The Paris and Turin Book Fairs To Boycott or Not to Boycott: Subjecting Culture to Politics

Elie Chalala

The polemical issue of boycott is a longstanding one in Arab political, economic and cultural discourse. Not only has most of the Arab world long boycotted Israeli economic products, as well as cultural events that include Israeli participation, but boycotts have also targeted Western products if their producers conduct trade with Israel. Excluding a few Arab states and those states which signed peace agreements with Israel, the issue of boycott remains present today. The only noticeable change in the last two decades is that Arab states are forgiving Western companies who have done business with Israel.

No boycotts have been more attention-grabbing than world cultural activities, especially those which invite Arab and Israeli cultural figures. Arab participants often find themselves labeled by colleagues, the press and activists as being less than patriotic, or even accused of supporting Israeli policies against the Palestinians. Those who decline to participate publicly exploit their rejection in two ways. They take political advantage by presenting themselves as champions of the Arab cause, and benefit commercially through sales of their music products or books, which often skyrocket as a payoff for their uncompromising political principles.

The most recent issue in the boycott debate came with a decision by the Salon du Livre International Book Fair in Paris to give the prestigious “Pavilion of Honor” award to Israeli writers. This decision cost the Salon du Livre (which ran from March 14 to 19, 2008) some attendance and attracted unwanted controversy. At the urging of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), countries including Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen announced their withdrawal from the event. Implying that art cannot divorce itself from politics, ISESCO issued a statement saying that “the crimes against humanity Israel is perpetrating in the Palestinian territories” make it undeserving of such an honor, especially as a “siege” is conducted against the Palestinian people.

An equally significant debate emerged after the International Book Fair in Turin, Italy (which ran from May 8 to 12, 2008) selected Israel as the guest of honor. The Italian decision ignited a debate between those who called for boycott and those who oppose linking culture to politics – and thus supported participation in Italy’s largest annual gathering of publishers.

As one would expect, Israel attempted to maximize its benefits from the boycott. After a five-day state visit to France, Israeli President Shimon Peres commented, “I am against the boycott of books. Books are written to try to awaken reflection, to try to make sense of ideas.”

French officials and intellectuals echoed the same sentiment. French presidential spokesperson David Martinon said at a news conference, “It is not books we should fear,” and called for tranquility in the meantime. Bernard Koshner, France’s foreign minister, was also dismayed by the Arabs’ boycott of “ideas,” commenting sarcastically that he hoped they would not also choose to boycott the “necessary peace.”

“What is happening in the Middle East is very sad, but it is not linked to our event,” said Christine de Mazieres, spokesperson for the French Publishers Association, the group which organized the Salon. She emphasized that Israel was not being honored for its politics, but for its writers, which included Amoz Oz, David Grossman and Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew. According to de Mazieres, all of the countries that withdrew knew that Israel was being honored when they signed up. The fair’s organizers also stressed that their choice to distinguish Israeli literature was unrelated to the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary.

Italian leftist intellectuals and activists were at the forefront of the opposition to recognizing Israel at the Book Fair in Turin. “A prestigious event like the Book Fair can’t pretend it doesn’t know what’s happening in that part of the Middle East,” said Vincenzo Chieppa, a local leader of the Italian Communist Party, as quoted in the New York Times. Mirroring the controversy in France, Italian intellectuals battled each other on the pages of newspapers, raising “concerns about censorship” while “extolling the need to place art above politics.” According to The Times, more than 30 Italian intellectuals and artists formed a counter-campaign and petitioned the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, to preside over the opening of the Book Fair and speak out against “any discrimination and blind intolerance towards the citizens and culture of Israel.”

On the other side, pro-Palestinian protesters stormed the Book Fair’s offices and demanded the withdrawal of Israel’s invitation, threatening more demonstrations in the days leading up to the Book Fair.

The debate over the boycotts went beyond France and Italy, involving scholars and intellectuals worldwide. But nowhere has the debate been more heated than in the Arab world itself, where most intellectuals fall into one of three groups or schools of thought. The first promotes all-out opposition toward any contact with Israel, cultural or political. Algerian journalist Yacine Tamalali represents this group. Tamalali made his views clear in an article in the Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper.

In the article, Tamalali lashed out at French officials and European intellectuals, deriding their call for separating culture from politics. Culture and politics, in Tamalali’s opinion, are inextricably interconnected. He challenged the European intellectuals’ hypocrisy by reminding them of the boycott policies Europeans have adopted in the past. He leveled the same charge against the United Nations, including UNESCO, which imposed boycott policies against South Africa during its former system of apartheid. Tamalali includes sports in his examples, arguing that sports were never free from politics. He reminds Westerners of the 1980 boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow – an act protesting the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Advocates of this approach assume that their audience is “back home” in the Arab world. They may be able to score points in Beirut or Cairo in favor of the boycott, but not in Paris, London or New York. Since this particular debate on boycott centers on events taking place in Paris and Turin rather than the Arab world, attempting to advance a pro-Palestinian agenda in the West in this manner is not likely to be successful.

Consider the issue of legitimacy that is implied by those who favor the boycott. The advocates of boycott assume that the Arabs and Palestinians monopolize legitimacy. By participating, they would legitimize the other party: Israel. This zero-sum game logic, that “we” are the only legitimate party, misses the point that legitimacy is a dynamic concept, negotiable and debatable, and can be won in debate and discourse. One unintended consequence of this approach is that if you boycott, you allow the official Israeli position to be presented without challenge, and you are actually depriving the book fairs’ audiences from the Palestinians’ side of the story. Since the source of any legitimacy resides with the public – in this case the book fairs’ audiences – rather than in a biblical or ideological claim, the boycott has stifled the Palestinian and Arab voice in this key discourse.

Certainly culture cannot be fully divorced from politics and the two can influence each other. However, one cannot assume that they are mutually dependent on each other, or that politics or economics exclusively determine culture. The pro-boycott sentiment appears inspired by an assumption of strong influence and would in all likelihood dismiss pro-participation (or anti-boycott) Arabs as “liberal,” a label these days often confused or affiliated in the Middle East with the “neo-conservative” agenda in the West.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this viewpoint is the simplistic and even naïve understanding of the nature of the relationship between culture and politics in Western societies. Contrary to notions popularized by the pro-boycott groups, culture and politics are relatively autonomous in Western societies. Such autonomy is based on economic and constitutional foundations. This stands in contrast to the Arab world, where the cultural sector is totally dependent and employed by the state, or it is subject to monopolistic interests such as the Hariri family media enterprises in Lebanon or by some branches of the Saudi family in Saudi Arabia and London. Cultural activities in the West, be it in entertainment or in journalism, are privately funded. What this means is that no matter what the government’s wishes are, the media and cultural institutions enjoy independence and can dissent from the official policies of the state. Although the government, particularly in the U.S., has expanded its political and judicial powers over civil society since September 11, it stops far short of attempting to implement any kind of state-run media.

Elias Khoury, novelist and editor of An Nahar Cultural Supplement, represents the second group, pro-participation. He opposes the boycott and believes that the Arabs and Palestinians should not fear a cultural confrontation with the Zionists because the latter has no moral superiority. As proof, he points to the support the Palestinian cause has won from a large number of intellectuals, scholars and filmmakers, including Westerners and progressive Israelis. Participation in the Book Fair could have potentially put Israel on trial for its crimes against the Palestinian people over the past 60 years, Khoury argues.

The boycott is thus an unnecessary “flight” by individuals and states alike. While Khoury has no doubt about the aggressive nature of the Israeli state and the expansionist nature of the Zionist ideology, he wonders why the Arabs lack any answer to Israel at the Paris Book Fair other than “flight.”

He imagines, and challenges others to imagine, some kind of event taking place next door to the French Book Fair, amounting to a whole cultural awareness month for Palestine, one that could have drawn the involvement of academics, intellectuals, artists, filmmakers – all with the goal of telling the story of Palestine during the past 60 years. As for the vast resources needed to realize this type of activity, Khoury posits that resources are always available one way or another, so what obstacle is left to prevent undertaking such an event? Khoury’s answer is “courage,” which he says is lacking in Arab culture.

Khoury further argues that rational thinking has become a liability in the Arab world. Those dominating the intellectual discourse are either extreme fundamentalists or liberals. The solution requires both courage – needed to counter Zionism and extremist viewpoints – and enlightened thought, which will express itself through progressive, humanist and secular ideas.

Although Khoury offers important observations, he seems overly optimistic about the cultural superiority of the Arab argument and claims. Even if such supremacy existed, it is not absolute; rather it is contingent on a set of conditions, one of which is interaction, or dialogue between cultures. This is where Khoury’s argument is weakest. He writes, “I do not want to be misunderstood that I call for hiwar (dialogue) while blood is being spilled in Gaza; rather, I call for muwajaha (confrontation).” Khoury, of course, does not mean a violent confrontation. But if by “confrontation” he means mere presence at book fairs with panels, documentaries, artwork and photos so the world does not forget the Palestinians, that may not be enough. Perhaps Khoury feels intimidated by the fundamentalists, whose influence in Arab culture he decries, or he is taking pains to ensure he appears “patriotic,” because in reality it makes little sense not to call for engaging in dialogue with those with whom one disagrees, especially given the superiority of the Arab argument.

Nahla al-Shahal, a journalist and activist, represents the third group. She accepts a political/cultural separation in some cases, but not in the Paris case, since she considers this case political. In an article she wrote for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper, she distinguishes her position from both Tamalali and Khoury. While al-Shahal does not mention either of them by name, she seems to separate the cultural from the political, a separation that is not addressed by Khoury and considered impossible by Tamalali. In her view, the Paris Book Fair, while a cultural event, is also political and thus its boycott was justified. However, she would not go so far as to diminish the overall importance of cultural activities and the role of ideas, nor would she advocate adoption of the official policy of absence and boycott practiced by the Arab states and some intellectuals.

The political nature of the Paris Book Fair is unequivocally clear to al-Shahal. She reminds her readers that this year’s Salon du Livre was opened by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, rather than by one of Israel’s important novelists, like Amos Oz. She also points to the use of certain vocabulary as evidence of the political nature of the book fair, especially “Israel’s Sixtieth Independence Anniversary.” This usage, she correctly observes, suggests that there was an Israeli state before 1948, and what took place in 1948 was a simple attainment of independence from some power. This language is certainly political and legitimizes the claim of Israeli statehood, while implying that the Arab Palestinians were merely roaming nomads.

She accuses some Arab intellectuals, without naming names, of having fallen into the trap of Zionist propaganda by joining other European intellectuals and politicians in condemning “the calls for boycotting ideas and literature.” For her it is neither mere coincidence nor innocence that some Arab intellectuals were ready to talk with major French newspapers about condemning the boycott and that these newspapers were more than willing to publish their statements.

Aware that old policies of pure rejectionism do not work, al-Shahal criticizes those who opposed the Book Fair on principle, symbolic as it was. More specifically, she is critical of their fatalism that opposition will not lead the Book Fair to rescind its invitation to Israel. Al-Shahal characterizes such an attitude as the product of the dominant logic of the market, decided on the basis of profitability, which rules out the human dimension, including the importance of principles and symbolic positions.

Illustrating the importance of human action, she commended the activity of a pro-Palestinian group which rented space from French publishing house La Fiebre, a publisher known for introducing progressive Israeli writers to the French reader. The group’s project, inspired by the Salon du Livre itself, was called “Sixty Years of Palestine’s al-Nakba.” It included artwork, photographs of confrontations between Palestinians and occupying forces, and panel discussions that included well-known authors, filmmakers and journalists. For al-Shahal, this kind of undertaking was an appropriate response, despite the fact that it did not garner much publicity.

Al-Shahal believes the role of culture can exist outside the realm of politics. Underlying her argument is the notion that there can be purely cultural or purely political activities, and thus Arabs and Palestinians have the luxury to participate in one or the other category of events. In the book fairs’ cases, their invitation to Israel was clearly political in nature. This argument seems more of a rationalization for the boycott, although it is careful not to dismiss the role culture and the arts can have in influencing Western public opinion toward the Arab cause. However, it is wishful thinking on al-Shahal’s viewpoint to so conveniently delineate between the spheres of culture and politics.

Those who believe politics determine culture, the anti-participation groups, are the most vocal and the most influential in the Arab world, which explains the decision by many governments, pro-Western governments included, to boycott the Paris Book Fair. Countering this group are mainstream European governments and mainstream intellectual groups who believe in a decisive separation between culture and politics; thus they wonder why Arabs make decisions based on politics rather than the cultural merits of the activity at hand. Although it may not be grounds for boycotting either the Paris or Turin book fairs, the recognition of Israel as their guest of honor on the anniversary of its establishment cannot be claimed as an apolitical act.

In the end, however, any superiority, moral or otherwise, can only be gained in a free society through dialogue and open exchange. Participation is better than boycott, but it is just one step toward interacting, dialoguing and yes, talking to those with whom one disagrees. This is a more effective approach to cultivate support for the Palestinian cause on the 60th anniversary of Al Nakbah.


This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid