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Burns Night for Israel: Scotland’s Literary Shame

A place that boycotts books is not far from a place that burns them.

by
Ben Cohen

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May 26, 2011 - 12:02 am
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Heinrich Heine’s maxim about people being burned where books are also burned conjures up some of the most hellish images of Nazi rule. Raging bonfires devouring page after page of literature deemed toxic, their flames growing higher with each volume thrown onto the pile. There goes Freud, now it’s Hemingway, next up is Proust, until finally you reach the gates of Auschwitz.

By contrast, a book boycott seems a rather dour affair. Brownshirted thugs burning armfuls of books while surrounded by screaming onlookers is one thing. A bespectacled librarian removing books from the shelves to the warehouse is something else. No?

Actually, no In the case that I have in mind, concerning a provincial Scottish council’s decision to deprive its library users of books by Israeli authors, the underlying impulse is pretty much the same. And I’m not the only person to say so. Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Prosor, a man not normally given to bombast, declared: ”A place that boycotts books is not far from a place that burns them.” No doubt, those council bureaucrats implementing the boycott will be incensed by his statement. After all, while every Nazi supports a boycott of Israel, not every supporter of a boycott of Israel is a Nazi. Most boycott advocates, sensitive souls that they are, would be sorely wounded by such a suggestion.

Ergo, all the mealy-mouthed qualifications that follow. This is about solidarity with the Palestinians, not hatred of the Jews and their works; it’s progressive, y’see. It’s not a blanket ban, but something that will be decided on a book-by-book basis. And oh yes, according to West Dunbartonshire Regional Council Spokesperson Malcolm Bennie, the boycott doesn’t apply to Israeli books printed outside Israel, just those printed in Israel. In other words, the Harcourt edition I have of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness is OK. My prized English edition of Ahad Ha’am’s Selected Essays, published by Sefer ve Sefel of Jerusalem, is not OK.

The Scots have, ironically, a rather Yiddish-sounding verb for this kind of thing: to “haiver,” roughly translated as talking nonsense, or “bollocks,” as it’s more commonly known throughout the British Isles. It is “haivering” because all the excuses and rationalizations cannot camouflage one basic truth. Just as the German book-burnings aimed at obliterating ideas deemed repellent to Nazi ideology, so its sanitized adaptation, in the form of a book boycott, seeks to quarantine those ideas on the wrong side of anti-Zionist ideology.

West Dunbartonshire’s decision to boycott Israeli books stems from a 2009 resolution, in the wake of Israel’s defensive “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza, to prohibit the council from purchasing and selling goods produced in Israel. In that sense, the council is merely part of a growing pattern of labor unions, academic institutions, and regional authorities signing up to the international campaign to subject Israel to Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). While such efforts have been rather flaccid here in America — so much so that some U.S. boycott activists feel they have to lie about their alleged successes — in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, gaining traction has been far easier.

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