Two weeks ago, I heard Marina Nemat speak at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. She and her family came to Canada some 20 years ago and settled in the GTA. In the hell that is her native Iran, she was imprisoned as a 16 year old for having an independent mind and held for two years in the notorious Evin jail. She has written two books about her life that have been translated into many languages, including Hebrew. She was in Jerusalem as the guest of her Israeli publishers.
When it became known that she planned to come to Israel, “all her broke lose on the Internet,” she said, because “North Americans urged me to boycott the event.” She refused. As a victim of oppression and a survivor of unspeakable suffering, she has a lot in common with many Israelis and Palestinians. She came as a witness.
Nemat was in good company. The star of the book fair was the British novelist Ian McEwan, the recipient of the 2011 prestigious Jerusalem Prize for Literature awarded every two years to a foreign author with an international reputation.
The pressure on McEwan from British intellectuals to boycott the event was enormous. He, too, resisted and told his Jerusalem audience that he was happy and honoured to be there. He refused to yield not because he agrees with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but because he respects its democracy. Similarly, the Italian author Umberto Eco had to resist much pressure but, like many other eminent authors, chose to come.
McEwan spoke with admiration about three of Israel’s most distinguished writers — Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — “who love their country, and made sacrifices for it and have been troubled by the directions it has taken.” A couple of days earlier, McEwan accompanied Grossman to the weekly demonstration in East Jerusalem to protest provocative efforts by Jewish extremists to displace Palestinian residents.
As a tangible expression of solidarity and commitment, McEwan donated the $10,000 prize to an organization dedicated to the cause of peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. This is his responsible way of respecting and honouring the state of Israel while expressing critical views about some of its policies. It stands in sharp contrast to the shrill voices that urged the writers to stay away.
What prompts the armchair protesters has been described by the British journalist Brendan O’Neill. Commenting on the demonstrations that are transforming many Islamic countries, he wrote that the courageous demonstrators rarely engage in Israel-bashing. In recent years the Palestinian issue “has moved from the realm of Arab radicalism” to “become almost the exclusive property of Western middle-class radicals.”
It’s they, not Palestinians, who tried to stop Nemat, Eco, McEwan and others from coming to Jerusalem. They are, in the words of O’Neill, engaged in “the politics of pity rather than solidarity.”
“There is nothing progressive in their pro-Palestinian fervour,” he wrote, because “it is driven by a view of Palestinians as the ultimate victims, the hapless and pathetic children of the new world order, who need kindly, wizened westerners to protect them from Big Bad Israel.”
By contrast, the writers who came to Jerusalem showed genuine care by seeking to promote peace, not by indiscriminate condemnation but by effective support of victims and their champions. They showed us the real difference between genuine criticism and self-serving rabble-rousing.
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.
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