The bookseller of Jerusalem

It’s often the small injustices that stab us in the heart, and Jerusalem-born Munther Fahmi, who is in imminent danger of deportation, does just that.

Munther Fahmi Palestinian bookseller 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Munther Fahmi Palestinian bookseller 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
It’s often the small injustices that stab us in the heart, even in a world of monstrous tsunamis, nuclear emergencies and despotic repression.
Last week, Munther Fahmi told me he is in imminent danger of deportation.
Fahmi, a friend for the past 15 years, is a bookseller in Jerusalem.
One might better say he is the bookseller there, since his shop is almost the only serious foreign-language one left in a city that once boasted many.
Fahmi’s store is in the tranquil courtyard of the American Colony, the foreign correspondents’ hotel and one of the few established meeting- places of Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
The store’s eclectic stock reflects its cosmopolitan clientèle.
Works by Israeli and Arab novelists and poets rub shoulders with nonfiction representing every political point of view. For anyone with a serious interest in Middle Eastern literature, history or politics, the place is an oasis of civilized reflection in a landscape brutalized by national and religious antagonisms.
Fahmi was born in Jerusalem. In 1967, after Israel conquered the eastern half of the city, he, with the rest of the Arab population, was issued an identity card recognizing him as a resident. In 1975 he left to continue his university education in the US. He graduated, started a business and a family, and acquired US citizenship. Then, in 1994-5, intoxicated with the prospect of peace after the signing of the Oslo Accords, he flew back to Jerusalem to set up the bookstore.
Upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport he was told that his Jerusalem ID was being revoked, and that the only way he could now enter was as a tourist. Over the next decade and a half he continued to do that, as there seemed to be no way to reinstate his right of residency.
About two years ago, the border agents started giving him a hard time whenever he entered or left.
Then he was told that he would henceforth be allowed to stay for no more than three months in any given year.
He started legal proceedings, but his suit against the Interior Ministry failed when the court invoked a law that strips the right to remain in Israel from any resident who leaves for seven years or more and holds a foreign passport. Most non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, of course, are Arabs, since Jews who live in the city are generally citizens. The law is therefore applied mainly against Arabs.
FAHMI APPEALED to the Supreme Court which, a few weeks ago, ruled against him. The court advised that his only recourse would be to write again to the Interior Ministry, requesting that it reinstate his residency. He did so a few days ago. If the ministry rejects his request, he will be deported, and his bookstore will presumably have to close.
A petition in support of Fahmi’s right to live permanently in Jerusalem has gained support from over 2,000 signatories, including not only usual suspects like Amos Oz and David Grossman but also the director of the Jerusalem Book Fair, Zev Birger, former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, and former editor-in-chief of this newspaper Ari Rath The Interior Ministry is hardly celebrated for its enlightened attitudes – particularly under the current minister, Eli Yishai of Shas. But quite apart from that, Fahmi’s plea to remain in the city of his birth has little prospect of success. The reason is that his case is not unique. It is an open secret that Israel has for years pursued a systematic policy aimed at countering what is seen as the demographic threat posed by the high Arab birthrate in the city. A few years ago the Palestinian-British professor Musa Budeiri was saved from expulsion in similar circumstances only with the personal intervention of the then-British prime minister, Tony Blair.
This is not merely a matter of individuals. The inability of Arabs to acquire building permits in the city has been a running scandal for years. The so-called security barrier which runs through, not just around, the municipal area, leaves thousands of Arab residents in Shu’afat, Kafr Aqab, Semiramis and part of Walajeh on the outside, effectively deprived of municipal services. Most Jewish Jerusalemites are not even aware that their so-called “reunified” city is, in fact, divided in this way. Thousands of children are currently barred admission to the overcrowded Arabic- language city schools in east Jerusalem. The long-term objective of all this is transparent: to extrude as many Arabs as possible from the city.
Fahmi’s case is thus part of a larger set of policies that threaten to sweep away any lingering hope of peaceful coexistence in Jerusalem. That is why this injustice against a bookseller should affront decent-minded people everywhere – perhaps even in the Interior Ministry.
The writer is Ulrich and Harriet Meyer Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Chicago, and the author of Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City (Yale University Press).