Lessons from the PIJ booth at the Jerusalem International Book Fair

The title of the latest Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) issue: Jerusalem – In the Eye of the Storm was not only an apt choice concerning the turbulent conflict and the diversity of open questions in connection with Jerusalem’s situation today and its future status. It is also a very precise description of the atmosphere and experiences surrounding the PIJ booth at the 2011 Jerusalem Book International Fair.

When it was decided to have a PIJ presence at the 25th International Fair, the main purpose was to attract attention and widen the circle of people acquainted with the Journal, and the goal was clearly achieved. The booth in the International Hall of the Fair was well placed, and gained the degree of attention that a unique joint Palestinian-Israeli independent Journal in its 18th year of publication deserves. An eye-catcher in the truest sense of the word proved to be simply the name PIJ. With only a few exceptions, nearly everybody who passed the booth and read the appellation above it had some reaction. Generally the spectrum ranged from rolling eyes and lifted eyebrows over wordless stares to cautious approach and sceptical perusal. It became rapidly clear to me that the insecurity of the mainly Israeli visitors concerning how to deal with the Palestinian issue would be one of our highest trumps or greatest drawbacks – depending on your attitude. Only a few of the visitors identified with the basic premise of the PIJ, but a high number of people were interested in the still “inconvenient” concept of the Journal. In enlightened circles, not having the same position shouldn’t mean that the opposing position isn’t worth hearing. The majority of the Israeli, and particularly the international visitors, seemed to follow this self-evident principle. In the best circumstances they started lively conversations right in front of the PIJ booth, exchanged arguments, positions and expectations. Without interfering or by provoking a discussion based on the willingness to listen and accept contrary positions, they started to implement one of the main concerns of the PIJ, namely to promote dialogue, from theory into praxis.

Unfortunately this summary of positive adventures is only half of the story about the third appearance of PIJ at the biannual International Jerusalem Book Fair (after a booth at the 2007 and 2009 Fairs). Continuing the experiences of two years ago, there were also multiple situations which demonstrated the decline inside the Israeli public concerning the debate about the conflict, especially when it comes to Jerusalem. More than once the inspiring atmosphere of exchanging opinions in a respectful way was disrupted by harsh attacks of Fair visitors with apparently opposing political positions. Religious individuals particularly excelled themselves in attacking us, without any willingness to listen to our information or introduction concerning the PIJ. In the best case we were called promoters of the Palestinian side and – consequently – opponents of Israeli interests. But the spectrum was much broader: "communists" and "anarchists" were common labels. One woman charged that I was making pro-Palestinian and – therefore – anti-Israeli “Propaganda” - “if you would do the same in Gaza they would kill you in a minute,” she added. My reply, that it denigrates her understanding of freedom when she compares Israel with Gaza, remained unanswered. In addition, my being of German origin made everything worse. Ultimately I was responsible for the Shoa and they assumed that my coming to Israel – more precise and even worse to Jerusalem – “to promote the Palestinian side, unbelievable!” (I was born in 1985…)

By the way, it wasn’t really helpful that the booth next to us hosted an author who promoted his publication with the French title Retourne en Palestine. Contrary to the first brief impression, his subject is not the right of return for Palestinian refugees - in fact it is the opposite. To strengthen his position and to make clear that there is not one single point of agreement between us, he didn’t miss even one opportunity to explain to his visitors (his book met an interested audience!) that the difference between him and us is the same as black and white, and there is no need to explain that in his view we were the blacks.

So, because of this policy of placement, we became part of a split between two poles, a grey position in between seemed to be beyond people’s imagination, at least for a majority of them. In this situation we were frequently far from a constructive dialogue, normal conversation was not possible, and opponents didn't even want to hear an explanation about the PIJ and its background. It became clear that the main obstacle to guiding the conflict towards a solution is the absence of people's willingness to open up their own minds to arguments, positions and needs of the counterpart. Even in the public sphere there is an apparent lack of readiness to challenge one’s own position, when this evokes an implicit danger of discovering contradictions within that position. Where ideology and conservatism replace the ability and readiness for conversation, a mutual dialogue based on equality seems remote.

In spite of all the problems mentioned, it shall not be forgotten that there were also visitors who defended us during these harsh confrontations and called for dialogue. Unfortunately they were a minority, although highly appreciated especially because their position is such a forward-looking one.

When reflecting on these experiences, my main conclusion from the 2011 Book Fair is that there is a lot more to do to end the conflict between Israel and Palestine than “only” to promote a dialogue between the people from both sides. The week in the Binyanei Ha’Uma International Convention Center showed clearly that in the Israeli public there is no common ground, no shared attitudes which could be used as a basis for negotiations, as a frame for concessions and compromise. Promoting dialogue to arrive at a common ground within Israeli society appears to be as great a challenge as promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, even though Israelis speak the same language.