The IBBY Jubilee Congress In Basel: You wouldn’t believe it

Last week I was honored to represent Israel at the International Congress on Children’s Literature that took place in Basel, Switzerland, since my book “The Rainbow Child” was on the honors list. The Congress was organized by IBBY – the International Board on Books for Young People. This organization was founded after the Second World War by a brave Jewish lady called Yella Lepman. She returned to the ruins of Germany after the war and decided that the only way to give the children a better future was to give them hope for a different world through children’s literature. The only children’s books available in Germany at this time contained Nazi propaganda, and Yella Lepman’s vision was to provide the children with books free of racism, books with the message of universal humanity. In 1946 she founded the International Library for Youth, and in 1952 she founded IBBY. Over the years the organization has come to function in more and more countries, promoting tolerance and cross-cultural understanding through children’s books. A section of the Congress was devoted to Yella Lepman’s life, strangely she was described as having left Germany during the war out of necessity – I had to look up her biography to discover that she was Jewish. A curious omission, which following later events in the Congress seemed of sinister significance.

Aside from the Honors List the organization gives the much-coveted Anderson prize to one writer and one illustrator who have excelled in their field. In 1986 Uri Orlev honored Israel by receiving this prize for his writing.

This Jubilee Congress was attended by over 400 people from 50 different member countries, and included several distinguished guests. Empress Michiko of Japan was followed by her many assistants, and a trail of newspaper reporters trying to capture her apparent modesty and the regal air which surrounded her. Mrs. Mubarac was thoroughly surrounded by an impressive display of tall well-dressed bodyguards. The opening ceremony was also attended by Ruth Driefuss, the Interior Minister for the Swiss Confederacy.

The subject of the Conference was “Children’s Literature: A global Challenge”, and included many interesting lectures by previous Anderson Prize winners. This year the prize was presented to the British writer Aiden Chambers and the British illustrator Quinton Blake. In the opening ceremony Chambers spent a large part of his speech paying tribute to Anne Frank, from who he derived so much inspiration. Once again, her identity and the circumstances of her death were not mentioned. However the terrible plight of the children of Palestine was referred to twice, (by Chambers and by the Irish writer Michael O’Brien).

When I entered the Congress I searched for the lady I had communicated with through email, to thank her for the invitation. She was talking somewhat uncomfortably with a rather angry woman, who was protesting vehemently about some great injustice. I soon realized this was a Palestinian woman from Ramallah, complaining about having “Israel” printed on her lapel badge. With a black pen she erased the offensive word and wrote Palestine. I thought, rightly, that this would not be the end of the story.

Despite my naturally shy character I made every effort to befriend as many people as possible during the breaks, as we wondered round the exhibitions of books with our cups of coffee. Everybody was smiling and friendly, unperturbed by my lapel badge marked “Israel”. Everybody except for a certain Palestinian woman.

In one of the sessions I learnt of a writer from Greece and an illustrator from Turkey who met in Tel Aviv at an International Conference in 1987 and decided, despite the animosity between their two countries, to create a book together. The book is called “A Bridge of Sea.”

In the atmosphere of cross-cultural communication that had developed, I decided to try and approach the Palestinian woman. I told her about the book “A Bridge of Sea”, and commented that between us there is no sea. I asked her what she thought of the idea of a Palestinian and an Israeli writing a book together.

“I’m not a writer,” she stated, obviously trying to brush me away. (later I discovered her name was Helou Jehan, and she runs the ‘Tamar Community Center’ in Ramallah).

“But you must know Palestinian writers?” I asked.

“You have a million Palestinians under occupation, and you don’t know any writers?” She practically spat at me.

When I think about it now, I think there is a sea between us. It is a sea of blood. Who could have strength to build bridges over such a sea?

Needless to say Helou Jehan did not come to see the presentation of my book, nor that of Shin Shifra whose book “Alilot Galgamesh” was on the Honors List for translation.

My presentation was shared by an Iranian illustrator who proved extremely friendly, as he displayed his beautiful book “The Rainbow World”.

During the last panel session, in the middle of a debate, the Irish writer Michael O’Brien unexpectedly took the microphone. In an impassioned address he demanded that IBBY accept Palestine as a full member section.

Here it would be pertinent to explain the criteria for acceptance to IBBY. States recognized by the UN can be members as ‘sections’, while anybody else can be a member as an individual.

Horrified by the emotional and antagonistic way the proposal had been made I raised my hand. 400 heads turned, and 800 curious eyes peered at me expectantly.

“We would be the first to welcome Palestinian books on peace and cross-cultural understanding” I said, “unfortunately there is a tremendous amount of propaganda promoting violence being produced on the West Bank today, and the terrible encouragement of children to partake in such violence. Since IBBY was founded to create an alternative to Nazi propaganda, before you reach a decision like this you have to be sure that there is no racism in the literature.” I concluded by repeating what I had learnt of “The Bridge of Sea”, and how this could be a model for us.

Immediately I was accused of racism myself by the Palestinian woman, and the air became thick with an invisible emotional cloud threatening to choke us all.

The debate was stopped, and it was announced that the issue would be voted upon at the General Assembly in the afternoon.

I rushed to search for my Israeli colleagues, and was amazed to find all but Shin Shifra totally indifferent to what was going on.

This is the place to remind you that IBBY is not a political organization, but an international organization trying to create a dialogue between different cultures through books. If it became politicized, in my opinion, it would be finished. Writers are not in a position to solve the problems of the Middle East; writers are in a position to write about these problems, to create a dialogue between writers. Who would like to see children in the West Bank reading books promoting peace more than us? But this will not be achieved by condemning Israel, by failing to recognize the suffering of all children in the Middle East, including our children who have become the terrorist’s favorite targets in the last couple of years.

This is what Shin Shifra and I tried to tell our colleagues at the General Assembly after hearing three provocative anti-Israel speeches (two by the British delegates and one by the Irish). Feelings were running high, and we found ourselves more or less alone.

My heart goes out to all those Israelis abroad who have to stand daily at the edge of that huge abyss which opens up momentarily, unexpectedly, between yourself, as an Israeli, and all the others…the abyss which turns each debate, on whatever topic, into something ugly and full of misunderstanding. That which obligates us, at times like these, to abandon our books and pick up the flag, miserably bearing collective responsibility…but we came here with beautiful words written on bright shiny pages, with colorful drawings, and these are what represent us… but this Palestinian woman from Ramallah, who is not even a writer, brought with her only her anger, and not even one book.

With a heavy heart I left after the voting without discovering the results. Perhaps as Israelis we carry a stone in our heart everywhere we go.

In the evening, with little enthusiasm I made my way to the banquet that was to end the Congress. As I entered people began to come towards me, individually, and express their admiration for our courage, and some of them also nodded in agreement. The vote that had been taken was only a recommendation to the Executive Committee, which would have to review the issue again. But the vote was 23 in favor of accepting Palestine, 20 against, 3 abstained, and 3 who left the room in protest.

Then someone whispered in my ear that the place we were sitting was the same place that Herzel, in 1897, had the first Zionist Congress. Then the state of Israel was just a dream. The next day I visited the hotel where he stayed, and a light rain brushed my face. I remembered a quotation from the Congress:

“Sometimes we cannot allow ourselves to be like the rosebush and wait for the spring to come, sometimes we must be the rain, and cause the changes ourselves.”

How true.