Some of us still have to work for our living, so with all due respect to writing this column, in my other hat I’m the Director General of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the lovely guest house and conference center in Jerusalem, established by the great Jewish British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, more than 150 years ago.
Two weeks ago we ran our biannual International Writers Festival, with some 15 guest writers from all over the world dialoguing with the greatest Israeli authors: Amos Oz, David Grossman, Meir Shalev and others, to the delight of the local book enthusiasts. The mutual respect — at times even admiration — between writers, surpassed borders and politics. With my iPhone I snatched a picture of Grossman shaking hands with Alexandar Hemon ( Project Lazarus), with the illuminated walls of the Old City in the background, and I still look at it from time to time, to savor the moment.
The festival, however, didn’t escape politics. Well-organized pro-Palestinian groups in the United Kingdom put pressure on Tracy Chevalier ( The Girl With a Pearl Earring) and Tom Rob Smith ( Agent Six, Child 44) to cancel their participation. Upon hearing that, Howard Jacobson, the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2010 ( The Finkler Question), told Haaretz newspaper, “I think intellectuals always have an obligation to debate and to keep the lines of communication open. No matter how angry you are at a country, or how much you want it to change, you don’t close off the possibility for change.”
Then he gave the best argument why boycott was a stupidity: “The people you are boycotting are the people who will effect change. When you boycott an author or a literary festival, you boycott the voices of reason.”
Eventually, nobody cancelled for political reasons, and the festival was a huge success. Don’t take my word for it, just read what Boyd Tonkin wrote in the Guardian (a newspaper not exactly the greatest of Israel’s fans): “At the third Jerusalem International Writers Festival, near the heart of a city afflicted by every sort of zone, wall and partition, only words might seek to cross those separation barriers of culture and of time.”
When the festival was over I went to London to relax and recharge my batteries, but politics chased me there and didn’t let go. Habima, Israel’s national theater, came to play the Merchant of Venice at the Globe Theater as part of Shakespeare’s World Festival. Pro-Palestinian groups prepared to boycott it. Miriam Shaviv of the Times of Israel was too nice to them. “If you boycott us, do we not bleed?” she echoed Shylock. And Dominic Dromgoole, as reported in the Guardian, asked for the audience to respect the performers. “You’re not watching politicians or policy-makers,” he said. “You are watching artists who are here to tell a story.”
No, the way to deal with these people is to throw them out of the theater if and when they start booing, which is exactly what the guards did. The show went on and garnered rave reviews.
I didn’t even bother to challenge these protestors or ask them if they ever cared to rally in London outside the Embassy of Syria, a dictatorship that butchers its citizens. No, for them only Israel is the source of all evil on earth. I’m glad these hypocrites were bounced out, so that decent people could enjoy Shakespeare in its Israeli version.
London brought more good news. First, watching television in my hotel room I learned that Israeli chess master Boris Gelfand was challenging World Champion Viswanathan Anand of India. That was another novelty, for it is rare to see Israel mentioned in British media in a positive way. Gelfand lost, but since the games took place in Moscow, I immediately consoled myself with a story from the Cold War era, when a Russian runner lost to an American one. Soviet propaganda, however, had the final say: “Our boy came in second, the other — one before last.”
Then I went to the Saatchi Gallery to see an exhibition called Out of Focus, when I bumped into another exhibition displayed next to it: the works of the 10 students who had won the Google Photography Prize 2012. Out of the 10, three were Israeli students. I have no idea who they are, and where they stand politically. All I know is that their works were picked by the best possible jurors out of 20,000 submissions from 146 countries to be the best of the best. Will the anti-Israeli Brits boycott Google for that? Or stop using disc-on-key, which was invented in Israel?
What a disastrous week for Israel bashers.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.