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Of borders and other divisions

Opinion: The Arab world needs to stop banning books and movies about Jews.

 Marling also reported that all books portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism in a favorable light were banned, including “Schindler’s List,” Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” as well as books by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer. Even films starring Jane Fonda were banned because Fonda had once visited Israel in support of her then-husband Tom Hayden’s run for the U.S. Senate.

It reminded me of when Lee Griggs, a reporter for Time Magazine, took up his post in Beirut more than 40 years ago. His household goods were held up at customs because of a Yale glee club record album. The seal of Yale University features Hebrew writing which, in the 18th
and 19th centuries, was considered a language of learning, like Latin and Greek. Griggs had to come down to the customs office and convince the authorities that the record was not composed entirely of Zionist music. He played the album for them, including “for God, for Country, and for Yale.” They reluctantly allowed him to keep the record, but confiscated the dust jacket with its offending Yale seal.

Arab authors are not excepted from censorship either. Abdo Wazen’s “The Garden of the Senses” and Layla Baalbaki’s “Hana’s Voyage to the Moon” were taken to court too, according to Marling.

The sadness is that the Arab world was once a great repository of learning, keeping the heritage of ancient Greece alive when Europe sank into dark ages, and adding much of its own to the world’s body of knowledge. Then the Arab world began to shrink its horizons, translating and publishing fewer and fewer books from abroad, becoming more and more narrow and in-grown, as illustrated by its reaction to Yale songs, Sanskrit visa stamps and “Sophie’s Choice.”

I can think of no other comparable national or civilizational silliness, lest it be China’s reaction to anything to do with the Dalai Lama. I don’t remember an American visa stamp or an American passport preventing anyone from visiting the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, nor Mao’s China if the authorities granted you permission to enter.

One can refuse to extend diplomatic relations to Israel, as a matter of national priorities until Israel does such and such, and so and so. But to ban the work of Jewish writers or books about Jews is a societal self-mutilation which the Arab world, with its great traditions of knowledge, should put behind it. Like it or not, the Jews are as much a part of the Middle East as the Arabs and all the banning in the world will not refute that.

More dispatches by GlobalPost columnist HDS Greenway:

Hitting the 'reset' button

Bukhara on the Potomac

History repeats itself