From the luxurious hilltop conference halls of Mishkenot Sha’ananim in West Jerusalem, guests at the forthcoming 3rd International Writers Festival in Jerusalem will have a clear view of the separation wall and illegally annexed occupied East Jerusalem, including Silwan. In Silwan, armed Jewish settlers, Israeli police and ‘security personnel’ appropriate Palestinian homes in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, detaining and terrorizing tens of thousands of residents, including young children snatched from their beds in the middle of the night. Today, crews from the Israeli Jerusalem municipality, accompanied by police and border guards, handed several residents house demolition notices. Any mention of these facts in a speech would have to pass the festival censors, however.
Director of the writers festival, Tal Kremer, said on Monday that “in light of what happened with Nir Baram [at the 2010 festival], we asked this year’s authors to give us the text of their speeches.” The young Israeli novelist’s opening speech, in which he said amongst other things that “Under cover of the victim’s cloak that history has admittedly sewn for us Jews, we are witness to the systematic violation of the rights of non-Jews in the State of Israel and the occupied territories” was characterised by Tal Kremer as “a production error on our part…”. Haaretz sums it up well:
When the director of the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem wants to convince international authors to attend the festival despite pressure to boycott it, she often trots out the fact that an opening speaker in 2010 criticized Israel in his comments. But now the festival is instituting a new requirement: Opening speakers must show their speeches to management in advance – in an effort to avoid another speech like that one.
Funded by the state of Israel, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers Festival is a highly political event: in 2010 its keynote speakers were Israeli Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat, and President Shimon Peres, who could be seen cosying up to American author, Paul Auster. The festival has the stated aim of ‘improving the image of Jerusalem around the world’.
As Nir Baram said in a video interview with ‘The Arty Semite‘, after 2010’s festival,
I think that in this kind of festival when you look 1 km ahead and you see the wall, we can’t just talk about literature. It is almost unliterary to talk about literature when these things are happening in Israel. And I just felt that in the opening ceremony I should say that this is the wall. This is the situation. In Israel today, there is only walls and hatred. We should do something about it, and it’s our responsibility. I didn’t speak about the Israeli government… I believe the citizens of Israel should do something right now.
Nir Baram’s frank expression of solidarity with Palestinians would be considered tame in a state that genuinely tolerated freedom of speech, rather than instrumentalized an empty rhetoric of cultural ‘openness’ and ‘co-existence’ in order to deflect criticism for its apartheid policies. Yet, festival invitees, such as the Indian author of Slumdog Millionaire Vikas Swarup and Tracy Chevalier, the celebrated British author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring (who is currently writing a novel about slavery), have so far ignored urgent private and public appeals to resist Israel’s transparent whitewash of its violations of international laws.