by Devon Cohen
No, the title of this blog is not a spelling error. Rather, it refers to my perceptions of the general Israeli public’s reaction to the Palestine-Israel Journal’s
presence at the 24th Jerusalem International book fair. As a PIJ
intern, I ran the PIJ’s booth at the book fair held between February 15th and 20th at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'uma)
While preparing the booth, I thought the stand would be very popular and, although controversial, that it would be appreciated. Before the fair began, this belief was enhanced by attending publishers’ interests and questions. Yet, in the opening hours of the first night I sold nothing and forced a few scant conversations with semi-interested internationals.
The Israeli public was nowhere to be found. “No big deal,” I thought. I was sure they would show up in packs as the night progressed. How could they not? News headlines are filled everyday with the ongoing struggles between Palestinians and Israelis. Yet, there were no packs to be found, rather several eyebrow-raised individuals, scowling faces, after reading the booth’s name, and a handful of Israelis asking me why the name “Palestine” came first.
“Rough night, tough crowd,” I thought to myself.
While things picked up after the first night’s seeming indifference, I was shocked by several different events, discussions and the lack thereof. An old lady approached and labeled me, “just as bad as any of those people in Gaza.”
Several people stating, “Palestine, what Palestine?” And, at least a handful of people calling me, “Devon Cohen, a self-hating Jew,” for supporting such a “silly thing.”
I gave a short explanation to a rabbi from a settlement in Hebron, which ended in scandal. I informed him that the Journal
works to promote dialogue and mutual understanding on some of the most salient issues between Palestinian and Israeli societies, in hopes of preparing both for a fair and stable two-state solution. He then stood up, pushed all the brochures in front of him onto the floor and yelled, “God will never allow such a thing!”
Without so much as looking at a single issue, another man offered to buy as many as he could for 1000 shekels. Out of both shock and curiosity, I asked what he planned to do will all of them. He told me he planned to burn them. Needless to say, I refused to sell him anything.
There were also positive moments. I convinced an American settler from Ma’ale Adumim to buy a subscription. I had many amazing conversations with Jewish-Israelis from all walks of life and viewpoints. There were many compliments from those familiar with the Journal
. I had a fascinating debate with a South African Jew who was a victim of violence during the Second Intifada.
But, despite these inspiring conversations and interested people, I am left with the taste of disappointment.
I believe that the general behavior and reaction to the PIJ
booth demonstrates where the Israeli public stands on the issues of Palestinian society and peace, in general. The overwhelming distaste and aversion to discussing even the idea of a Palestinian state is still largely present here. The superficial problem of having the name “Palestine” before “Israel” was the mostly widely questioned and the first reason people walked away. Several close Palestinian friends came to sit with me during the long hours and their presence pushed people away even further. One friend commented that, “most people are looking at your booth like you’re an alien.”
Despite the fact that the book fair is called the “Jerusalem International
Book Fair,” besides worldwide bestsellers and general interest topics like cooking, travel or photography, there seemed to be little to find that was not Jewish, Zionist or Israeli. There were no representatives of the Arab world and the two stands selling publications in Arabic, to my knowledge, were an Indian-Muslim publisher focusing on religious topics and a Druze publisher from Haifa. This could explain why I did not have a single conversation with a Palestinian or Arabic-speaking person. While the fair had publishers representing 22 different countries, no one seemed to want to address the “other” nationality of Jerusalem: the Palestinians. Without the participation of Arabic publishers, and, therefore, little to no Palestinian turnout at the fair, it is no wonder that the PIJ
was a thorn in the backside of many trying to escape the daily realities of the conflict and the butt of many frustrations.
I can understand the weariness of even greater exposure to the conflict, as all one needs to do is pick up a local newspaper and get their daily fix. “Normalcy” in daily life takes on a skewed perspective on both sides whether it be worrying about the morning commute via checkpoints, or considering avoiding a certain bus line.
I get that a journal focusing on the duality of the conflict can be a painful reminder of the failure of the peace process and the continuation of violence/occupation. But, the more Israeli society insulates itself from these tough issues, the more the Israeli people detach themselves from the possibilities of peace and “normalcy,” which will not only continue their struggle with the Palestinians but, in time, will also isolate them from former “friends.”
It seems that the longer peace goes unanswered, occupation continues and violence thrives. Over time, people accept this as daily life, allowing themselves to lose the desire to question their surroundings.
I am much more encouraged by the people that were angry with some of the things the PIJ
represents and offers, than those that glanced at the sign and simply walked off.