A Letter From Elliot Sperber
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the XXVII Guadalajara International Book Fair
by MALU HUACUJA DEL TORO AND ELLIOT SPERBER
Considered the most important Book Fair in the Spanish-speaking world, and second in the world only to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, concluded this Sunday, December 8th, under heavy security. The unusually high level of security resulted from the guest of honor of this year’s book fair, the State of Israel. For the past 20 years, the book fair has honored a city, country, or region as its guest. No earlier guests, however, have been as controversial, or have aroused as much protest and dissent, as has the State of Israel. Hence, the unprecedented levels of security.
Along with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Israeli President Shimon Peres was in attendance. And although several protests against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, took place outside the fair, there was little press coverage on the issue. Likewise, there was no acknowledgment within the fair of the political controversy – until the final day of the book fair.
As a guest I was invited to introduce my most recent collection of short stories, “El suicidio y otros cuentos” (“Suicide and Other Tales”), as well as a collection of essays on the catastrophic effects of NAFTA in the Mexican culture. To the great disappointment of my publisher, who attempted but failed to interrupt me, I surprised the assembled guests by raising the issue of international justice as it relates to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Marco Vinicio Gonzalez of Radiobilingue wrote, “the sophisticated security measures around the Israeli president Shimon Peres could not prevent the entrance of a Trojan horse.” As this “Trojan horse”, I brought with me and read a letter of solidarity written by the contemporary Jewish writer, attorney, and CounterPunch contributor, Elliot Sperber. While my Spanish translation of Sperber’s letter has been printed in Spanish language media, and has generated a very grateful, engaged response from my readers, it has not been published in its original English version. It appears below.
Malou H.D.T. (Malú Huacuja del Toro).
I hope you won’t find it presumptuous that, though we’ve never met, I should address you as neighbors. Though we don’t know one another, however, the fact of the matter is (especially in light of instant telecommunications, and the ease of travel that has shrunk the world over the past few decades) that we are all neighbors on this planet. So, I would like to not only address you all as neighbors, and to think of you as neighbors, but to live with you as neighbors as well.
It is a profound honor to be, however marginally, a part of the 27th Guadalajara International Book Fair. When Malú asked me if I would write something (to address, in particular, the controversy surrounding this year’s guest, the State of Israel), my initial reaction was: No, absolutely not. Although I have lived in Israel, and attended school in Israel, and briefly worked in Israel on a kibbutz – a collective farm – and though I have strong feelings about the injustice of the ongoing occupation of Palestine, among other aspects of the State of Israel’s general aggressiveness, my initial reaction was that it would be best to remain silent. Why entangle myself in such a heated, complex controversy? Besides, there are certainly people more qualified than I am to speak on the subject. Israelis, perhaps. No thank you. Moreover, it’s a book fair – a cultural event. Why drag politics into it?
Upon further reflection, however, it occurred to me that (though international book fairs hold out the promise of eradicating national differences, obliterating borders, and comprise an important dimension of the developing world community) insofar as International Book Fairs distinguish groups of people based on national affiliation – as opposed to merely cultural or linguistic associations – and because nations are thoroughly political institutions, an international book fair is a manifestly political event. And, as a political event, it is an entirely appropriate forum to raise important international political issues. It is in this context that I was reminded of the legendary Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno’s observation that “at times to be silent is to lie.”
In addition to its other dimensions, Unamuno’s insight shares an analogue with the jurisprudential concept of the criminal omission – which holds that crimes are not only committed by positive acts. In addition to positive acts, crimes can also be committed by omissions – when people fail to act. And it seems difficult to deny that it would be a singular crime of conscience to honor the State of Israel as a guest without raising attention to the fact (and this should not at all disparage the deservedly celebrated writers who hail from Israel) that the State of Israel – as a political entity – does not ever travel alone; wherever Israel travels, she is accompanied by her prisoner – the Palestinian people. For the two are not only physically, territorially, shackled together, they are morally shackled together as well. And while this enchainment is a tragedy for both parties, as the more powerful – as the jailer, rather than the jailed – it is Israel who holds the key to the lock. As the exponentially more powerful, it is Israel that holds the key to peace.
Since they arrive together, shackled together, in addition to honoring Israel as a guest, we must also honor the Palestinians, for they are here too. And their struggle cannot be ignored.
While it may sound peculiar to state so – in light of what was just said – it would be difficult to find a more appropriate choice for guest of honor at an international book festival than the State of Israel. This is not because of the fact that the Jewish people are known as Am Hasefer – the people of the book.
While the Jewish people are indeed known by this honorific, we must be careful not to conflate the rich cultural heritage of Judaism with the political entity that is the State of Israel. Though decidedly related, the two are distinct – as distinct as any political construct is from a cultural and social one. A Jew is not an Israeli. And an Israeli is not necessarily a Jew. Indeed, as the celebrated Israeli activist and writer Uri Avnery recently wrote, “Jewish Israelis are already a minority in the country ruled by Israel.”
And although plenty of Jewish people may be ardent supporters of the State of Israel’s policies, within Israel and throughout the world, just as many are fierce critics.
Though the Israeli flag is emblazoned with the mogen David – the star of David – or Jewish star – this should not lead people to infer that the State of Israel’s policies represent those of the Jewish people – any more than all of the nations of the world that bear a cross on their flag represent the political opinions of Christians – or the policies of any state with a flag bearing a crescent represents the political thoughts of the Muslim people of the world. As with every group of people, the Jewish people are tremendously heterogeneous. And though we all already know this, it bears repeating that all of us must be careful to resist the prevalent racist gravitational pull that leads us to think of people, any people, according to stereotypes.
Notwithstanding this distinction regarding the people of the book and the State of Israel, however, one could still maintain that Israel is a uniquely apt guest of honor for an international book fair. For insofar as the book par excellence – not just any book, mind you, but The Book – the Bible – originated in the ancient land of Israel, it is more than appropriate to celebrate Israel at a festival that honors books. Moreover, because, in addition to books, an international book fair necessitates nations, it is also appropriate to honor Israel. This is so, because, in addition to being the birthplace of the quintessential book, the State of Israel, in many respects, exemplifies what the nation-state is. For a nation-state is an instrument of war.
Not just the State of Israel, but all states are instruments of war.
The State of Israel is only unique to the degree that its aggression is not only well-recognized, but is nearly universally reviled. Though it is often regarded as exceptional, Israel’s violence should instead be recognized – not as any sort of exception – but as that which characterizes the rule of the state in general – the general rule of the state.
The state is an instrument of war – and not just against its rival states. Each state is also an instrument of war against its own people. Those who witnessed the Mexican state’s recent crackdown of the teachers’ protest in Mexico City, or witnessed the crackdown of the Occupy movement in the US, or witnessed the violence that any other popular protest movement received from its respective state cannot deny this simple truth. This is what constitutes a state; the state is an instrument of war.
And insofar as this is the case, the Palestinians are only the most visible of the State of Israel’s victims. In addition to the Palestinian people, who have bravely resisted Israeli aggression for decades, the poor people of Israel, the working classes of Israel, the immigrants of Israel, among others, such as the hundreds of thousands of Israelis involved in ongoing demands for social justice, are also victims of war.
For let us not forget what it is that we speak of when we speak of the state. The state is not only an institution comprised of a military, and defined by well-guarded borders. It is also comprised of a government, of laws and courts and administrators. And these laws and courts and administrative bodies do not function to create the conditions of justice and peace. If they do, this is incidental to their main purpose, which is to maintain Order. That is, they maintain a particular type of Order – the Order that is, as we speak, cannibalizing the world. The people, the public, we – we are regarded as a population – a natural resource to be managed according to the interests of the state. When justice arises – if it arises – it arises always as an exception to, and as a rupturing of, this Order.
One might note, at this point, that my remarks may not constitute an entirely respectful way to treat or otherwise honor a guest. But let’s not forget, I am not addressing the State of Israel – or anyone here for that matter – as a guest. As I mentioned earlier, I am addressing everyone as a neighbor – as neighbors on the planet we all share. Or, rather, as neighbors on the planet that we all do not share – neighbors on the planet that some of us own, and make decisions about, and govern, and mine, and bomb, via various states – all the states represented here, under all of these flags, contrary to whatever democratic proclamations they may from time to time espouse.
And here we are. Here we are, simultaneously determined by these states and, at the same time, holding the keys to our own liberation. For just as we make the abstractions and laws of the state incarnate through our cooperation, and participation, we also possess the potential to disappear the state by non-participation – to disappear the state, as so many states have done to so many of us.
Blended in with this world of states – this world of force – of course – let us not forget that we are surrounded by this other world – this world of ideas, this world of books. This is why we are really all here. This is what really brings us together – to honor books – and language, and stories, and ideas. We mustn’t, of course, make the simplistic mistake of proclaiming that all books are good. Books can be put to many uses. Like bricks, books can build walls, and fortresses, and can be used as weapons. Among other things, books can justify monstrosities. Tragically, history is replete with such books.
Likewise, the ideas in books can lead us beyond our particular, national barbarities. Among other places, books can lead us to the recognition of, and respect for, the truth of our actual human interdependence – to the universal enigma we all share.
Beyond our national, cultural, religious, and class differences, books can lead us to the recognition of the fact that though we may be strangers, we are all also neighbors. And, as such, as neighbors, we are all subject to the duty of the neighbor – to help one another – the duty to care for one another as neighbors. This is the duty of the neighbor. And because we are all neighbors, this duty, in turn, leads inexorably to the duty to dismantle our states, all of our states – and to dismantle our armies, all of our armies – to not only dismantle our borders, but to share and respect the great wealth of this planet, as neighbors, in peace.