Lessons in Conflict at the Jerusalem International Book Fair

“I swear, if one more person comes up to tell me that Palestine is a myth I’m going to strangle them.”

This was my refrain throughout the Jerusalem International Book Fair (Feb 8-12) where I learned first hand how violently some people respond to the word Palestine while staffing the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) stand at the Fair. I found myself baffled with how to respond when someone proclaimed angrily that Palestinians are imaginary, the only response that came to mind: “Do you want me to show you one?”

One religious couple spent almost forty minutes vehemently explaining that because they cannot visit the Temple Mount they feel as if they are living under apartheid. Personally I have issues with using the term apartheid to describe Israel/Palestine because I feel it clouds the situation (certainly there are alarming similarities but the causes are different enough that it’s important not to conflate the two). However if you are going to use the word, you, Jewish Jerusalemites, are most certainly not the victims.

No interest in dialogue, only yelling their points

I was expecting harassment and conflict from book fair customers but I wasn’t prepared for how personally people wanted to attack me. They were angry at me for sitting under the word Palestine, for selling journal issues with maps on the cover that offended them (because they include the West Bank), and they wanted me to do something about it right now. They weren’t interested in any sort of dialogue, only in yelling at me as a proxy for everything that makes them furious and terrified.

It wasn’t all like this of course, things got progressively calmer as the week went on. There were many people who were intrigued and excited about PIJ, or who genuinely interested in talking, even if they were cynical or didn’t agree with what we are doing. Many people were surprised and impressed to find an organization that works genuinely bilaterally in everything. Sadly, it’s truly a rarity. I worked hard to impress upon people that the purpose of the Journal is dialogue, mutual communication, understanding, and respect. Many people relaxed once they took this in, reassured that we weren’t a political mouthpiece, and calmed—as we all should be—by the idea of actual conversation rather than yelling talking points at each other from a distance.

First evening was the hardest

The first evening was by far the hardest, four hours of being yelled at after a long day setting up the booth and getting irritated at a lack of logistical organization. Halfway through I found my legs shaking and my head spinning. When I finally got home I sat outside drinking whiskey and smoking too many cigarettes. Upon reflection, I realized that many of those people were not traditional book fair goers, but rather people who were attracted to the opening night festivities which featured a performance by a popular Israeli singer and Free Wine, and discovered that there was also a book fair on the premises.

I don’t exactly know why I was so strongly affected, to the point of despair, that first day. It’s not as if any of this was new to me. Everything felt futile. I scrawled in my journal the next morning, “It’s infuriating, terrifying, and heartbreaking.” It is so sad to see so many people so afraid, so determined to hold onto what they have decided is the only truth. It is so sad to see the place that I cannot help but love so torn apart by fear and pain.

photo credit: Flash90

2015 Jerusalem International Book Fair at the First Station: Photo Shiran Granot

Ben and Esther had different experiences

It turns out that I actually got the brunt of the angry people and the dirty looks—I got a lot of those. The other two PIJ interns, Ben and Esther, also valiantly manned the booth and they reported that the hostile looks and unhappy people I had warned them about didn’t appear. When I came to relieve Esther on Monday afternoon and commented on the grimaces coming our way she said they hadn’t started until I arrived. Ben also remarked that he got none when he sat by himself either. The most likely explanation we could find (because I hope it isn’t a reflection on bad breath that I didn’t notice) is that I look very typically Israeli and both of them do not. No one ever assumes I’m American until they hear me talk and even then I can fake it for a little while. This did not work to my advantage. Interestingly, somehow it seems to be much more troubling to see one of your own with a map you don’t agree with. Esther, who is German with Chinese heritage, was asked constantly, and very politely, whether she was Palestinian. Though she does not look remotely Arab people seemed to be trying to make sense of a picture that they found deeply dissonant. Ben, who is Nordically blond and cheerful, also found that being immediately assumed to be a foreigner was an advantage.

Many positive experiences as well

I find this depressing. What has been so wonderful about working at PIJ is the opportunity to be a part of an organization that is centered around knowing one another, and here were people deeply frightened by any evidence of it. I want to reiterate, however, that though the negative interactions made a big impact on me there were many positive ones as well. We handed out lots of flyers and explained PIJ and the ideas behind it to all sorts of people who, regardless of whether they bought anything, now know what PIJ is doing, and saw a different possibility of how things can be.

Overall, sitting at the book fair was boring work. This is the first time I attended so I don’t have first hand knowledge of previous ones but from what I’ve gathered it seems that it used to be much bigger and fuller. The selection this year was somewhat disappointing.

photo credit: Flash90

Ben and Timna talking with a visitor at the Book Fair: Photo Hillel Schenker

Felafel from the Arabs and tea from the Evangelicals

Probably the best part of the week was the Arab guys maintaining the Book Fair (working 14 hour days) who befriended me, though whether because of PIJ or because I’m female I’m not sure—they were quite disappointed to learn I wasn’t single. Regardless however, the friendly company and hospitality was a godsend. They brought me coffee, invited me into the storeroom/de facto break and cigarette room, and even bought me falafel for lunch the last day. We never progressed beyond small talk but making friends sometimes felt like the most productive thing I managed all week. I was also kept supplied with plenty of tea by the Society for the Distribution of Hebrew Scriptures across from me.

The whole week was ridiculous, it was such an extreme mash up of so many different people and ideas, and yet of course that’s what it was. It was Jerusalem. Why was I even surprised?

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