It appears as if our good friend, Conal Urquhart, who’s been doing a splendid job filling the ideological void in Jerusalem left by Harriet Sherwood’s two-week absence (see his reporting on a
terrorist attack, militant attack, sudden explosion in Jerusalem , here.) is upset about the possibility that Israel may not renew the visa of Munther Fahmi – owner of the Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel – due to the fact that he spent decades abroad and let his residency lapse. (Israeli authors join campaign to keep Arab bookseller in the country, Guardian, April 3.)
Fahmi, who was born in the Jordanian occupied section of Jerusalem in 1954, and decided to go to the U.S. when he was 21, eight years after Israel’s reunification of the city following her victory in the Six Day War, has been living in Jerusalem for years on temporary tourist visas after returning to Israel in the 90s.
Urquhart characterizes the bookstore as “a haven of tolerance for scholars in a bitterly divided city” and, further, as nothing short of “the only decent English-language bookshop in the country”.
While this latter claim is simply absurd to anyone, like myself, who has taken advantage of the many Jerusalem booksellers who offer a wide variety of used and new English volumes, let’s leave this aside and get to the heart of matter for Urquhart: Who is to blame for the possibility that this Jerusalem “institution” may close?
Yup, you guessed it:
“Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford University, described the treatment of Jerusalem’s most famous bookseller as symptomatic of the “chauvinistic and intolerant” behaviour of Israel’s current government under Binyamin Netanyahu: “Things have come to a pretty pass when a Palestinian, born in Palestine, who has a business, who has done no harm to anyone, is hounded out of his bookshop because he does not toe the party line.”
While neither Urquhart nor Shlaim offer any evidence that politics or ideology is influencing Israeli authorities’ deliberations on whether to renew Fahmi’s visa, such a narrative fits in nicely with the meme being offered more and more frequently by the far left – one which suggests that Israel is moving in a far-right political direction – so this political edifice must, at all costs, be served.
But, outside of the predictable storyline, it was this quote in the piece, from writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, which really piqued my interest.
“Some bookshops have an agenda; Munther’s does not. He simply celebrates books about the Middle East, Israeli writers, Palestinian writers.”
So, I decided to check it out for myself, and trekked down to Fahmi’s shop near the entrance to the American Colony Hotel.
Immediately upon entering I noticed that those suggesting that the bookshop didn’t have a clear political agenda either haven’t been there or have a fanciful notion of what precisely constitutes a political agenda.
While there were books from some of Israel’s well-known left-wing writers (Amos Oz, David Grossman, etc.), the vast majority of offerings (in this tiny closet sized store) reminded me of what I used to find for sale at anti-Zionist conferences I used to monitor.
Indeed, in addition to what seemed to be every book ever written by Edward Said, several works by Illan Pappe, and an impressive number of books on various themes regarding the Nakba, Fahmi thoughtfully carries some of the more obscure radically anti-Zionist screeds.
There was also several copies of Overcoming Zionism, by Joel Kovel. (Kovel is a professor and writer who believes that “to be a true Jew,” Jews must “annihilate their particularism,”“annihilate or transcend Zionism,” and “annihilate the Jewish state.”)
Prominently displayed at the counter (something the U.S. book chain, Barnes & Noble, may have marketed in their end-cap as “New and Recommended”) was the widely discredited book by Shlomo Sand, “The Invention of the Jewish People”, which was characterized as representing part of a growing body of work by anti-Zionists designed not only to discredit the idea of Jewish nationalism but, even more insidiously, also to discredit the idea of Jews themselves. No ideological agenda, here.
So, not wishing to file an incomplete report, I searched in vain for something even marginally pro-Israel, or something which could reasonably support the characterization of the store as non-political or as a bastion of tolerance, so finally decided to ask the woman working behind the counter if she had anything on the Holocaust.
She squinted as if in concentrated thought, and then, after perusing a shelf I hadn’t noticed, pointed to a soft cover which represented the sole work on the topic of the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis:
The Holocaust Industry, by Norman Finkelstein.
I just don’t know how Jerusalem could possibly survive in the absence of such an oasis of peace.