Months after the Frankfurt Book Fair was accused of displaying anti-Semitic Arab literature, organizers of the world’s most glamorous publishing event are still bitter about the allegations. Fair organizers insist they only displayed the Arab literature as a function of their commitment to global literary diversity.
However, critics, principally from the Paris office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, remain adamant that the Book Fair’s anti-Semitic offerings revived shades of Germany’s Nazi past, and was just another example of Europe’s growing tolerance of anti-Semitism.
As the de rigueur international publishing extravaganza, the Frankfurt Book Fair, held last October, annually attracts more than 6,700 exhibitors and nearly 300,000 in the book industry.
Each year, the Fair selects one country or geographic region as the “Guest of Honor,” elevating that nation’s or region’s literature to a world-class showcase. Any selected nation is offered a supreme opportunity to achieve new attention, sales, distribution and translations of its most popular published works. Past honorees have included Latin America, India and Russia. Last year, the honored guest was not a nation or region, but the 22-member Arab League, which spans two continents. (The Arab League’s geographical status was dubbed the “Arab World.”)
The honor marked the first time the Fair had invited an international political organization to stand in for a nation or geographic region. Part and parcel of honoree status was the showcasing of the bestselling books of the Arab world. Those encompass great poetry, Nobel-winning novels, and a library of scientific books. It also includes a whole range of bestselling anti-Semitica, the Arabic version of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as a collection of Holocaust denial and Jewish conspiracy books that circulate within the Arab world as legitimate bestsellers.
While the extensive retailing of anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi volumes is a fact of the Arab book scene, selling or even displaying Mein Kampf, the Protocols or anti-Semitica in Germany is a bias crime. Organizers perplexed over this challenge for months and took pains to make sure that none of the prominent but taboo Arab tomes reached the Fair.
“Anyone who tries to displays such books as Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will have that book confiscated and their rights at the Fair revoked,” warned Holger Ehling, the Fair’s vice president of communications, during an interview days before the event.
In that vein, the Fair’s two-page English-language contract with the Arab League featured on its second page a special clause aimed at prohibiting any anti-Jewish propaganda or agitation. Ehling explained that the prohibition against “anti-Semitic propaganda is part of the contract and completely understood by the Arab League.”
Attempts by Fair management to acquire an advance bibliography of the books Arab publishers would bring to Frankfurt failed. Hence, thousands of unvetted Arabic titles were displayed at the five-day event.
Shimon Samuels, director of the Wiesenthal Paris office, tested the Arab World’s compliancewith the anti-Semitic rule and came away astonished. “I looked at the many Arabic books,” recalled Samuels, who as a former Jerusalemite can muddle in Arabic. “Instead of reading the text, book by book, I just looked for the cover graphics: caricatures of menacing or blood-dripping Jewish figures, menorahs, and so forth. Then I paid more attention to the Arabic text within.”
Samuels easily identified a trove of sinister Jewish images gracing book covers. He stated that these included three books at the Egyptian exhibit calling for the destruction of Israel. One of those three, asserted Samuels, “was a volume announcing the extinction of the Jewish state in the year 2021 as the Divine Word of the Holy Koran… accompanied by a CD-ROM for schools.”
Numerous volumes claimed to authenticate the Jewish conspiracy, or Jewish control of the United States, according to Samuels. The Syrian exhibit marketed at least two books on “the Jewish role in the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center,” asserted Samuels.
To document his finds, Samuels verified the content of the books with the proud booksellers, took snapshots of the volumes within the book exhibit or stall, and then brought local reporters by to see the books for themselves.
On October 6, opening day of the Fair, Samuels sent a letter to the Book Fair management, identifying the offending volumes and charging “several of these texts would be actionable under German law and are a stain on the image of the Frankfurt Book Fair.” In his letter, Samuels insisted that the Fair “publicly condemn this abuse of your good will, remove these texts and examine the shelves of all exhibitors for further such examples of incitement. A book fair must celebrate the values of tolerance and not allow itself to endorse a cult of racism and hatred.”
The Wiesenthal Center’s complaints and the identified books were referred to the public prosecutor, who quickly declared the texts were not in breach of German laws against hate literature. Fair management then loudly condemned as unjustified the protests of Samuels and Jewish and Zionist groups that published the photos on the Internet.
Little more was heard of the scandal because the Fair disbanded a few days later. But the sting of being branded soft on anti-Semitic literature has not lessened among many Frankfurt book fair executives. Months after the confrontation, the Fair organizer behind the Arab World project, Peter Ripken, director of the Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature, remained bitter and defiant.
Asked if the objectionable materials constituted hate literature, Ripken replied, “I would say ‘yes’. But hate is something everyone should know about. You are missing the point. You may not like it [such books]. But there were more than 300,000 books available. If you single out seven or eight books, you would be fixating on only one issue.”
Ripken added that he was bothered not by the Arab literature at the Fair but “by repeated false accusations of anti-Semitism.” He continued, “Please define anti-Semitism. The Fair was attended by 270,000 to 300,000. So who is in a position to say that it was five percent or ten percent anti-Semitic – this is nonsense. The question is not whether there was anti-Semitism, but whether anti-Semitism was the key issue at the Fair.”
Other Fair executives were equally agitated after the event, some sending cross-Atlantic e-mails denouncing Zionist and Arab groups for trying to hijack the event for political purposes. Ironically, neither Fair officials nor Jewish groups were surprised. Both sides expected the Arab World exhibit to feature heavy doses of anti-Semitica, subtle and explicit. Such materials are a driving force within the Arab publishing industry.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and works of Holocaust denial remain at the top of Arab publishing interests. At one point, the Protocols was a bestseller on the West Bank, and it was a major theme of a 41-part Egyptian TV series. Now, the notorious forger has risen to academic levels with the recent “scholarly work” by two professors from Cairo’s al-Azhar University, who claim to authenticate the Protocols based on Talmudic verses. A 10th edition of one version of the Protocols was just published in Cairo.
Lebanese publishers regularly reprint Mein Kampf, generally with striking poses of Hitler on the cover, for distribution throughout the West Bank and Arab Mideast. Beyond the well-known Protocols and Mein Kampf, an entire booklist of popular anti-Jewish titles resonate with the Arab book-buying community. The covers are often illustrated with Jewish stars or caricatures that are either dripping in blood, infused with snakes, or sporting spider legs or octopus tentacles enveloping the globe.
The Arab exposition at the Frankfurt Book Fair, organizers admitted, was the first time an honoree would not be able to display all of its most popular titles. Pre-event efforts by Fair organizers to portray Arab publishing as a noble, long-overlooked tradition worthy of special honoree status seemed exaggerated and historically conflated with the Arab world’s non-published literary efforts.
But independent non-governmental publishing itself did not reach most of the Arab world until the early 20th century. Its contentious arrival coincided with the violent rise of Arab nationalism, the imposition of colonial petro-imperialism by the British and French, and the subsequent emergence of repressive Arab regimes often bent on revolution, group hatred, and political tyranny, even as they waged ethnic and territorial war.
Consequently, non-fiction and political publishing in the Arab world has often been an instrument of repression, hate and genocide, rather than a free, inspiring and laudable movement. The Arab Publisher Association, which coordinated the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Arab World exposition for the Arab League, is well aware of publishing’s recent and rocky history in Arab lands.
“Publishing is a relatively new, budding enterprise in the Arab World,” Arab Publisher Association chairman Ibrahim El-Moallem told a Frankfurt press conference prior to the Fair opening. He added, “Much more needs to be done regarding the critical issue of freedom of expression and thus freedom of publishing. Some Arab governments still impose censorship on books and ban the distribution of others, particularly those discussing so called ‘sensitive’ political and religious issues.”
Currently, some 85 percent of all Arab publishing revenues come from children’s books or textbooks, according to the Arab Publishers Association. For many years, few “general works” were published in the Arab world. These circulated mainly to Arab intellectuals, and they rarely exceeded sales of 10,000 copies throughout the 22-nation Arab world.
But general Arab publishing has experienced a recent explosion. Today, more than a thousand publishers are active within the Arab world. More than 20 book fairs are held throughout the Arab capitals. New technologies, in part fostered by the rapid expansion of satellite TV, the Internet, and a new Arab internationalism, are fueling that growth. However, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist conspiracies form an important segment of this emerging general book buying market.
Prior to the convention, the Fair’s Ehling insisted that Ibrahim El-Moallem of the Arab Publishers Association was the man to ensure that the anti-Jewish and Holocaust denial titles of the Arab world were not brought to the Fair. Ehling praised El-Moallem, chairman of Cairo-based Dar al Sharouk, the largest publisher in the Arab world, for his leadership “in bridging” the gap between the West and the Arab countries.
El-Moallem declined to answer questions about Arab publishing and the Frankfurt display, claiming he did not speak English well enough to express himself. Ironically, some of these refusals were sent by El-Moallem in e-mails written in perfect English. Indeed, Ehling confirmed that El-Moallem not only speaks the language but has even addressed German press conferences n eloquent English.
“I cannot explain why he does not want to talk,” stated Ehling.
Just prior to the Fair, however, El-Moallem was finally contacted in Egypt on his cell phone. He explained, “We don’t believe in a culture clash or civilization clash involving the Arabs. We [Arab publishers] have open minds. We are trying to be part of the international publishing movement. I can say that the Arab Publishers Association is now totally independent of any government.”
He added, “Frankfurt is the beginning of a new movement for the Arab publishers.”
Ehling insisted that El-Moallem, as the best and brightest of Arab publishing, would police his members for anti-Semitica or Holocaust denial at the Fair. Ehling added that he personally – and the Fair as an institution – unequivocally condemned any author, publisher or distributor of Holocaust denial. That easy-to-assert condemnation soon proved to be embarrassing.
Roger Garaudy, a French convert to Islam, stands as a hero of Holocaust denial. In 1998, a French court found him guilty of Holocaust denial and “racial defamation,” fining him $40,000 for his 1995 book The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics. That book declared that during the Holocaust, Jews were not killed in gas chambers. The author of some 20 books, Garaudy is a leading voice of Holocaust denial.
Who publishes Roger Garaudy in the Arab world?
El-Moallem confirmed in an interview with some discomfort, “Yes, I have published three or four of his books,” and hastened to add, “but they are out of print.” Only last year, though, El-Moallem’s Dar al Sharouk released the third edition of Garaudy’s recent book The Trial of Israeli Zionism. El-Moallem’s brother, Adel El-Moallem, translated the work. El-Moallem said Adel owns another major publishing house, Sharouk International, which also publishes Garaudy.
Asked about Garaudy’s books denying the existence of gas chambers, El-Moallem replied that Garaudy’s works “are not Holocaust denial, they are Holocaust discussion.” Asked if he personally endorsed Garaudy’s view that Nazis did not use gas chambers, El-Moallem replied, “I just don’t know. I’m not a specialist in this subject.”
Despite several attempts, El-Moallem declined to confirm that the Nazis used gas chambers, repeating: “It’s a debate.”
Notwithstanding the revelations about Garaudy’s works, Ehling, prior to the Fair, reiterated his certainty that of the thousands of Arabic titles to be brought to Frankfurt, none would involve anti-Semitica or Holocaust denial.
But wishful thinking by Fair organizers could not undo the race hatred that has become a staple of Arab publishing. The disappointment will not be forgotten soon.
“The Frankfurt Book Fair fits into the pattern we have seen in recent months,” asserted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “in which we hear lip service to world Jewry, but at the same time there are those in Germany reaching out to terrorist organizations and Jewish hatred.”
Edwin Black is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller “IBM and the Holocaust.” His just-released Pulitzer-nominated book is “Banking on Baghdad, Inside Iraq’s 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict” (Wiley), which chronicles 7,000 years of Iraqi history.