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‘Want to read Harry Potter in Arabic? Not in Israel’

Yuval Azoulay | Ha’aretz

22 July 2009

Books originating in Syria or Lebanon – the biggest publisher in the region of Arabic books – are illegal in Israel. The draft bill by MK Yuli Tamir (Labor), would change the embargo. But in the meantime, readers of Arabic in Israel will have to encounter roadblocks.

Two days ago Mariam Kassis, a resident of the village of Mi’ilya – near Ma’alot in the north of the country – returned from a visit to Amman. When she sent her bags through the x-ray machine at the border crossing between Israel and Jordan, the Israeli customs inspectors spent time checking a dozen volumes that she bought for her father in the Jordanian capital, all from the series “Qawlun ala Qawl” (“Saying on a Saying”), written by Arab radio personality Hasan Karmi.

The series of books written by Karmi are in effect transcripts of selected conversations from an international radio program that he presented on the BBC Arabic service in the 1950s.

“People used to call this program from all over the world and the listeners conducted discussions with the moderator about literature, art, songs, folklore and anecdotes,” Kassis explained yesterday, still upset by the incident at the border crossing. “My father has had the series of volumes for several years, so I read them and he read them and we enjoyed it. Before my trip to Jordan he asked me to buy a copy of the series as a gift for my brother, who is planning to visit here from the United States.”

But then, said Kassis, “one of the border inspectors checked the books, passed them through the X-ray machine, flipped through the pages to see if I had smuggled anything – and handed them over for perusal to one of the customs officials. He doesn’t know how to read Arabic, he doesn’t speak Arabic and he didn’t understand what kind of books I wanted to take home with me. He only decided that I couldn’t bring them into Israel. When I asked him why, he replied that this was a type of ‘trading with the enemy,’ because the books were published in Beirut, and that Israeli law forbids it. I tried to explain to him with a smile what kind of books they were, but I’m an Arab woman – so he and his friends didn’t believe me.”

A customs official declared the books a “confiscated asset.”

“I’m an attorney and I know when an asset is confiscated: Only when there’s a criminal procedure and confiscating it is meant to ensure that a monetary debt is covered,” she said. “All my pleas were in vain.”

With tears in her eyes Kassis ended her trip to Jordan and returned embittered to her home village.

“I’m determined to get those books and I have no intention of giving in. I plan to fight to have the books returned to me. It’s not because they cost me $100 and not because there’s anything in them that I haven’t read. It’s a matter of principle,” she said yesterday.

At the request of Haaretz the Tax Authority began to examine the circumstances of the incident, and they said that “this incident does not represent the policy and the law and is an incident stemming from a misunderstanding. The customs workers thought that there were 12 boxes rather than 12 books.”

The Tax Authority said that the books that were confiscated from Kassis will be returned to her, and also apologized to her and said that in any case – bringing 12 books into Israel does not constitute “trade.”

But when Kassis told attorney Haneen Naamneh from Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the details of the case were not unfamiliar to her.

“There are many such cases, it happens with private citizens who visit Egypt or Jordan and want to bring books into Israel that were written, published or translated in Lebanon or Syria – and they are not allowed to bring them into Israel because they were produced in an enemy country. In terms of Israeli law, it’s trade with an enemy country. It has no connection with the contents of the book. It’s simply prohibited,” said Naamneh.

About half a year ago Naamneh, together with her colleague attorney Hassan Jabareen, petitioned the High Court to force the government to allow an importer of books from Arab countries, who lives in Haifa and runs Kol-Bo Sefarim, to continue importing books originating in Lebanon and Syria to Israel.

This was in the wake of a notice the bookseller received from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that the import license he has had for years would not be renewed.

The importer, Saleh Abassi, is considered the largest supplier in Israel of Arabic-language books. He purchases the books from agents who work in Egypt and Jordan, countries with which Israel has commercial ties.

The books he imports are supplied to Israeli educational institutions, including colleges and universities.

“After the importer receives a license to supply the books he sends the list of books for approval by the military censor. Upon receipt of the censor’s approval the books are sent to the border crossings and get through without any problem. It has never happened that the books imported by Abassi were confiscated by the censor. The importing is done with licenses,” claimed the Adalah petition to the High Court.

Attorneys Naamneh and Jabareen said in the petition that in early August 2008 Abassi received a notice from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that as a result of an updated legal opinion of the Finance Ministry, which is in charge of commerce with enemy countries, licenses would no longer be given to import books written or published in Syria or Lebanon, even if they were purchased in a third country.

“What is even stranger in this situation is that the government is not willing to explain why it objects to such imports,” Naamneh said.

Adalah says that 80 percent of the books used by the Arab-speaking population in Israel originate in publishing houses located in Syria and Lebanon.

“The government’s decision not to renew the import license for these books undermines basic rights, some of which have been recognized as constitutional rights; it undermines Abassi’s freedom of occupation, the access of Israel’s Arab population to education and culture in their mother tongue, the academic freedom of the institutions of higher learning in Israel, and the principles of freedom of expression, chief among them the right to exchange information, culture, literature and language,” read the petition.

Lebanon is presented in the petition as the only country whose book industry meets the needs of Arab children, since it is the only country with publishers that translate children’s literature from English into Arabic.

Among the books translated into Arabic are “Pinocchio” and “Harry Potter.”

“These books are vital for the development of the child’s personality and his education for values of humanism and critical thinking,” claimed the petition.

Marwan Dawiri, an expert in educational psychology, emphasized in the opinion that research has clearly demonstrated the importance of exposing children to kids books in their mother tongue during the various stages of their development.

“A shortage of children’s literature will damage the child’s vocabulary, his critical thinking, his imagination and his creativity. Exposure to children’s literature in the child’s mother tongue is essential for forming universal values, self awareness, and empathy and for consolidating the child’s ability to deal with various life situations,” Dawiri wrote.

Meanwhile the High Court has not yet had its say regarding this petition. But the government authorities responded to Abassi’s pleas and granted him a temporary license, until next April, to continue importing books originating in enemy countries.

In light of the border difficulties experienced by Israeli Arabs who want to bring in high quality literature that originates in enemy countries, MK Yuli Tamir recently formulated a draft bill – based on a 1939 Mandatory law – that will solve the distress of Arabic speakers once and for all.

The draft bill for the import and translation of books, which Tamir advanced Monday, says that “the aim of the law is to enable the import of books from any country and to allow their translation into any language in order to guarantee exposure to a large inventory of written literature and to expand the citizen’s right to a rich cultural life in his mother tongue.”

Tamir’s proposal gives security authorities leeway in determining whether to ban the import of a book or periodical containing harmful content and incitement, such as Holocaust denial; encouragement or instructions for terror activities and bomb-making instructions.

“Passing the law will turn Israel into part of an open and global literary world, and will remove sweeping restrictions imposed on the import of books from enemy countries, which are archaic now,” explained Tamir. “Today in any case anyone who so desires is directly exposed to varied and up-to-date literature and information originating in the Arab countries, because of the widespread use of the Internet.”

Tamir hopes her proposed law will benefit broad swaths of Israeli society, including Jews of Iranian origin, members of the Druze community and Israeli Arabs.

“This law will definitely prevent a situation in which the creative and cultural life of these sectors of Israeli society are undermined, while preventing a continuation of the direct harm to rights anchored in a law such as the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom,” she said.

The treasury said yesterday that “it is forbidden to trade with countries included in this order, which constitutes a part of overall legislation such as the Prevention of Infiltration Law, the prohibition against contact with a foreign agent from enemy countries, and refers to the commercial ties themselves, without differentiating among the types of banned products from these countries.

“The order regarding commerce with the enemy is Mandatory in origin but constitutes a part of overall legislation. But it enables anyone interested in doing so to submit to the finance minister a request for special permission to trade with the enemy, taking into account the special circumstances and the specific conditions of the request. In the past, permits were issued to the Maronite and Catholic churches to import religious books and to Unicef to import books from Lebanon for Palestinian children; permits were also given to export apples from Israel to Syria.”