ISRAEL: Reading with the enemy


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‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ every kid knows. But what about the publisher?

Not many know, but obtaining an Arabic copy of Harry Potter in Israel requires a special permit under the pre-state Trade with the Enemy Ordinance. It’s published in Lebanon. The same applies to the work of Israeli novelist Amos Oz, as Syrian publishing houses are the only ones in the Arab world that publish Arabic translations of his and other Hebrew literature.


Saleh Abbasi founded his bookstore, Kull Shay (Kol Bo in Hebrew) in 1974. 35 years later, he’s Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic books for a wide range of needs, including textbooks, classic and children’s literature, academic institutions and even the national library.

But about 80% of Arabic books sold here -- from Shakespeare to Pinocchio -- are published in Lebanon and Syria, with no diplomatic relations with Israel. As Israel signed peace treaties -- first with Egypt, later with Jordan -- Abbasi began importing the books through the two Arab countries now at peace with Israel.

It’s complicated.

First, he sends the list of books he wants to import to agents in Jordan and Egypt. When they inform him they can supply the books, he sends the list to the Israeli censorship. When the books arrive, he is informed by the customs authorities, goes to the border in question, pays the fees and releases the shipment after censorship clearance.

Last August, Abbasi received a letter from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor informing him that his license to import the books was being withdrawn under the 1939 Trade with the Enemy Ordinance, one of several legal anachronisms inherited from the British Mandate in Palestine and still in use. The books, purchased in countries at peace with Israel, are published and produced in ‘enemy states.’ The ministry’s previous legal position had been that books did not constitute trade with the enemy.

After a complaint, the permit was temporarily reinstated by special permission, but efforts to have it extended to 2009 were rejected. In January, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the ban be lifted to guarantee the cultural rights of Arabic readers, as well as overall academic freedom and Abbasi’s freedom of occupation.

The issue was pressing, as the Cairo to Nazareth book fair was to take place parallel to the international book fair, held in Jerusalem last week. Most orders for Arabic books are placed around the International Cairo Book Fair, held late January. Without a permit, there would be no new books. The authorities relented and issued another temporary permit that may be extended at the end of the year.

But it was given under the Trade with the Enemy Ordinance, not unlike (unwritten) consent Israel gives in certain cases for actual trade and other interactions with enemy countries. Adalah is now pressing for the import be continued under regular trade agreements.

‘All informational and cultural materials should be exempt from the Trade with the Enemy Ordinance entirely,’ says Haneen Naamnih, a legal intern at Adalah who assisted in the petition submitted by attorney Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s director general. The timing of the authorities’ decision to enact the absurd and anachronistic ban was a puzzle.

The petition included letters from Israeli academic leaders, who stressed the importance of the books for academia, research and general education. Professional Arabic dictionaries used by Middle East and Arabic majors in Israeli universities, for example, are published in Lebanon.

In 1988, the U.S. passed the Berman Amendment to the 1917 TWEA (‘trading with the enemy act’), exempting informational material from Castro’s Cuba from the ban, including books, papers, music and art. A later amendment and court case finally freed American publishers from the need to secure permission from the governments of Cuba, Iran and Sudan for publishing the works of authors from those countries, a demand that had made it effectively impossible.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.