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Mind Numbing Cultural Exchange
Voices from Two Sides of the Bridge gathering at Sheik Hussein crossing, northern Israel
by Judy Lash Balint
February 16, 2005

"They're very much like me�we have so much in common, " gushed Israeli novelist, Dorit Rabanyan, to a rapt audience of international literati, book publishers and journalists about her encounters with Palestinians in New York.

"The peace I make with one person encourages me that we can make peace between two peoples," she concluded to rapturous applause from the audience assembled this week at the Sheik Hussein Peace Bridge in northern Israel for a gathering billed as �Voices from Two Sides of the Bridge.' No one got up to scream that we're not the same: Arab society where incitement and hatred reign is nothing like Israeli society where every popular song is a plea for peace.

For me, Rabanyan's words triggered an acute case of d�j� vu. I found myself transported back twenty-five years or so to the days of the evil Soviet empire, when the Cold War was in full force. The Soviets used cultural exchange to avert attention from their human rights abuses and soften their image abroad.
Month after month, American cities would be deluged with delegations from the Bolshoi Ballet, the Moscow Circus or the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra.

For those of us active in the Soviet Jewry movement to promote free emigration, the cultural visits provided an opportunity to try to publicize the plight of various individuals who had been arrested or harassed for courageous acts of dissent against the communist regime.

Invariably, American leftists would decry our efforts to speak out about human rights abuses, warning that we were disturbing the atmosphere of friendship and exchange and disrupting the warming of personal relations between Russians and Americans.

"The Russians are people just like us," the leftists would declaim. "They want peace too." Many of these well-meaning na�ve Americans would head off for official visits to Soviet sister cities, where they'd meet with "counterparts" carefully vetted by the KGB, and come back to yell even louder against those who might mess up future exchanges by raising that pesky issue of Jewish emigration or freedom of religion.

It took years until Americans involved in the citizen's exchange movement realized that they'd been had. They never got to meet real Russians who could freely speak their minds and engage in true dialogue. Their "friends" were KGB fronts who filled their heads with Soviet propaganda and sent them back into their communities to spread the word. There were no Russians who returned to Moscow, Leningrad or Vladivostok proclaiming their love for America�they would end up in jail if they did so.

Back at the Bridge, it's discouraging to see a parallel of sorts percolating through Israeli intellectual elite circles. The goal of the �Voices' project was to bring together Palestinian, Jordanian, Turkish and Israeli writers for a literary exchange.

In fact what occurred was a gathering of Israelis--Jews and Arabs�with only two of the invited Palestinians and none of the Jordanians showing up. Organizer Deborah Harris, Israel's premier literary agent, was furious. With curious journalists nosing around for a story, rumors swirled about the reasons for the no-shows.

The Jordanian Writers Union had apparently nixed the travel plans of their fellow countrymen. Moderator Michael Naumann, former chief editor of Germany's leading newspaper Die Zeit, announced that the Palestinian writers had received threatening phone calls from the Palestine Liberation Organization warning writers not to take part.

Swearing under her breath as she learned in the early morning that the writers she'd paid to appear had decided not to come, Harris valiantly juggled the panels to resemble some kind of interchange.

But the uniformity of opinions made for an all too predictable event.

Speaker after speaker trotted out the despicable moral equivalency diatribe. Rabinyan, for instance, spoke of the reason she fled Tel Aviv for New York in the horrible spring of 2002. She couldn't take, "the awful terrorism nor the IDF reaction to it..." she explained, as if the murder of civilians is equivalent to the strikes against the terrorist perpetrators.

Sami Michael, the controversial Iraqi-born Israeli author decried the "corruptive occupation," but chose not to repeat the assertion he made in a recent magazine interview that he could understand the motivations of Hamas bombers who blew up "settlers".

Michael did succeed in making the most stunning statement of the morning. In a vivid demonstration of how far out of line with reality are the perceptions of the far left, Michael told the attentive audience that included authors David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua, that Israeli writers who are staunch peace supporters "are forced to stay silent."

Surely Michael must know that the views of Amos Oz, Yehoshua, Grossman and many others less well known outside Israel are constantly quoted in the media. In fact, it's hard to think of living Israeli writers who hold anything but left-wing views�Aharon Appelfeld and Naomi Ragen are the only two names that come to mind.

But when asked to expand on his comment, Michael replied that the other leftist authors are actually, "part of the establishment. The establishment needs the fa�ade of progressive writers to put forward its point of view," he claimed. In the next breath, the 79 year old novelist tells me that when he put together a full page ad denouncing Israel's policy of targeted assassinations, Amos Oz made calls to other public figures to persuade them not to sign.

It's a conspiracy theory worthy of the KGB.