Israel, which claims to be a free democratic society, is facing a literary upheaval amongst it ranks. Its Education Ministry has taken the unusual step of banning an award-winning book about a love story between and an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from being taught in schools for fear that it would promote miscegenation and threaten Jewish identity. The book, called Borderlife by Dorit Rabinyan, an Israeli writer with an Iranian heritage, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist who meet in New York and fall in love. The pair’s relationship flounders when they return to their respective homes, she to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The book was critically acclaimed and won Israel’s Bernstein Prize last year but the ban prompted a surge in demand for the novel, leading to a selling out in shops. .
A committee of literary experts advising the ministry recommended its inclusion in a high school literature course. The ministry, however, ruled against it. In their objection, officials cited the need to protect the identity and the heritage of students in every sector, adding that ‘intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten their separate identity.’ In particular, they feared the romantic seed of forbidden love might appeal to Jewish adolescents who ‘don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.’
The decision was largely attacked by the Israeli intelligentsia and the opposition parties. Sami Michael, the author of A Trumpet in the Wadi, about a relationship between a Russian-Israeli man and an Arab-Israeli woman, described it as ‘a dark day for Hebrew literature.’
Merav Michaeli, a Labour MP, compared the ban to a warning on Election Day by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minster, about ‘hordes of Arabs’ going to vote. ‘In a place where people with views that are unacceptable to the government are marked, it’s clear that works of literature and art are also censored,’ she said. ‘The thought police are already here.’
Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader, head of the centre-left Zionist camp, protested against the decision by presenting copies of the book to pupils during a visit to a high school in the town of Sderot, on the border of Gaza.
The author expressed amazement, not least given her heroine’s ultimate decision. ‘Her difficult choice, to turn away from love, is the choice of a young woman whose main Zionist identity is deeply engrained in her,’ Rabinyan said. ‘There is something ironic in the fact that the novel that deals with the Jewish fear of assimilation in the Middle East was eventually rejected by the very fear.’
This healthy debate going on in Israel might open the way for the realisation that defining the true identity of Israel, of hopefully a nation in search of peace and tranquillity. Its assimilation in the Middle East must not rankle, but should signal a new era of toleration: Arab and Jews living side by side, whilst casting away a misguided identity and an isolation that can only bring division and turmoil.