Die deutsch - israelisch - palästinensischen Autorentreffen


Foto oben: Der israelische Botschafter in Deutschland (1993-1999) Avi Primor, Hans-Georg Meyer, Martin Lüdke, Klil Zisapel, Hans Christoph Buch, Salman Masalha (v.l., Autorentreffen 2004 in Landau)

[Alle Fotos auf dieser Seite (c) Hans-Georg Meyer]

Der Träger des Alternativen Friedensnobelpreises Uri Avnery 2001: „Es war sehr wichtig, sich hier in Speyer wieder zu treffen. Ich hoffe, der deutsch-israelisch-palästinensische Dialog wird weitergeführt. Nirgends können israelische und palästinensische Autoren zuhause frei von den aktuellen Ereignissen miteinander sprechen. Die örtliche Distanz spielt eine Rolle. Und ein Treffen in der schönen Landschaft des Rheins mildert doch die Sprache, auch wenn die Gefühle sich erhitzen. Dass aus dem Dialog ein Trialog wird, finde ich besonders wichtig.“

Einen Bericht der Journalistin Vivien Eden in Israels linksliberaler Zeitung „Ha‘aretz“

vom 14. September 2001 über das Treffen in Mainz siehe unten


Hans-Georg Meyer, damals Direktor der rheinland-pfälzischen Landeszentrale für politische Bildung, war der Initiator und Organisator der von 1994 bis 2006 stattfindenden Deutsch-Israelisch-Palästinensischen Autorentreffen, die vor allem auch politisch und kulturpolitisch weithin Aufsehen erregten: 1994 in Bad Kreuznach, 1995 in Givat Haviva in Israel, 1997 in Speyer, 2000 in Jericho in den Palästinensischen Autonomiegebieten, 2001 in Mainz, 2003 in Idar-Oberstein, 2004 in Landau, 2006 in Worms. Neben öffentlichen Veranstaltungen wurden gemeinsam mit dem Literaturreferat des Kulturministeriums (Leiter: Sigfrid Gauch) Lesungen von Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftstellern in Bibliotheken und Schulen durchgeführt, u.a. mit Ruth Almog, Uri Avnery, Hans Christoph Buch, Hilde Domin (+ 2006), Lea Fleischmann, David Grossmann, Emil Habibi (+1996), Katharina Hacker, Peter Härtling, Annegret Held, Yoram Kaniuk, Etgar Keret, Ursula Krechel, Mira Magén, Salman Masalha, Norman Ohler, Asher Reich, Dorit Zilbermann, Klil Zisapel u.v.a.

In: Ha’aretz (Israel) September 14, 2001

`They jumped over their shadows'

Participants in a writers' conference for Germans, Jews and Palestinians in Mainz find there's no escape from Middle East politics.

By Vivien Eden

Foto: At the Rathaus (from left): Asher Reich, Peter Hartling, Sigfrid Gauch and Salman Masalha. (Photo: Cristel Seidemann )

Shadowless gray northern light filtered through the tall windows of a meeting room in a high-ceilinged postwar building. The city, which dates back to Roman times and once had an important Jewish community, was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II; only part of the Old City and a few monumental buildings - among them the cathedral and the State Parliament - remained standing. It was the same day the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance convened in Durban. The occasion was the Fifth Trilateral German-Israeli-Palestinian Authors' Meeting, dedicated this time to "Identity and the Freedom of the Word," organized by the Landeszentrale fur Politische Bildung Rheinland-Pfalz - the State Office for Political Education of the German State of Rheinland-Palatinate.

A group of four writers of Hebrew, five writers of Arabic, one writer of Arabic and Hebrew, about 10 writers of German, organizers and assorted journalists took their places in the large, functional room at exactly 10 A.M. on September 3. The writers' literary medium, however, was not the criterion the organizers used to describe the writers: In Germany, apparently, "Israeli" still means Jew, "Palestinian" means Arab in the sense of "antithetical to Jewish" and "German" means a German who lives in Germany. However, among the guests, there were nine writers from the State of Israel, including one who writes in German and whose works are known only in that language, and two from the West Bank. This confusion of nationality and culture left its mark on the proceedings, which were a peculiar hybrid of the literary and the political.

The participants were formally welcomed by the director of the Politische Bildung Rheinland-Pfalz - Hans-Georg Meyer. Meyer, a bundle of energy in his mid-50s, with a face out of Lucas Cranach the Younger, noted that during his preparatory visit three weeks earlier to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he had not been at all certain that anyone from the Middle East would come. He said he hoped that at the end of the meeting, the Israeli and Palestinian writers would formulate and sign a declaration affirming their desire for peace. This nearly proved to be the event's undoing.

Prof. Moshe Zimmerman of Hebrew University of Jerusalem delivered the opening lecture, "Collective Identity and Collective Memory." Collective memory, said Zimmerman, is a construct based on memory, not through natural processes like individual memory, but rather by external agents that define and shape this memory. The modern nation-state is the most effective agent of collective memory and shapes collective identity by selectively constructing myths and icons.

Indeed, the sponsoring institution, the Political Education Office - which exists both at the German federal and state levels - was created to be just such an agency of collective identity formation. Founded in the 1950s, these offices are charged with promoting democracy in Germany; the trilateral encounters in the Rheinland-Palatinate are an outgrowth of earlier German-Israeli dialogues.

Zimmerman noted that collective identities are most often defined by defeats and losses: Christian Europe in the Crusades, the Jews in exile and in the Holocaust, the Germans in the World Wars, the Palestinians in the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of 1948. He suggested that the world - and certainly the Middle East - would be a much better place to live if the agents of collective identity-formation were to choose selectively to forget the disasters and defeats and leave them to the historians to deal with, while choosing other constructions as the basis for collective identity.

Apparently, however, it is not easy to forget, especially in the Middle East. In the subsequent discussion, Mohammed Shaker Abdallah of East Jerusalem, who writes the editorials for the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, harked back to Zimmerman's comment that the defeat of the Crusaders in the 12th century could be seen either as the culmination of a religious conflict or in the context of a struggle between the Middle East and Europe. The Palestinians, said Abdallah, see Israel as the long arm of Western culture in the Middle East. Following the end of the "red menace," he suggested, the West needed a new common enemy and came up with "Islamic fundamentalism." The West, he continued, should recognize that its interests are not identical with Israel's and should pressure Israel to a just solution.

He wound up his remarks with a tale of the man who had a tame bear that protected him from big enemies - a lion, an elephant, a wolf - but when a fly landed on the man's forehead, the bear threw a large stone at it and killed the man. It is, he added, not clear what happened to the fly. He did not specify who exactly the bear, the man and the fly represent.

Salim Jubran, co-director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, which on the following day awarded Meyer the Haviva Reik Peace Prize in a formal ceremony, expressed gratitude to the German hosts, but commented that the dialogue between Palestinians and Jews should continue in the Middle East, and not only in Europe.

Hebrew poet Amir Or returned to Zimmerman's remarks and noted that the collective identities of Zionists and Palestinians are interdependent, like Siamese twins, and suggested that "Israeli" should be redefined not as an ethnic or religious category, but as a civil category. He proposed that the task that lies before writers, as agents of cultural identity, is to begin to think about what life will look like once the politicians complete their task of reaching a peace agreement, and hoped that the future holds a life of individual freedom. In his reading to the group the following day, he exemplified this idea by reading poems that stress personal identity.

Asher Reich, also a Hebrew poet, noted that forgetting is "a European disease," while all the Jewish holidays are based on memories of hatred: "We hate the Persians at Purim, the Egyptians at Passover, the Arabs on Independence Day and the Germans at Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day. The rest of the year," he added, "we hate ourselves."

Different dictionaries

Moving around on foot in Mainz is difficult, and not because of the topography or the urban architecture; it is flat, with broad sidewalks, and many streets in the historic and commercial center are closed to vehicular traffic. Moving around in Mainz is hard because the northern light, filtered through high clouds, casts no shadows, so there is no way of orienting yourself by looking at your watch and the sun and figuring out that if it's one o'clock, and there's my shadow, then West must be that way. But one of the Hebrew writers spoke quite fluent German, and another was blessed with an infallible sense of direction, so we managed to find our way around.

After some good local white wine, orange juice for those so inclined and lunch with the mayor of Mainz, another trilateral reading. Ruth Almog, the author of 20 books and the winner of the Agnon Prize for 2001 (she is also on the staff of Ha'aretz), reads in Hebrew from her novella "Me'il Katon," which has been translated into German under the title "Paper Angel." The story is set at the end of World War II and shortly thereafter on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The main character is a boy called Paul (later, Shaul), a refugee from Vienna. The action takes place in a large apartment building inhabited by Jewish refugees from many different places, who speak Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, German and Polish, a microcosm of many identities. The following scene takes place on a hot day in August, the Ninth of Av (the day of mourning that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well, traditionally, as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492). In the context of the trilateral encounter, nearly every word has great metaphorical resonance:

"Zelda Hirsch called to Shaul.

"`Open all the windows, Pauli,' she said to him. `Es ist finster (It is dark).'

"`But the heat will come in,' protested Shaul.

"`I don't feel the heat,' said Zelda.

"`It's burning outside.'

"`Never mind, open the windows.'

"Shaul obeyed and opened wide the shutters of the only window.

"`Light,' said Zelda, `more light.'"

Goethe's last words precede Zelda's own death. Shaul helps the old woman get out of bed and helps her get ready to go outside in a bizarrely erotic scene. Then the boy leads her "through the dark, narrow corridor that was blocked by crates that had been brought from Europe and not yet opened, and they went out into the light."

But outside, before they can reach the shade of the trees, she collapse and dies.

Palestinian novelist Ahmad Harb, head of the English department at Bir Zeit University, also described the difficulties of getting out - out of Ramallah to come to Mainz, and in general. As a Palestinian, he said, he cannot catch a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, so he had to fly from Amman. Under normal conditions, it takes about half an hour to get from Ramallah to Jordan, but it took him five hours to get to the Allenby Bridge. "We are living under total closure," he said, "as never before. We cannot drive from one village to another, and I have to walk from my home in Ramallah to Bir Zeit. People like me have always called for peace, but it is so frustrating that one day we will find ourselves before an Israeli barrier and be ready to blow ourselves up because of the oppression ..."

Question in German: "Are you in favor of suicides?"

Harb: "I can't answer yes or no to this question. No, I don't support suicides, but lack of hope is leading to a catastrophe. It will get worse. This is an expression of despair."

Here there is a hubbub of linguistic clarifications with the simultaneous translators and the writers. The translation was done by professional interpreters, Michael Sternheimer, who is fluent in Hebrew and German, and Hassan Hamdan, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and German. When someone spoke Arabic, Hamdan would translate into German and then his colleague would translate instantaneously from German into Hebrew. It turns out that in Arabic there is an expression that means "to blow up inside" - like the Hebrew lehitpotzetz - literally, "to blow oneself up," and - colloquially - to "explode with rage, frustration or laughter." Apparently, in German only the literal sense appeared to have come across, and it was also understood literally by some of the Hebrew speakers.

Harb: "I don't know how the translation went - but certainly I am against suicide acts and any killing of innocent Palestinians, Israelis or anyone else."

Harb went on to describe an incident of his childhood in his home village, which became part of Jordan in 1948. When he was about 7 years old, an Israeli unit entered the village and occupied the police post there. The Israelis killed the people - local volunteers - who were manning the post and blew up the building. "One of my relatives," recalled Harb, "was among those killed. The villagers picked up the pieces of people that were scattered around the village in the explosion. We were able to identify only my relative's hand, by the engagement ring on his finger. We buried the hand."

This incident became the heart of Harb's first novel, "Ismail" (1979) in which he used the motif "to describe our tragic situation, remnants of people, remnants of everything, scattered parts that we want to bring together again."

During the ensuing discussion, Asher Reich expanded on the notion that the two sides are using different dictionaries. "The current intifada" he said, "began when Israel left Lebanon. The Arabs saw it as sneaking out in the middle of the night. They didn't understand that it was because of an election promise, and morally we felt we had to leave - and the Palestinians read it as weakness. I believe we must pull out of all the Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders - but not until after we sit and talk, because otherwise it will be read as `fear.'"

Salman Masalha, a poet who writes in both Arabic and Hebrew, was the first of the writers to focus the discussion on the fact that the encounter was taking place in Germany. "We here, Israelis and Palestinians, are talking as if we are in a competition for who has suffered most. ... on the basis of history, we as Arabs can't compete, especially in this country. Everything that happens in Palestine cannot be compared to what happened in Germany."

Art and life

On Monday evening, after the United States and Israel had pulled out of the Durban conference, the only public session of the encounter was held at the Rathaus. In the lobby, there is an exhibition of life-sized photographs of immigrants, mostly Turkish apparently, each with a real, battered suitcase placed at its feet. Seeing the first of these suitcases, I had the usual Israeli reaction - a suspicious object, and only after I saw that this was a series did I realize that I was looking at art, not life. Nira Harel, a writer of books for children and young people, said during her reading the following day that she had had the same experience.

Reflecting on what he had heard earlier in the day, German novelist Peter Hartling commented that sometimes he feels angry and frustrated about relations between Palestinians and Jews, the complexity of which reminds him of his own experience. In 1945, for example, as a 14-year-old war orphan whose father had died in Russian captivity, he was hoping that the Americans would come into the part of Germany where he was at the time, but the Russians came instead. The clothing he had was his Hitler Youth uniform. One day, two men in civilian clothes came and grabbed him and beat him up: "We have the little fascist," they said. "We'll teach you to be a democrat." He recognized the assailants as two former SS officers.

Asher Reich, representing the "Israelis," asked: "Can you think in a conciliatory way? Any poem can be conciliating, as the reader has the ability to identify." Billed as representing the "Palestinians," but speaking in Hebrew, Salman Masalha said that poetry, like every art, is a kind of escape. "When we deal with poetry, we run away from ourselves and from despair. When we look at ourselves, Arabs or Jews, we sometimes want to break the mirror because we don't like what we see in the mirror ... The poetry of each of us is self-healing. If we don't deal with this, we will explode."

Hartling noted that as he listened to the discussions earlier in the day, he realized that writers, people who use words precisely, could perhaps be of help in somehow resolving the conflict. Memory, he said, is a more difficult issue: "Though we are all individuals and different from one another, in situations like the situation in the Middle East today many people have to think the same thing and it is difficult to get out of this circle. Now I think that this is possible but hard. But the discussions today have taken away my fear."

Here, comic relief: Over the loudspeaker, accompanied by bells like those in a department store elevator, a woman's voice announced - twice: "Attention, Attention. The Rathaus closes at 22:00."

Moderator Sigfrid Gauch, whose book "Vaterspuren" ("Father Traces," more or less), about his father, Herman Gauch, a Nazi racial theorist, has recently been translated into Hebrew as "Ikvot Av": "You see what order there is here in Germany."

Apparently, some extraordinary arrangements were put into effect, and the discussion continued for a while longer. As we left the Rathaus, a light rain was falling. The Germans ignored it; the Jewish Israelis lifted their faces to it and enjoyed it; Ahmad Harb covered his head with the evening's program.

High dudgeon

The following morning - after both the United States and Israel had walked out of Durban and yet another bomb had exploded in Jerusalem - Hans-Christoph Buch read an extract about the grisly aftermath of a massacre he had witnessed as a war correspondent for Die Zeit in Rwanda from his "non-fiction novel," "Cain and Abel in Africa." Apparently, for German writers, the image of two sons of the same mother, Cain and Abel, is as powerful a metaphor as the image of two sons of the same father, Isaac and Ishmael, is in the Middle East. (See box)

He noted that the conflict in the Middle East frightens him even more than anything he has seen in his work as a journalist in Africa or the Balkans, because of its religious dimension. Mohammed Shaker Abdallah read, in English, a portion of his book about his home village of Beit Hanina.

For him, memory is the driving force: "We have the right and the obligation to lament a beloved village that went a victim to occupation, emigration and modernity ... "

Ruth Almog commented dryly: "My childhood village, Petah Tikva, doesn't exist any more either."

The readings on the second and final day of the encounter were overshadowed by the need to formulate a joint political statement on which all the "Israelis" and "Palestinians" could agree - a procedure that cut considerably into the time for readings and discussions. Finally, in tense closed-door sessions with the usual arguing, stalking out in high dudgeon, arm-twisting and diplomacy familiar to politicians, the writers hacked out a rather bland statement to the effect that the writers are against violence and in favor of a return to the negotiating table. The German organizers were quite pleased.

That night, at the Haviva Reik Peace Prize ceremony at the State Parliament building, Hans-Georg Meyer, used a German expression in his acceptance speech to describe the efforts made by the Israeli and Palestinian writers to come to Mainz at this time and sign the joint declaration: "They jumped over their shadows."

Jews and Palestinians as Cain and Abel

Annually, the Jewish Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva in northern Israel - itself the winner of UNESCO's Peace Prize for 2001 - awards the Aviva Reik Peace Prize. During the course of the meeting at Mainz, it was noted that Education Minister Limor Livnat had ended her ministry's support for the research, dialogue and educational activities of Givat Haviva. This year's laureate is Hans-Georg Meyer, the director of the Rheinland-Palatinate Office of Political Education, for his work in encouraging dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Previous winners include the daughters of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, boxer Muhammad Ali and Johannes Rau, a year before he was elected President of Germany in 1999.

At the prize ceremony, Hans-Georg Meyer asked one of his favorite writers, the nonagenarian doyenne of German poetry, to read from her work: [Hilde Domin: „Abel Get Up“]