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Israel Wins in Mexico

[The official poster of the 2013 Guadalajara International Book Fair. Image from fil.com.mex ] [The official poster of the 2013 Guadalajara International Book Fair. Image from fil.com.mex ]

Each year, the largest book fair in the Spanish–speaking world is held in Guadalajara (Mexico), the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL). The FIL is more than a great market for professional publishers in the Spanish language; it is also Mexico’s major cultural event and one of the greatest in Latin America. In parallel to the book business, the FIL runs a program of exhibitions, conferences, films, theatre, concerts, gastronomic events, and children’s activities. The Fair has been held since 1987, and at last year’s edition welcomed seven hundred thousand visitors. The 2013 edition took place from 30 November to 8 December. Nothing outstanding so far, except for what is not in the news: this year’s Guest of Honor has been Israel, a state that continues to practice apartheid against the Palestinians.

This is not the first time that Israel has been the country chosen as Guest of Honor at a major international literary fair. In 2008, Israel was invited to the Paris Book Fair and the Turin International Book Fair, coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. That anniversary, however, deepened the controversy. In the case of México, the general director of the FIL, Marisol Schulz, pointed out a few days ago on Radio Metrópoli that there had not been any reaction after Israel was chosen as guest of honor a year ago. This is not entirely true. The decision to invite Israel has been criticized due to the FIL’s trajectory and to its political significance. This was highlighted by a group of intellectuals led by the poet Juan Gelman, winner of the 2007 Cervantes Prize. In late October they signed a manifesto in which they concluded: “We consider indispensable that Mexico recognize the existence of the two states, and we request that roundtables on the topic of Israel-Palestine be convened so that people can express different viewpoints....We ask that the next country invited to the International Book Fair be Palestine, with the presence of writers, filmmakers, musicians, and painters.” On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Section of the International Board of Books for Young People sent a letter of protest directed to the FIL and promoted by the poet Najwan Darwish, which was published by the reputed Mexican literary journal Círculo de Poesía. In this sense, it cannot be argued, as Schulz did, that nobody denounced the impact of this sort of initiatives on normalizing the occupation of Palestine.

Throughout the twenty-five years of its history, the Guadalajara FIL has promoted trade with markets in the surrounding area (those in Latin America, California, and New Mexico) or of strategic relevance (Germany and Quebec). As with all major book fairs, along with the culture arrive politicians and businessmen, and a parallel fair develops at which the goods for sale carry the national brand of the guest country. The President of Israel, Shimon Peres, came to Guadalajara Mexico on 26 November accompanied by a commercial delegation, which was conducting talks at the highest levels just days in advance of the adoption by the Mexican Government of plans to liberalize the energy sector. Israel and Mexico have had a Free Trade Agreement since 2000, and the Minister of Economy of Mexico, Ildefonso Guajardo, has predicted that Israeli investment in Mexico will double in 2014.

The suspicion that Israel has been chosen as guest to the FIL for political and economic, rather than cultural, reasons is confirmed in the light of the data offered by the FIL itself. Next year, it is estimated that twenty works will be translated from Hebrew to Spanish. Just twenty titles, for a potential readership of 450 million speakers of the Spanish language! In Spain alone, in 2011, 19,792 works were translated from all languages.

The arguments put forward by the FIL to present the guest country are also significant. They all focus on well-known topics: that Israel is at the cutting edge of science and technology; that Israel is a nation with a millenary legacy enriched by its multicultural and cosmopolitan diaspora; that its literature and music stand out for their avant-garde features. It is a picture calculated to serve the myth that Israel is an oasis of civilization surrounded by oriental barbarism of Arab and Muslim roots, as Yitzhak Laor has written after the works of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman.

The FIL’s information has failed to mention Palestine or the occupation at any point. Nor has it referred to the contribution of Palestinians in Israel to Israeli national culture. We must remember that the mother tongue of twenty percent of the Israeli population is Arabic, but the participation of Israel in the FIL has been presented with regard to a single language: Hebrew. This all follows the Zionist logic we are accustomed to: Israeli literature is in Hebrew or doesn’t exist. In this manner, the FIL and Israel are effectively excluding from Israeli literature authors who write in Arabic, such as did the leading novelist Emile Habibi, who in 1992 won the Israel Prize, the greatest literary award in Israel.

In the absence of outstanding new books translated from Hebrew for Spanish-language readers, this year the Mexican public has had the opportunity to attend conferences given by the two awardees of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; performances by several theatre and musical groups; and a talk between David Grossman and Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, and another between Shimon Peres and the Spanish ex-prime minister Felipe González. Alternatively, for those interested in learning about Palestinian literature, music, or painting, about their creativity or how the occupation is attempting to strangle them, there was a “shadow” schedule of events with activities prepared by pro-Palestinian groups.

This triumph of Israeli apartheid in Mexico has a further aspect. In general, Spaniards and Latin Americans are known for their sympathy towards the Palestinian cause. This is known to the Israeli establishment, who explain the fact by invoking a supposed ancestral Spanish anti-Semitism, which peaked with the destruction of the Jewish Sefarad in 1492. However, those who hold such views should be reminded that the same Christian racism—and in that same year—also did away with Al-Andalus, and that the Hispanic community is still suffering from those losses. It is, perhaps, this awareness of loss (a “presence of absence,” in the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish), together with the contemporary Palestinian tragedy, that explains this widespread sense of solidarity towards Palestine, especially in Spain, where it is highly organized.

With regard to Latin America, there is an active Arab heritage thanks to contemporary Arab emigration that dates back to the late 1800s. However, the circumstance that has most strongly united the Palestinian people and Latin Americans is possibly their struggles on the same fronts during the last decades of the twentieth century: against neo-colonial policies and the attacks of neo-liberalism. Even Spain, after its triumphal years (1982-2004), is now suffering the effects of an economic crisis and has joined the struggle. Events such as the 15M Movement and the Acampada Sol (Spanish Occupy Movement) have been key to consolidating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in Spain.

The normalization of the total occupation of Palestine is particularly serious in the realm of culture. At the Guadalajara FIL, Palestine has not existed, and has been denied its culture. Israel has demonstrated once more how to make international institutions collaborate with apartheid, and how to use culture as the spearhead of annihilation.

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