Safeguarding Arab media heritage… in Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world’s largest Arabic-language press archive is located in Israel. Should Arabs use it or boycott it?

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Some vintage Egyptian newspapers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

After a lively encounter at Tel Aviv University with the renegade Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, author of the bestselling The invention of the Jewish people, I met a friend, the young Israeli Arabist and historian Ofir Winter who has a profound interest in Egypt and is researching Arab perceptions of Israel.

“I have a surprise for you. It’s one of the university’s hidden gems,” he told me as he led me to a poorly lit and rarely visited corner of the campus. Our destination: the university’s Arabic press archives which, its curators claim, is the largest collection of Arab print media in the world.

Pleasantly surprised by the unexpected visit from an Egyptian, the two Michaels who seem to be temporarily in charge following the untimely death of the archive’s founder Haim Gal proudly showed me around, including a couple of the seven massive halls containing some 24,000 boxes of publications of all sorts dating back to the 1950s. In the archive’s main hall was row upon row of leading and obscure Arab publications – not just newspapers and political journals, but also lifestyle and women’s magazines – not to mention Turkish and Persian titles.

Since the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions erupted last year, the archive’s resource-strapped team, mostly made up of volunteers, has struggled to keep up with the explosion in new publications that have emerged, especially online. “New titles are coming out all the time and we have to be fast in downloading them because some don’t stay online for long,” explained one researcher as she clicked away at her computer.

One of the Michaels showed me an item that seemed to hold pride of place in the collection, even though it was only a facsimile, the first-ever edition of Egypt’s oldest newspaper still in print, al-Ahram, dated 5 August 1876. Instead of the paper’s famous masthead featuring the three pyramids of Giza, the original showed only two pyramids and the Sphinx. Unlike today’s bulky version, issue one was one large sheet folded into four pages. It is also very difficult to read for the modern eye, because it contained no columns or headlines.

“The most exciting materials I found there were the October magazines from the time of Sadat’s peace initiative,” Winter tells me. “I was moved deeply when I saw images of Sadat arriving at Haifa port in September 1979, with happy Israeli children waving the flags of both Egypt and Israel.”

Of course, the very existence of this archive is likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of some Arabs, who are bound to view it as an intelligence-gathering apparatus. The archive’s management itself insists that it is a resource open to all academics, though the media and the government are welcome to consult it. Academics from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and other Arab countries are also among its clients, despite the Arab boycott of Israel.

“I don’t know the exact motives of its founders,” admits Winter. “But maybe, just maybe, you can interpret this huge archive as an attempt to bridge the qualitative distance (or isolation) between Israel and the Arab world quantitatively.”

But this message of building bridges is likely to get lost amid the ding of the call for an international cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Omar Barghouti, who wrote a widely praised book on the subject of boycott, divestment and sanctions, calls on “every conscientious academic and academic institution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions because of their ongoing deep complicity in perpetuating the occupation and other forms of oppression”. Yet Barghouti holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, which he acquired after co-founding the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – a contradiction he has refused to explain.

Although many Israeli academics are complicit in perpetuating the inhumane status quo, others are not. For instance, Sand, who I had come to meet, can hardly be described as an apologist for Israeli oppression, was friends with Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, insisted that the Arabic version of his book should be published in Ramallah and not Cairo or Beirut, and advocates transforming Israel, in the framework of the two-state solution, into a truly democratic state for all its citizens.

Yet Sand finds himself in the bizarre situation of being effectively under boycott. “They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” he told me. “Any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture.”

While I support a targeted economic boycott against Israel to ensure that the outside world does not bankroll the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, I find a blanket cultural or academic boycott to be unfair and counterproductive. Far better would be two parallel campaigns: one to boycott Israeli peacebreakers and another to embrace and engage with Israeli peacemakers.

This article first appeared in The National on 5 June 2012.

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