Thursday, June 7, 2012

Banned Books and the Memory of a Promise

I'm writing about the Middle East in this post. I'm not sure what's come over me except to say that I've read a bunch of news items in the last few weeks that have seen books become casualties of the (mercifully, at the moment relatively cold) war between Israelis and Palestinians. Neither side is helping its own cause this way. Reading is a political act only when it is done in resistance to a certain kind of lunacy that bans books and silences writers; the banners of the books below would have paradoxically achieved their goals of stripping reading of its leaden significance if they had only stood down, or not stood up in the first place. When books go, people follow; nobody is saved by any of this.

As far as potential comments go, disagreement, dissent and debate are encouraged; hate, screeds, name-calling and anything off-topic will not even make it through moderation, let alone be responded to. Act like a human being even if you think I'm wrong. Let's have a civilized discussion than shouting or silence.

In fact, that's kind of the heart of the matter.


Although I lived in Jerusalem between university and graduate school, I'd never spent much time in Tel Aviv before my trip two weeks ago. Even that wasn't much time, but it was enough for me to start to get a sense of it. And one of the things that three days marching around Tel Aviv really drives home is just how awful the British were as mandatory governors. You don't walk more than a few blocks without seeing a plaque that commemorates the kidnap of Lechi commanders by the British or some officer opening fire on civilians for no particularly good reason. It's like walking around London and being aware of all the signs that commemorate so-and-so air raid warden killed or building destroyed in the Blitz, or going anywhere in New York and seeing a fire truck that will inevitably have a list of ten or more names down the side of of guys from that squad who were killed on 9/11. In commemorating, the cities shows off their scars of foreign-inflicted wounds and force your eyes to them, making you look and remember. Walking in Tel Aviv was the first concrete occasion I had to question the value of empire, the splendor of the queen and my general, overwhelming Anglophilia. God, the British were awful in Tel Aviv.

Yet in spite of the constant reminders of the human and cultural costs of British rule, the Israeli government has, in the last five years, revived a 1939 Mandate-period British law forbidding the import of books from enemy countries and has begun, suddenly, to enforce it. The Israeli legal system is based upon the idea of common law, which means that until they are replaced by new laws or court decisions, bits of Ottoman Turkish and imperial British jurisprudence remain in force; there is no constitution, though the declaration of independence fills that function in many legal situations. That document affirms the role of the Book of Books in the establishment and culture of the modern state of Israel. It is, at its core and outset a literary state. But the law on the books, the law on books and the Book are in conflict.

As unconscionable as it is to ban the import of books, enforcement of the law has taken an absurdist new twist. Something close to 80 copies of perhaps the single most proto-Zionist work of medieval philosophy, in a new edition printed in Lebanon by a German publishing house, are being held at the border crossing at the Allenby Bridge since their import would violate that 1939 law. The work in question originally appeared shortly before 1140 under the title Kitāb al-radd wa-l-dalīl fī l-dīn al-ḏalīl.

The book that would commonly come to be known commonly as The Kuzari was, in its original Arabic, entitled The Book of Proofs and Refutations in Defense of the Despised Faith. Different scholars take different views as to the nature of the text, and even to the intended audience. The basic structure of the Kuzari is a series of dialogues between a fictionalized version of a Khazar king who, as the text repeats several times, discovers that his intentions are pleasing to God but his actions are not, and the representatives of a variety of belief systems: Islam, Christianity and philosophy. He asks each representative to explain his system of beliefs and how it could be used to guide him to act in a way that would please God. After being unconvinced by all three, he deigns to consult with a Jew. He is convinced and converts, and four books follow detailing its author's accounting of the correct way to practice Judaism, spoken through the mouth of the Khazar king's Jewish companion. In the end, the companion decided that the only logical conclusion to everything that he has told the king is that he himself must move to the land of Israel. The text was written shortly before its author, Judah ha-Levi, did the same, abandoning what most of his contemporaries considered to be the true Zion, Spain, for the holy land, having decided that this was the only sufficient way to practice his faith.

 The text was written in Judaeo-Arabic, one of the dialects considered to be part of the bundle known as Middle Arabic. The  most prominent feature of its written form is the use of Hebrew, rather than Arabic, script, though there are also syntactic and lexical features that distinguish it from classical Arabic and the other middle Arabic dialects.  It was in common use among Jews in Islamic countries through the middle of the 20th century; there are still speakers today, and you can even listen to some Israeli radio broadcasts in the language.

But in the academy, Judaeo-Arabic has fallen well out of the mainstream of the fields broadly defined as Arabic and Islamic Studies, an academic discipline that is itself heir in all but name to the venerable philological discipline with the now-unfashionably moniker of Oriental Studies. Although learning the script would be just a first step towards understanding the language, a good many mainstream Arabists won't even do that. And so Nabih Bashir, an Arab Muslim Israeli citizen and doctoral student of medieval philosophy at Ben-Gurion University, decided that in order to give  the Kuzari a wider audience, he would transcribe it into Arabic characters. His edition would begin to help sidestep problem of reluctance on the part of mainstream scholars in Arabic and Islamic studies fields to give heed to the Judaeo-Arabic philosophy that very much grew up as a native part of the Islamic world and that is deeply connected with Arabo-Islamic philosophy. Since even learning the Hebrew alphabet is, by and large, a step too far, Bashir's edition brings, as it were, the mountain to Muhammad.

But the Israeli government is being just as closed-minded. So for now, the mountain is trapped in a customs station named for a British general, because of the enforcement of an anachronistic British law. Perhaps the relevant cabinet ministers and customs officials ought to take a stroll through Tel Aviv and review some of those placards before they reinstitute any more of rule britannica.


In a positive development, Hebrew and Arabic can be seen coexisting in a new digital resource:

The Arabic-Hebrew Dictionary of Modern Arabic


But that might be about it.

This week saw the collapse of a memorial volume that would have been published under the aegis of the University of Texas-Austin Center for Middle Eastern Studies in honor of the life of one of its founding professors. Thirteen scholars thought it more important for their work not to appear in the same volume as work by Israeli scholars than it was to honor the work of a beloved colleague and withdrew after the university press rightly refused to boot the Israelis from the project. Those thirteen withdrew and with half the volume gone, the editors scrubbed the project. The title that would have been seems that much more apt now: Memory of a Promise.

The way that the Times Higher Ed version of the story (the above link) reads, it sounds as if the editors were reluctant to publish a volume without the work of any Arab scholars; if that were the case, I would condemn the editors for playing identity politics. After all, surely there are non-Arabs who write about Arabic literature, and as long as the material is all covered, then who cares? But a little digging around online revealed a more complex picture. The memorial volume was not to be scholarship, but rather a collection of short fictions, the type of anthology where having no Arab writers would, in fact, distort the picture badly.

I don't believe in intellectual boycotts. First, they frequently target precisely the wrong people, that is, those who are on the cutting edge of whatever change is desired. Second, ideally scholarship should be apolitical. It isn't always, but a boycott drags it down, irredeemably to that level. Third, stopping the flow of information only hurts everyone. Additionally, boycotts are frequently a cudgel wielded hypocritically and inconsistently; many people who boycott Israeli academics in the humanities also don't think twice about taking, or allowing their family members to take, life-saving drugs compounded based upon science and technology developed in Israel.

So I would generally be disposed against such an action. But I found the rationale for this one to be articulated particularly weakly: The first author to withdraw finds Israel to be "obnoxious"? That's the first and strongest word that she, a writer, can come up with? The flimsiness of her argument, both in her op-ed piece and the interview she gave (see the links above), represented by this kind of weak rhetoric does not compel me to change my mind.

Does silencing  yourself help your cause? Is a self-imposed silence, while perhaps more righteous, any less quiescent than one imposed by a censor or an enemy?

Does refusing to honor a dead colleague mitigate your undeniable plight?

The zero sum is added up all wrong. It seems as counterproductive as — gosh, where to find an analogue? — Jews quarantining a Judaeo-Arabic book because it was transcribed into Arabic script and published in Lebanon.

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