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Books, Books, Books
by Judy Lash Balint
June 29, 2003

The opening of the Jerusalem International Book Fair was eclipsed in the book world by the release of the latest in the Harry Potter series. The local Israeli book chain Steimatzky sold out its discounted copies of the JK Rowling blockbuster during the first hours of last week's book fair.

Nevertheless, a respectable 600 exhibitors did set up shop in the Binyanei Hauma conference hall to peddle their wares to distributors, foreign publishers and the Israeli public for four days in late June.

This year's fair came directly on the heels of Hebrew Book Week, a popular annual event, where hundreds of Israeli publishers offer deep discounts on everything from maps to art books to volumes of Talmud. The book-buying public always turns out in large numbers to snap up the bargains. Perhaps that's the reason the International Book Fair was noticeably quiet this year. It was too easy to maneuver around the empty booths to see the array of books on offer.

"I'm dead bored," complained a student hired to man one stand of computer books. Over at the Institute for Cultural Relations Israel-Ibero America, things were even slower. The Spanish language book displays were left untouched. The most popular booth was an Israeli distributor of English language magazines, where a selection of popular magazines were being sold for 10NIS ($2.35) each. The Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures had a double booth to try to fulfill their mission of giving out free copies of the Bible including the New Testament to as many Jews as they could find.

Across the hall, Chabad emissaries were pushing a broad selection of works in Hebrew and English by and about the Lubavitcher rebbe. The American Jewish Book Publishers Association had a double booth representing nine small publishers, and Toby Press tried to entice customers by presenting Israeli authors Naomi Ragen, Michael Oren and Haim Sabato for book-signing sessions. Displays by publishers of books in Arabic also drew significant interest.

The John Wiley desk had galleys of Alan Dershowitz's forthcoming book, The Case for Israel, due out at the end of August. The tip sheet noted that a $150,000 marketing budget has been set aside to promote the book.

The most professional displays were mounted by the German consortium of booksellers and publishers. A wide array of books of Jewish interest is available in German, as well as translations of classic and contemporary Israeli works.

The highlight of the Book Fair, which is held in Israel's capital every two years, was to be the awarding of the Jerusalem Prize. But this year's recipient, American Jewish playwright Arthur Miller, 87, was a no-show citing scheduling conflicts and old age to explain his absence. Miller did send along a video of his speech, however, which proved to be a fairly close rehash of the views of the previous Jerusalem Prize recipient, American intellectual Susan Sontag.

Miller used the opportunity to engage in the kind of thinly veiled bashing of Israeli policy that masquerades as a plea for justice for all. "Without justice at its center, no state can endure as a representative of the Jewish nation," declared Miller, a self-avowed Jewish "non-believer." Like Sontag two years ago, Miller had words for Israeli communities across the Green Line, terming them "a self-defeating policy." Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski told the few dozen people assembled to bear in mind that Miller "is thousands of miles away..."

In the bright sunshine outside, the Autosefer pulled up to entertain dozens of children. The colorful vehicle with a bright orange dragon on its roof parks and opens up its sides to reveal shelves of children's books and a small red-curtained stage. Carpets are pulled out and unrolled on the ground and parents make themselves comfortable with their kids for an impromptu reading session.

Even without the Book Fair, Israeli book-lovers don't have far to go to indulge their passion: At the security gate exit, Natan Sharansky's eldest daughter is earning her summer pocket money handing out flyers promoting discounts at one of Jerusalem's better -known second hand bookstores.