June 15, 2016
Jessa Crispin in Jerusalem: The right to remain silent?
by Jessa Crispin
It wasn’t that I got pulled out of the El Al security line, escorted to the side to be more thoroughly searched and interrogated by a supervisor that bothered me. What bothered me was the tone the interrogation was taking.
“We are only searching your bags because we’re worried someone gave you a bomb. Your boyfriend perhaps.” The pretty, bearded supervisor looked at me with pity in his eyes. “Maybe you don’t know that what he gave you is a bomb.”
I had to choke down my indignant response, “I am nobody’s patsy, asshole. I’m a feminist, I can build my own bombs.” It would have been a very bad idea to say this out loud, so I did what is easiest when someone in power wants you to feel powerless: submit to the authority, allow the dehumanization to happen and go have a drink after.
I was on my way to Israel for the Jerusalem International Writers Festival, a biannual gathering of writers from all over the world. I was already feeling edgy and ambivalent. I am a supporter of the cultural and academic boycott of Israel as part of the BDS movement, a boycott that is defined differently by many different people, but that Judith Butler summed up in the London Review of Books in 2011 as a refusal by artists, performers, and intellectuals “to appear in Israel unless their host institutions voice a strong and sustained opposition to the occupation.” On the other hand, I was there as media rather than as a public figure, and I believe it is important to go to places, to see, to learn, and to speak.
This is the first year that the Jerusalem Press Club has issued invitations to international media to attend the festival, with travel expenses paid for. It did not feel random that the media invitations were to young writers in the US, UK, and Europe, as this is where Israel has… let’s call it an image problem. We’re of a demographic very likely to support Palestine, and perhaps the organizers thought they could present another image to an international audience through us: a cultured, sympathetic, normalized Jerusalem. A sophisticated city—rather than an embattled one, a third of whose inhabitants live without basic civil rights.
“Whenever I go to Europe, I have to apologize for [Israel],” the author Meir Shalev told us. “They ask me about Palestinians or the right-wing settlers, they don’t ask me about my books.”
This was a quandary vocalized by many of the attending Israeli writers: is it possible to be just a writer in Israel? Or must one, due to the larger circumstances in which the authors find themselves, be a political writer?
For most of the writers I met with, the answer was art over politics, that politics have no place in literature. “I don’t think literature should serve politics,” Shalev continued. When asked what were the appropriate topics for literature, he listed, “love, memory, family relationships, revenge, death, whatever.” Political literature, he suggested, was no better than propaganda.
But perhaps literature that does not engage with the political reality of a country that is occupying another state, or a literary festival that rarely acknowledges the reality of the city in which it is held, is its own form of propaganda.
On the first morning, as we all stood beleaguered with jet lag, wired on instant coffee and a buffet breakfast, a historian gave us a walking tour of Jerusalem. First things first, he gestured to the horizon to point out the wall dividing the Israeli-controlled section of the city from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. “The wall is terrible,” he said, “but terrorism is worse.” The wall was not a stop on our trip.
“The root of the word ‘evil’ comes from the name Eve,” he told us at a cathedral as I nearly gave myself an aneurysm stifling my mansplain-y retort of “Well, actually…” Making small talk along the way, he asked where I was from, I replied that I was from Kansas originally, and he quipped, “Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore!” From that point on I hung back in the group so as to avoid any direct contact with our guide.
At the Western Wall, the guide said something curious, which was that Jews who go into the Palestinian-controlled holy sites are given a police escort, who will then stare at the Jews’ mouths to make sure they are not praying, as Jewish worship is illegal in those sectors. He has no dog in this fight, the guide told us. “I’m a secular atheist,” a Jewish-American who moved here from Pennsylvania.
And yet back in my hotel room, a little unsettled by his version, I checked up on the story. It turned out he had omitted the reason for the police escorts, which was repeated Jewish invasion and provocation. I could find no support for his claim about the watching of the mouths of the Jewish visitors to prevent prayer, other than a few claims on right-wing blogs.
I realized I had come here without any cohesive mental image of what the city of Jerusalem actually looked like. My sources were scattered, from a few historical images of the tiny stone streets of the old city to news reports of blown-up buses to rather decadent views of upscale nightlife spots from the tourist brochures in my hotel room. The puzzle pieces didn’t fit, but seeing the city in person did not help. Everything was too pretty, everything dark and scary shoved behind that ominous wall. If anything, it brought to mind a scene from the Terry Gilliam film Brazil, where a terrorist bombing in a fancy restaurant is hastily covered up with room dividers to block the blood and gore from the surviving diners.
Later that night we attended the opening ceremonies, attended by the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. It was a beautiful, breezy night, people were circulating on the veranda with beer and wine, the mostly older crowd was well dressed and charming. I scanned the program of the week’s events for Palestinian writers, but I could find none. A few big American names, like Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink, Irish writer Colum McCann, writers from Iran and Spain, a session with an Israeli author called “Living In the Shadow of Terror,” but no Palestinians.
Uri Dromi, general director of the Jerusalem Press Club and former spokesperson for the Rabin and Peres governments, is holding court at the event, telling a story about 2014’s much more controversial festival, where a writer at an event interrupted to ask, “How can we sit here discussing literature when just over there people are suffering?” Dromi shrugs. The media had demanded Dromi justify this writer’s inclusion in the program, and Dromi replied, “It’s a free country.” His audience nods and laughs appreciatively. (I was unable to find any confirmation of this incident in the newspaper coverage of that year’s festival.)
Just as I was about to ask who the writer was, Raya from the Press Club came up to whisper in Dromi’s ear. Dromi drolly told us, “Behind every successful man is a woman telling him he’s doing something wrong,” so I veered hard left back to the veranda. For about the eight millionth time in my life I wished I smoked to have some sort of visual excuse for my anti-social behavior.
David Grossman and Colum McCann took the stage to discuss the state of literature. An Irishman and an Israeli, I thought. Okay, let’s get into it, let’s talk about occupation and resistance and the place of art in a violent world. My pen was poised above my open notebook. Instead, the conversation focused primarily on how they create characters, despite a few gestures toward the “situation” of Palestine. My only note was that at one point McCann said that, when attacked, “Sometimes you have to punch back with forgiveness.” When I looked back at this note the next morning, it looked like absolute nonsense.
The 2014 festival was more controversial on one level, and that was a public protest against international writers who decided to attend, like British writer Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Aleksandar Hemon (Nowhere Man). Earlier this year, more than 100 writers, including prominent names like Eileen Myles, Junot Diaz, and Richard Ford, signed an open letter protesting Israel’s sponsorship of the PEN American Center’s World Voices festival.
I asked the Jerusalem Press Club if many of the authors they’d approached to attend the festival this year had declined because of the BDS movement, but the official word back was that not a single author had cited the boycott as the reason for not coming. Maybe, it was suggested to me, their real reason was the boycott, “but they always explain it as a busy schedule.”
I wrote to Sarah Schulman, author of Israel/Palestine and the Queer International and vocal proponent of the BDS movement, to respond, and she replied, “I laughed when I read this. They don’t invite people who will decline. Look at the PEN signatures: I am sure none of those writers were invited.” (When I asked a second person at the Center about the boycott, their language was as identical as a circulated talking point, “Maybe they just tell us they have a busy schedule.”)
“These days it is fashionable to blacken Israel,” David Grossman told us the next morning, as we met with him in a conference room at our hotel. “But boycotting Israel is counterproductive.” What is needed, he told us, was more conversation and interaction, not less. I remembered Schulman’s seething response when I asked her whether the boycott was counterproductive: “I am very aware of what pro-Occupation, racist, and even apathetic Israeli and American Jews believe. I hear their opinions and read their analyses all the time.” The boycott, she tells me, is a nonviolent protest that originates with Palestinian activists. If it wasn’t successful, “the Israeli government wouldn’t be spending so much time and money trying to pressure and punish people who participate in it.”
“Israelis try to lead a normal, moral life in an abnormal situation, in an immoral situation,” Grossman continued. But when asked about the political nature of his novels, he demurred, claiming he writes about larger issues. He does not see his work as political, he sees it as being about larger themes like death and grief and love. He was, he wanted to assure us, a secular Jew, completely atheist.
The media corps seemed to be getting increasingly quiet during our tour. I for one was trying not to open my mouth very much, just in case what came out was an unending wail. When we toured the National Library, we had a short coffee break in the middle of the four-hour visit. Our tour guide, a nice young American man who had moved to Israel after graduating from Tulane, was making small talk, and I asked, “What made you move to Israel?” “Religious Zionism,” he said rather quickly. I nodded and wished I could disappear into my coffee cup.
Where is Palestine? I kept wondering. I know where it is physically, but where is it here? In the conversation, in the tour, in the festival? Do they really think we’re going to go along and pretend it doesn’t exist? There was a Palestinian Literary Festival, headlined by J. M. Coetzee, running almost concurrently, but no one at the Jerusalem festival ever mentioned it, or offered to take us over there. I asked Raya at the Press Club why no Palestinian writers appeared at the Jerusalem festival, and she told me every year Uri Dromi asked the Palestinian festival to collaborate on events, to bring writers over, to form a partnership. Dromi confirmed this in conversation. Every year, he insisted, he approaches the Palestinian festival in the hopes of joining forces, but every year he is rebuffed. I emailed Omar Robert Hamilton at the Palestinian Festival of Literature, and he replied, “We have never received any kind of communication or request from the Jerusalem Writers Festival.”
By the time on our final day that we are brought in to speak with AB Yehoshua, who is there to tell us that only Jews in Israel are full Jews and every Jew outside of Israel has a degraded Jewish identity, to tell us of the “danger and abnormality of the diaspora” and how Israel is in the situation it is in because the Palestinians “don’t want to negotiate,” I am wondering if I can just put my head down on the table, will anyone care. Maybe I can just tip my my chair back far enough that I fall over completely, and I can just lie there, head on the floor and feet in the air, and maybe then they’ll haul me away and let me leave.
One thing most of the writers we’ve met have in common is their use of the phrase “The Situation” as a way of saying “The Occupation.” It’s a bit like “The Troubles,” as the Irish referred to their own occupation and years of violence, except here it is the occupying force using the euphemism, rather than the occupied.
After the Yehoshua talk, Uri Dromi tries to make small talk with me. He hears I am writing a feminist manifesto, and he would like to talk to me about his problems with feminism. I interrupt. “One of my chapters is called ‘Men Are Not Our Fucking Problem.’” He smiles a little, so I clarify. “You are not my fucking problem.” I feel bad almost immediately.
I seek out the Tel Aviv historian, scholar, and writer Shlomo Sand, who did not attend the festival. In our conversation he calls the festival disgusting. “It’s very nice, you know,” referring to the locale and the conversation. “And it disgusts me deeply.” Sand is the author of such books as How I Stopped Being a Jew and The Invention of the Land of Israel, which has caused him to be denounced by Haaretz and several of the attending Israeli authors.
I ask him whether he supports the boycott, and he says yes, but only for the past year. “Historically, no one thought to boycott the United States during the Vietnam War, or France during the Algerian War, why should Israel be the exception?” What made him change his mind, I ask.
“Last year I lost all hope.” It’s the length of the occupation, fifty years, that for Sand makes Israel worthy of the exception.
I like Sand immediately, and not only because I agree with him. He is charming and personable, and after he makes a complicated point he asks, “Do you understand?” and looks to see that I do. Our conversation is the first time in a week I don’t feel like I’m being lied to. We get chatty. I ask him about the conversation I keep having, about whether it is possible for a writer to be just a writer in Israel. “This is morally unacceptable to me,” he answers. “If David Grossman does not put this question in his writing, [his writing] is morally unacceptable.” And as for Yehoshua, “You can be a good writer and a bad intellectual.”
I saw some of the other attendees of the festival writing about their experiences, Instagramming photos of the hummus they were eating, Gary Shteyngart calling Jerusalem “cute” on Twitter. In our conversation, as in his books, Sand pushed forcefully against “liberal opinion” that is not deeply engaged with political reality. As I was still trying to sort out and understand my experiences, he said that it was okay to come to Israel if “you express your point of view. If not, do not come to Israel. You do not have the right to be silent.”
Jessa Crispin is the founder of Bookslut, one of the country’s first book blogs, and the author of the recently released The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (University of Chicago Press). Her book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto is forthcoming from Melville House.