are making a mistake. Sayed Kashua, who writes the Israeli television show Avoda Aravit and a weekly column in Ha’aretz’s magazine supplement is a Muslim Arab, and he is nothing less than a national treasure. What is more, Kashua never shies away from being critical of Israeli policy, and he is free to do so.
The founder of postmodern literary criticism, Allen Tate, wrote that the “man of letters in our time... must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the truth.”
What is a shame is that Boualem Sansal, an Algerian who used the Holocaust as a backdrop for his novel The German Mujahid, accomplishes just this.
What Sansal and Israel have in common are their ability to see all sides of an issue, and in doing so, they put democracy into effect. The European literary critic P.M.W.
Thody said in a lecture to The University of Leeds in 1967, “If we look for a characteristic that most distinguishes our society from those we call undemocratic or totalitarian, we shall find [it], I suggest, in the idea of variety.”
He says of the Western world in the 1960s that, “In a democracy, in the true sense of the word, we find universities teaching different things from different standpoints, and often with strikingly dissimilar results; we find, not a monolithic state publishing house, but a wide variety of publishers with different aims, tastes and presuppositions; and we hope to find, not a single newspaper laying down the revealed truth of a party line, but a number of different publications enabling the citizen to reach his conclusions only after he has seen how many things can be said on every side.”
The lecture continues, “There would appear to be, in imaginative literature, some quality that leads democratic society to contradict itself, and in democratic society itself some instinct, either of repression or of self-preservation, that prevents it from extending to the novelist or playwright the total liberty which, at least in principle, it now accords... [to the intellectual].”
THE FREEDOM to express ourselves is central to a government for the people. The only exception is slander, such as ethnic slander, or literature and art that may be used for programming a people to turn on the ethnic majority that defines the democratic governing of the state. The modern democrat is humble: “ ...because we do not think that we have a monopoly of truth, we encourage the free expression of heterodox and even heretical opinions; and because we are not convinced that we are always right, we establish no censorship over ideas.” Unless – and even Professor Thody admits this – those ideas pose an existential danger to Jewry or the ethnic majority of some given nation.
Certainly, Rabbi Akiva had this in mind when he taught at Yavne in the first century CE. And this is what makes Western standards of liberality anachronistic and even dangerous to Zionism when applied to the modern Jewish state (which prides itself on its sophisticated liberalism).
Recall how modern Western democratic liberalism played out in 20th century modernism. In the 1967 lecture he delivered before The University of Leeds entitled, “Four Cases of Literary Censorship,” Thody recalled:
“ ...neither Mein Kampf nor the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was pursued in the courts of law which permitted the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses or D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Thody cites in his lecture the Fourth French Republic (when France ruled Algeria) when he makes the case “that literary censorship is anomalous only within a democracy.” He recalls that “During the last years of the Fourth Republic, for example, it was common practice for the government to censor the free expression of political opinion by seizing newspapers critical of its Algerian policy.”
This reminds one of the case of contemporary Algerian novelist, Boualem Sansal, whose books are banned today in Algeria. Sansal is a hero of democracy, and Algeria, it seems, is no better off for liberty under independent rule than it was under French rule during the Fourth Republic more than half a century ago.
The author is a post-graduate student at Bar-Ilan University and a freelance writer.