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Gallivanting in Jerusalem

Jerusalem: Literary festivals around the world tend to run into controversies. Here in Jerusalem, the third International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, has not been without its share of controversy, though beyond the borders of Israel. Boualem Sansal, well-known Algerian writer, has kicked up a storm at home and across the Maghreb and Mashreq by participating in this year’s festival. Possibly Arundhati Roy is also in a rage though it’s doubtful she would have heard of Sansal before the storm broke.

But Sansal is not a faint-hearted man who is scared easily or recants to buy peace. Participating in a public reading event at the famous Tmol Shilshom café, he lashed out at his critics and those who seek to delegitimise Israel. “When I accepted this invitation I became the target of condemnation, but I decided to come because it was important,” Sansal said, pointing out it was absurd to boycott a country to appear to be politically correct. “I said, ‘What are we boycotting? This is a country with a flag that flies in the institutions of the international community’.”

Sansal is no stranger to criticism. In the past, he has been attacked for criticising Islamism and Islamists. His 2008 novel The German Mujahid deals with the links between Nazism and Islamism, an issue that is rarely if ever commented upon on either side of the Suez Canal. Since denial is impossible, the Islamists steer clear of any discussion on it, but are fierce in their attack on those who continue to remind the world that Islamism is not a recent construct and there’s nothing benign about Islamists.

“There is the concept of conquering — the conquering of souls, but also of territories. And there is the idea of extermination — the extermination of all those who do not submit to the ideology of Islamism,” says Sansal, “I certainly do see parallels, and I believe we have to analyse National Socialism if we are to keep Islamism in check.” Little wonder that neither the Arab Street nor the Arab Palace is fond of Sansal. “I feel we’re in the 1930s in the last century — then, no one responded properly. Today, Islamism is becoming fascism. If there’s no democracy, people will look for religion to be their parliament, their Government. There’s a lot of work to be done,” Sansal says.

Tmol Shilshom café is off noisy, raucous Ben Yehuda where teenagers party late into the night. There’s live music spilling into the street; most pubs throb with Goa Trance. In the din, a singer’s voice soars over the cacophony of club music: Idan Raichel, the Rasta Man with matted hair, is a rage in Israel. His music is unique and defies existing categories. He brings together musicians from Israel’s various immigrant communities — all of them are Jewish yet each of them is different. Raichel says it is his attempt to help new immigrants remain rooted in their cultural traditions while blending with mainstream Israeli society.

Meanwhile, the Haredim, who occupy the ultra-orthodox quarters of Jerusalem and collectively represent the anti-thesis of everything that secular Jews stand for, including their lofty disdain for the haredi way of life which is sustained by generous financial assistance provided by the Government and Jewish charities, ensure that the Talmudic way of life is not obliterated.

In the West Bank settlements, the resident Jews are in a fury. They see themselves as not just settlers grabbing Palestinian land, as they are made out to be by the Arabs and the international media, but as the true and legitimate inheritors of the ‘promised land’ of Judea and Samaria. Meanwhile, the ‘peace process’ remains stalled. Israeli Arabs, full citizens of the Jewish state, are not complaining either. Any change in the status quo would cause them needless stress. In any event, most of them take a disparaging view of the situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank. Not surprisingly, they would rather live in Israel where law and order prevails than in the anarchy across the Wall. Between faith and democracy, the choice is clear — at least for those who have benefited from Israel’s economic boom, which has remained largely untouched by the global financial crisis. Young Israeli Arabs may be less hesitant than their parents about speaking up for Palestinian rights, but that does not necessarily reflect split loyalties or subversive tendencies. On the contrary, they are eager to fully assimilate with Israeli society as that would afford them the freedom which Fatah and Hamas deny to Palestinians under their charge.

The certitudes in which the Israeli identity — overwhelmingly Jewish, largely exclusivist and dominated by the cultural preferences, if not biases, of the post-Holocaust generation that came from Europe — has been anchored for the past six decades are still there. But they have begun to yield space to other defining features. The Jewish narrative is witnessing changes and the shift in the Jewish worldview is apparent; victimhood is no longer the main characteristic of their identity, nor is it cloaked in aggressive religiosity or political Zionism. 

— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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