In his celebrated essay “The Wall and the Books,” the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges recounts that the Chinese emperor who ordered the construction of the Great Wall was also responsible for destroying books. For Borges, the acts are signs of the emperor’s desire to wall off China from the outside world and from ideas. Borges goes so far as to say that these two acts are common to all despots, writing, “Burning books and building fortifications are common tasks of emperors.”
In the last week of 2015, Israel’s Minister of Education Naftali Bennett acted in a similar imperial manner. He suggested the permanent annexation of the West Bank, and he barred a book from being taught in Israeli schools. Both acts have caused an international uproar.
On Dec. 28, Bennett declared to the Knesset’s pro-settler Land of Israel Caucus, “The time has come to say Israel is ours … To go from strategic defense to a process of initiating the implementation of Israeli sovereignty over the territories under Israeli control in Judea and Samaria.” That this control is illegal by international law seems not a matter of concern. The Land of Israel Caucus has recently been pushing for an easing of restrictions on settlement building in the West Bank.
Anyone paying any attention to what has been happening in Israel can attest that under the regime of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the extreme right wing has been bolder than ever in flouting international law and continuing its colonial project of subjugation, seizure of land and property and annexation. While Bennett has been voicing similar proposals for years, he has become even more aggressive, recently saying he “forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to backtrack on recent comments he made of possible Israeli unilateral pullouts in the West Bank by giving the prime minister a verbal ‘bullet between the eyes.’” All in the name of asserting a Jewish supremacist state for Jews only.
Bennett’s book banning takes this vision of Jewish supremacy and extends it into the literary imagination. Why was Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgerow” but known in English as “Borderlife”) banned from use in high schools? Simply because it dares represent a romantic relationship between a Jewish woman and an Arab man. According to Haaretz:
Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” … is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.”
It is important to understand how this fear of miscegenation, one of the hallmarks of racism, has been part of the landscape in Israel for years. There has been wide reporting on the ultra-Orthodox anti-miscegenation squads that target and harass Jewish women who date Arab men. Such efforts have entered Israeli education. In 2008, for example, schools in Kiryat Gat started a program to prevent Jewish girls from dating “exploitative Arabs,” Haaretz reported. The program included an educational video titled “Sleeping With the Enemy.”
Now this kind of purity policing has percolated to the very top of the national administration and extended to the censorship of the very idea of mixed dating. Educators, politicians and writers in Israel are not taking this lying down. Israeli novelist Haim Be’er, for example, told Haaretz the decision was a “dizzying and dangerous act”:
“This is none of Naftali Bennett’s business,” Be’er said. “Tomorrow he will disqualify ‘Behind the Fence’ because [Hayim Nahman] Bialik’s hero falls in love with a Christian, and he’ll create a committee to monitor relationships in literature.”
Zionist Union whip Merav Michaeli tied the move to unequal restrictions on voting and censorship:
Hordes of Arabs are on their way to the polling stations, Arabs are taking our girls — these are two sides of the same coin. In a place where people are disqualified, it’s clear that books that represent them as humans are also disqualified. In a place where people with views that are unacceptable to the government are marked, it’s clear that works of literature and art are also censored.
Michaeli is right. The type of education Bennett wishes to maintain is one of radical and absolute separation, of irreconcilable difference. And this is no simple declaration of separate but equal. It is difference coupled with domination, racial supremacy and an all-out effort to segregate and keep separate. It contradicts what should be a core purpose of Israeli education: to help students in Israel think through the problems and possibilities of relations between Israelis and Palestinians in a profound and humanistic manner.
What is especially destructive and blind about this kind of censorship is that it extends far beyond reining in political speech; it goes to the heart of the imagination. One is now being told that one simply cannot have certain thoughts, especially thoughts that might well imagine a life different from the one dictated by the state.
Under these circumstances, with Israel annexing territory, displacing people from their home and lands, walling off huge portions of illegally occupied land and now walling off the imagination, we are witnessing an anti-democratic regime uninterested in world opinion or international law. And that is precisely why the country has invested millions of dollars to defeat the boycott, divestment and sanction movement, for it has become effective where governments have failed. It has raised the consciousness of the global community and mobilized ordinary citizens to break through the walls of disinformation and prejudice that have protected Israel’s government from scrutiny. There is no rightward drift in Israel today; it is moving full steam ahead with clamping down on anything that it sees as a threat to its purity, including love.
In this new year, we need to propose and act for another kind of imagining of the world.