The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UT Austin was planning to publish the book in honor of the late American scholar Elizabeth Fernea, a professor there whose life and work were focused on the Middle East.At first, novelist Huzama Habayeb was delighted to contribute as one of fifteen Arab writers. But that turned to “horror,” as a Gulf News editorial put it, when she realized that the collection would also feature two Israeli women, Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom. Habayeb withdrew her manuscript, complaining to the Center that Israel is an “occupier” of her land “Palestine” – although she was born in Kuwait, raised in Jordan, lives in Dubai, and has never set foot in Israel.
The university accepted her withdrawal but moved forward with plans to publish. Taken aback by this, Habayeb determined to ban the book altogether. She urged other Arab contributors to withdraw their manuscripts. A friend, Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour who is married to a Palestinian poet, was the first to go along. Then others got onboard.
The Center shrugged and said the book was already at the printers and would be published as is. Habayeb wasn’t about to give up. “There are academic boycott movements around the world protesting the Israeli occupation,” she said, then incorrectly claimed that “the only two countries where they don’t exist are the United States and Israel.” She threatened to embarrass the university: “It doesn’t need a genius to figure out that the Texas center wanted to resolve the issue quickly and silently.”According to Dr. Kamran Scot Aghaie, the Center’s director, twelve authors asked to withdraw their contributions from the volume, with one additional request from the translator of another submission. “All the Arab writers whom I managed to contact withdrew their contributions,” Habayeb exulted.
The Center for Middle Eastern Studies refused to censor or discriminate against the Israelis, but the boycott led to enough withdrawals to make the book project no longer viable, so the publication was discontinued. Habayeb crowed to the Dubai-based website Gulf News,
I am so proud of having the book cancelled. I am a Palestinian and to achieve this, to be able to resist the illegal Israeli occupation of my homeland is something that I will cherish forever. It is my own victory in the struggle.An opinion piece in the Gulf News gleefully reported that “Habayeb has a smile on her face this morning” and described her actions as “those of a resistance fighter.” It insisted that “academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people.” (Dr. Aghaie offers another perspective on that: “The unfortunate reality is that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals.”) The editorial closes by saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – an odd moral to draw from the censorship of nearly thirty writers.
In her own editorial to Gulf News, self-importantly titled “My ‘No’ Says More, and Matters More,” Habayeb waxed melodramatic about what she considers her courageous stand:
I started as a lone voice. In the silence of a rather vigilant night, my keyboard was my sole collaborator. Few words of protest, engulfed by anger and discontent, found their way into a yet-to-be-filled draft email.
My overly conscious heart was heavy. “I cannot accept, ethically and morally, that my voice be shared equally with writers who reflect the voice of an obnoxious occupier,” I wrote…She denounced Israel’s presence in the book as “an allegedly legitimate literary Middle Eastern component that desperately seeks acceptance, notwithstanding its ‘genocidal’ practices against Palestinians.” Actually, Israel is not desperate, literarily or otherwise; it is flourishing and happy, as always. Thirteen Nobel Prizes for Literature have been awarded to Jewish authors; the Arab world has received one, despite its enormous population advantage.
It is the Arab world that is desperate – desperately impoverished (apart from the oil-moneyed elites), desperately ignorant, desperately backward (apart from the faux modernization of a tiny handful of places like Dubai, where Habayeb lives), and desperately humiliated by the success story that is Israel, a tiny sliver of a country that the Arab world is obsessed with (but incapable of) destroying. As for Israel’s “genocidal practices,” they are apparently very ineffective, since Palestinians have one of the highest rates of population growth in the world.Habayeb agonized over her response to the Center’s outrageous inclusion of two Israelis, referring to her “defeated self” as “homeless”: “How can I refuse to hate a ‘killer state’ or not turn a deaf ear to voices that reflect its disgrace? I can’t. I simply cannot.”
So she kept up a “10-day unrelenting campaign, infused with persistent passion and decades-long inherited losses and accumulated pains,” until she convinced enough contributors to pull out, and her “no” was joined by other “no’s”:
In a region caught in defeat and despair, the 'No’ turning into 'No’s’ comes as a symbolic victory. My 'No’ is alone no more. My 'No’ says more, and it means even more. It is heard loud...Actually, it is not heard at all, nor will any of the twenty-eight other voices be heard that would have been published in the book. All Habayeb has accomplished, with her hateful determination to excise a mere two Israeli essays from a book of twenty-nine, is the Pyrrhic victory of silencing everyone, including herself and fourteen of her fellow Arabs.
Habayeb and her cohorts’ chorus of “no’s” is the contrast between the moribund, nihilistic Arab world and Israel’s “yes.” “We love death more than you love life,” they proudly proclaim. Even in a matter so small as an obscure academic publication, Israel’s enemies are happy to ruin everything for everyone, even themselves, in their desperate, impotent compulsion to punish Israel.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 5/30/12)