Israel disqualifies novel on Arab-Jewish love from curriculum

Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan poses with her Hebrew-language novel Gader Haya on Thursday at her house Tel Aviv.
Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan poses with her Hebrew-language novel Gader Haya on Thursday at her house Tel Aviv. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's education ministry has disqualified a book depicting a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian from school curriculums, sparking an outcry from cultural figures but a boost in sales.

The education ministry said Thursday that Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan's Gader Haya (translated as Borderlife in English) had been rejected for inclusion in school curriculums.

"Officials discussed the matter of including the book in the curriculum," the ministry said in a statement. "After it seriously examined all the considerations, and weighed the advantages and drawbacks, they decided not to include the book in the curriculum."

The ministry provided no further details on the rejection of the book, which Israeli media reported had been recommended for inclusion by a ministry-backed committee.

Newspaper Haaretz quoted an education ministry official, Dalia Penig, saying one of the reasons for the exclusion was that the book could undermine the "separate identities" of Jews and Arabs.

"Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews, and certainly the option of formalising them through marriage and having a family - even if it doesn't come to fruition in the story - are viewed by many in society as a threat to separate identities," she said.

That prompted objections from Israeli cultural figures, many of whom have long been at loggerheads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a new rightwing government following his re-election in May.

Writing in Haaretz, commentator Alon Idan said the move was aimed at "protecting the purity of Jewish blood" and reflected "institutionalised race theory".

"'Intimate relations' = sex. 'Non-Jews' = Arabs,'" Idan wrote. "Now we can reread her words in their simpler form: Jews and Arabs are forbidden to have sex with one another."

Gader Haya, published in 2014, is 43-year-old Rabinyan's semi-autobiographical story of an Israeli who meets and falls in love with a Palestinian artist in New York. The two later part ways as she returns to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv and he to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

It was among the winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers - an annual Israeli award for Hebrew literature.

After requests to include it from a number of teachers, a committee initially backed the book's addition to the curriculum but that was later overruled by two senior ministry officials, Haaretz said.

Deborah Harris, Rabinyan's agent, said the book was a success in Israel in 2015 and publishing rights had already been sold in English, French, German and other languages - with publications due in 2016.

Rabinyan's previous two novels were translated into 20 languages, Harris said, adding that the controversy would hugely boost sales. "This is going to be great for us. It is terrible for Israel, it is mortifying, beyond what I ever thought would happen here. But for us it will be a boost."

Oria Piccione of Tamir Books in Jerusalem's upscale German Colony neighbourhood said the shop had received five or six calls about the book on Thursday, having not sold one for weeks.

"We only had one copy in store and it went this morning," she said. "We have never had so much interest in Rabinyan's books."

Tamara, a 62-year-old resident of the Gilo settlement in East Jerusalem, was buying the book in a Jerusalem mall.

"I saw an interview with the author on TV and heard they took out the book from the reading list in schools," she said. "I want to read it and understand why."

The left-wing Meretz party called for a demonstration outside the education ministry over the disqualification, the latest in a series of disputes between the government and cultural figures.

In June Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the rightwing Jewish Home party, pulled state funding from an Arab play which he alleged showed a Palestinian attacker in a sympathetic light.

The country's most famous living author, Amos Oz, declared in November he will not attend events at Israeli embassies across the globe due to the government's "radical" policies.