Jerusalem — It is the love that dare not speak its name — at least not in the tension-laced Israel of early 2016.
That romance — between a Palestinian painter in the West Bank and an Israeli translator, found in a moderately successful novel from a year-and-a-half-ago — is the latest chapter in the ongoing culture war dividing Israeli society; those on the left and right this week are lining up to debate whether Dorit Rabinyan’s Montague-Capulet tale is suitable literature for the country’s high school students.
The book, “Gader Haya” (which will be printed in English as “Borderlife” and sold in the U.S. in 2017), is, not surprisingly given the controversy, flying off the shelves.
“Many, many people came in on Thursday and Friday and requested it,” said an employee of a popular Jerusalem bookstore, who requested anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak with the press. “We had several copies and sold every one by the time we closed the store for Shabbat. We’ve reordered and are waiting for the new shipment to arrive.”
Most of the people who bought the book “said they were doing so out of principle,” the bookstore worker said. “They were against perceived government censorship.”
Rabinyan’s taboo romance became a hot item within hours after the Education Ministry decided not to include it in the country’s advanced Hebrew literature curriculum for high school students.
The demand has been so great, Rabinyan’s agent, Debra Harris, told The Jewish Week, that another printing has been ordered.
The novel depicts the New York-based romance of Khilmi Nasser, a Palestinian painter from the West Bank and Liat Binyamini, a translator from Israel. As they fall in love, the fear and biases they held begin to crumble.
The book also shows the IDF in a harsh light, according to Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Although the ministry has emphasized that the book isn’t banned — students and teachers can bring it to school — the decision not to include it in the curriculum has caused an uproar in Israel, where some are defending the decision and others are accusing the government of meddling.
The lines are clearly drawn on social media, where a lively debate on the book has been taking place.
Those supportive of Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision — which he made following a recommendation by an educators’ committee to disqualify the book from curriculum consideration even though the ministry’s pedagogical board had already supported its inclusion — are mystified by the media circus and upset by media reports of a “book banning.”
“I haven’t read the book but I am disturbed by the media’s use of inflammatory language saying it is ‘banned,’” Randi Mellman Oze, a Jerusalem mother with teenagers, wrote in a Facebook thread. “People went crazy because they supposedly banned the book, when all they did was keep it off the curriculum. It’s allowed on school property and in the library.”
Moshe Matitya, a Jerusalem father of teens, attributed the brouhaha to left-wing activists.
“Why are leftists so upset that students will not be forced to read this book? It had simply been under consideration for inclusion in the required reading list of next year’s syllabus, and it was decided not to include the book in that list.”
David Bedein, a conservative Israeli journalist and social worker, said the ministry had “sound reasons” not to include a novel that “glorifies” a romantic relationship between an Arab man and a Jewish woman.
“All of us who studied social work in Israel learned from the ‘Mark of Cain’ by criminologist Shlomo Shoham, which revealed how a generation of Jewish girls from immigrant transit camps in the 1950s and 1960s were offered to work for Arab Muslim men in their villages, and how many Jewish girls became entrapped for life in Arab villages,” Bedein said.
Consequently as many as 50,000 halachically Jewish children grew up in Israeli Muslim Arab homes, he said, citing Shoham’s statistics.
Today, Bedein said, “Jewish girls venture out in Israeli cities where there is a contiguous Muslim population. … It is hard to resist the charm of a middle-class Arab man who poses an attraction that a Jewish girl may have difficulty fending off.”
Whether Jews and Arab are mingling (very few Jewish-Arab couples marry in Israel, and if they do the ceremony must take place outside the country) is not something the government should be trying to prevent, critics of the ministry’s decision say.
Many Israelis were upset by a statement from an unnamed ministry official quoted by Haaretz, who justified the book’s exclusion on the basis of “identity.”
“Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews are viewed by many in society as a threat to their separate identities,” the official said. “Adolescents don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of [intermarriage].”
Isaac Herzog, who heads the Israeli opposition, called the ministry’s decision political and said “the aggressive and unnecessary act of disqualifying a book based on a mistaken and narrow understanding of its content is another brick … in the wall of intimidation, exclusion and inflexibility of the Netanyahu government.”
David B. Green, a senior writer at Haaretz and its former book-review editor, told the Jewish Week there is a “growing insularity” in Israeli society in general “that encourages Jewish Israelis to feel not only that their physical security is at risk, but also that their religious culture and values are threatened from every direction, and must be defended.”
In this case, “it also reflects a different philosophy about the goals of education,” Green said.
Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert in Arab-Jewish relations as well as national security and democracy, believes the ministry’s decision was “unwise.”
“Its impact was exactly the opposite of what was intended. It’s raised a lot of curiosity about the book and sales have grown significantly as a result.”
It also smacks of “quasi-censorship, which stems from some strange idea that we have to protect Jewish values against other values and that sexual relations between Israelis and Palestinians might endanger Jewish values.”
While Kremnitzer acknowledged that some parents and students might consider the book “offensive and harmful,” he thinks “a more self-confident ministry would be able to resist this type of opposition. Some people will be happy whatever the decision.”
“Israeli society is much more tolerant than the attitude expressed by the ministry. That’s why this decision has been met by so much criticism.”
Since the news of the book’s disqualification late Dec. 30 “at least 11” high school classes decided to discuss the book, according to Haaretz, and the attorney general is reportedly planning to examine the ministry’s decision.
Harris said the public interest in “Gader Haya,” though totally unexpected, has given the already popular book a huge boost.
“It’s an agent’s dream,” she said.