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Arab Intelligentsia Strive for Better Relations with Israel despite Threats
Arab actors, journalists and other intellectuals are defying their countries’ unofficial bans on working with Israelis and Jews – even amid threats – as they strive toward “normalized” relations with their counterparts. The efforts have divided Arabs into two camps: those who defend reconciling relations with Israelis and others who favor boycotts or violence to further political goals.
In the meantime, Israelis have pushed ahead with their longtime attempts to strengthen cultural ties with Arabs as part of their goal of mutual acceptance and recognition.
In recent months, Egyptian actor Khalid Al-Nabawy became an unwitting lightning rod in this struggle after participating in the American film “Fair Game” with Israeli actress Liraz Charhi. Although the actor said he didn’t participate in the movie for political reasons, he ultimately "realized he would pay the price" for acting alongside Charhi.
In other cases, however, Arab actors, authors and others are knowingly taking on roles that bridge cultural and political gaps with their Israeli and Jewish colleagues. For example:
Film star Omar Al-Shareef withstood threats for his participation in a Hollywood film with actress Barbara Streisand; for a time he was banned from Egypt because Streisand is Jewish. Al-Shareef also challenged the unofficial boycott by introducing Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who gave a concert at the Cairo opera house in 2009.
In April 2010, Egyptian film directors and stars withdrew from an annual French-sponsored festival in Cairo because it included a film by a Jewish director. Egyptian writer Sameer Farid criticized the pressure on France and defended Egyptians’ rights to see the film. "Every Egyptian is free to consider whether this is a matter of normalization or not. He or she is even free to accept or reject normalization … This is freedom. Anyone who sells freedom at any price would lose freedom and lose everything." Farid emphasized the festival’s importance to help achieve peace, saying, "People everywhere are open to inter-cultural dialogue and the importance of coexistence between ethnicities."
Speaking about the French-sponsored festival, Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, author of "School of Troublemakers" (Madrasat AlMoshaghebeen), said: "The reason behind the withdrawal of several directors and stars from the French Cultural Council is that they were under strong pressure, to the extent that they were threatened of being accused of normalization. This charge has long been used as a frightening tool against intellectuals." Salim, who drove his car to Israel in 1994 to write the book "A Journey to Israel," commented: "What benefits have been achieved so far as a result of the cultural boycott against Israel?"
Habib Bolus, an Israeli Arab academician, praised Sasson Somekh, an Israeli professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, for teaching Israelis about Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's legacy as well as Somekh's research and translations of Arab texts of poetry and prose. "This type of study would be enough to guide the eyes of the West towards our contemporary literature, particularly the fictional aspect, and make the world aware of Naguib Mahfouz, the leader of this genre," said Bolus, adding that Somekh’s role in introducing the world to Mahfouz helped Mahfouz become a Noble Laureate in 1988.
Somekh, who immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1951, is preparing a study on Iraqi contemporary literature, including three stories written by Iraqi writers Ali Badr, Najm Wali and Jassim Al-Mutair, who chose Jewish characters as protagonists in their narratives. In July 2009, Somekh supervised the editing of a special series of the Hebrew-language "Eton 77" journal on Arab literature, in which he compiled Arabic and Hebrew poems for Mahmoud Darwish, Suad Al-Sabbah, Adonis, Mohammed Al-Maghout, Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati, Iman Mersal, Suzan Elewan, Rita Odeh and Taha Mohammed Ali.
The first translation of an Israeli novel was curtailed following distribution in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. Al-Jamal publishing house owner Khalid Al-Maali, who translated "A Tale of Love and Darkness" by novelist Amos Oz, said "The demand was unbelievable. I only made a limited number of printed editions of the novel in case it didn’t attract the Arab reader, but the interest … was great." The 750-page novel earned significant attention from Arab critics. Ahmad Zein Eddin defended the translation of Hebrew literature, saying the availability of the Internet and easy access to information have rendered boycotts useless. Debate over the translation of Oz’s novel continues on "Facebook," where the Web page "Translating Hebrew literature … freedom or normalization?" now has more than 300 members.
Numerous Egyptian, Palestinian and Iraqi authors are openly advocating the need for complete cultural normalization with Israel. They include Ali Salem, Anis Mansour, Jamal Al-Ghitani, Najm Wali, Ahmad Matar. Iraqi-German novelist Wali Najm, who publicly visited Israel, stressed normalization as a historical need for Arabs. After visiting Israel, Najm wrote "A Report on A Non-Political Journey" detailing the harsh attacks against Arab intellectuals who have visited Israel. "The dilemma of the Arab intellectual is that he or she is part of the official institution," he said. Normalization, Mansour has said, serves the interest of a future Palestinian state. He also expressed regret over Arabs' "lack of readiness" for peace. "We still fear and mistrust each other,” he said.
In some cases, Arabs have been penalized for their efforts to work with Israelis and Jews. Among them are Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the Democracy review issued by Al-Ahram, who hosted the Israeli ambassador in her office last year. Hussein Sarraj, editor-in-chief of October magazine, was banned from practicing his profession for three months after admitting to visiting Israel 25 times. Hala defended her right to meet the Israeli ambassador per the freedom granted by the constitution, while Sarraj said he will not stop writing and will appeal the decision against him.
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