Intolerable Cruelty

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Some view Arab Spring as a gateway toward democratic leadership in a number of Middle East nations. Others are less optimistic, concerned that Islamist fundamentalists will ascend to governance and cause more seismic shifts that will inure to Israel’s detriment.

The case of Boualem Sansal sadly supports the latter view.

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Sansel is an Algerian author who has been critical of radical Islamist trends in his own nation and who has advocated for more positive discourse between the Arab world and Israel.

The latest episode in his torment relates to his participation in an Israel-based event. According to the Ynet online magazine (www.ynetnews.com): “ The Algerian author also drew harsh criticism from the Arab world and Hamas after he visited Israel in May and participated in the Jerusalem Writers Festival. The Hamas movement called Sansal’s visit a ‘betrayal of the Palestinian people’ and the Arab World Institute in Paris cancelled a prestigious prize it was planning to award him.”

Sansal, whose works are boycotted in his native country, explained his own philosophy about traveling to Israel and the resultant interactions: “As soon as there is freedom of speech, it will be possible to disagree with Israel if one wishes to do so — only without the hate. This is the reason I traveled to Israel and this is the reason I will return. We can argue about a certain Israeli policy, but the most important thing is to be friends.”

And therein lies the rub: To create the appearance that Israel can actually be a constructive and friendly partner in international dialogue of any kind is anathema to many radicals. The notion of suggesting same has gotten Sansal in hot water among his countryfolk and other militant voices across the region.

There are tremendous ironies here, but to name just one: There are many, many Israeli authors who have been critical of their own government and nation for perceived harsh treatment of Palestinians and Arabs within Israel. Highly accomplished and recognized Israeli author Amos Oz, for instance, is vocal and opinionated and has at times advocated positions both in support of and against the Israeli government. Any number of prominent authors in Israel (Jewish and otherwise) have been at the advent of political discussion regarding Israel’s positions on any number of international and domestic social justice issues.

Sansal is an outspoken champion of peaceful and useful exchanges of ideas, which are after all what those who express themselves in the fields of arts and literature participate in so well. This same discussion framed the Light’s first installment of Can We Talk? (the Light-JCRC-JCC partnership pairing stories in the Light and a community discussion event) in June 2011, with the subject of Jewish issues in the arts centered around the controversial John Adams opera, “The Death Of Klinghoffer.” That discussion among cultural and arts experts allowed a free flow of interpretation and analysis about the show, which has had a large share of both supporters and detractors in its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If, as a new order of governments emerges in the Middle East, the new leaders of nations cannot respect differing viewpoints about matters of political importance, then there is quite little hope that the endgame will be one that furthers constructive diplomacy. The ability to exercise one’s freedom of expression is central to any functioning and effective democracy, and its quashing only moves societies backward, not forward.

While we are thrilled at Sansal’s continued willingness to serve as emissary for cultural dialogue — a position echoed by Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in the aftermath of the episode — we are saddened (though probably not surprised) at the thumbs-down chorus directed toward Sansal by those in his own nation and around the Middle East. He is pushing for an international summit of writers for peace alongside Israeli author David Grossman, and we hope they are successful in their endeavors.

The Arab Spring suggested that figuratively, the king is dead. If the new king looks just like the old one in terms of cultural suppression and oppression, then nothing at all will be new under the sun.