The French revolution over Israeli literature

Haaretz november 21th 2007

By Daniel Ben Simon

PARIS - The French-Jewish novelist Marek Halter sat this week in a posh restaurant
on Avenue Montaigne, in the heart of the Parisian high-fashion district, and found it
hard to cap his enthusiasm. "You wouldn't believe how books about Jews and Israel
are in demand among French publishing houses," he declared, in a voice that drew the
attention of other diners. At the next table, Johnny Hallyday, perhaps the most popular
singer in France, was following Halter's pronouncements with intense interest.

Halter had just come from a meeting with his publisher after signing a new book
contract. "It will be about Jews and Poland," he said. "A few years ago, it might have
interested a few elderly Jews; now it interests the French public in general. Not just
Jews in Poland, but anything connected to Jews and Israel."

Halter remembers a time not so long ago when the mere mention of Israel would be a
source of discomfort, because of the bloody conflict with the Palestinians. Today,
Israeli authors like Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld are enjoying new-found popularity.

"I remember those days," said Edna Dagon, a former Israeli who lives in France and
promotes Israeli literature. "It was a desert. We would translate Meir Shalev and
barely manage to sell 3,000 books. Today it has changed utterly."

The French have welcomed Israeli literature with open arms. In March, 40 books by
Israeli authors will appear in translation at the annual Paris Book Fair, which is to be
launched by Israeli President Shimon Peres and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Dagon says French publishers are now open to Israeli writers and willing to hear about
the other side of the little country that causes such great global political shock waves.
"They are tired of the long conflict and are looking for another way to understand
what is happening," she said. "They realize that through Israeli literature, they can
penetrate Israeli society. Take, for example, Batya Gur's books. They've been
phenomenally successful, and through her, the French got to know the detective
Michael Ohayon and the behind-the-scenes of kibbutz society, relations between ethnic
communities and the tension between the founders and new immigrants."

New interest in Israeli literature reflects the recent thawing of relations between the
two countries at the diplomatic level. The turning point was probably when Israel
announced its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and the high point was then prime
minister Ariel Sharon's visit to France in July 2005, the month before disengagement.
No Israeli premier since David Ben-Gurion ever received such a welcome from the

Since then, relations have only improved, and were further enhanced by Sarkozy's
election in May. From his first day in the Elysee Palace, Sarkozy has not concealed his
fondness for Israel, and he has brought French public opinion on board.

"The end of the intifada and disengagement really did lead to a big boom, and revealed
another Israel to the French," said Miri Shek, a cultural curator and wife of Israel's
ambassador to France, Daniel Shek.

Halter agrees. "You know how good it feels that the French have discovered that this
little country has produced 40 writers translated into French? That honor is not given
to Belgium or Holland, nor to countries with much bigger populations," he said.

And it is not only books. Israeli movies are filling the cinemas and dance troupes the
theaters. The audiences used to be made up mainly of Jews expressing solidarity with
Israel. Now the audiences are mixed.

The French media are also involved. Most of the weeklies and monthlies are devoting
space to Israel at 60. L'Express is dedicating a whole issue to Israel, as are Le Nouvel
Observateur and others.

"Israel is still the most interesting journalistic project there is," said Vincent Hugeux,
senior foreign correspondent at L'Express. Advertisers agree - all the ad space has long
been sold, he noted.

Israeli soldiers and generals are "out," but poets, writers and architects are "in," said
Anita Mazor, cultural attache at the Israeli Embassy. "When a Frenchman from Dijon
goes to an Israeli movie, from my perspective it's as if he's visited Israel for an hour
and a half," she added.

Several French-Jewish literary figures have also contributed to the change, using their
appearances on television to present the other Israel, with its identity crises and
concerns about its future.

On Sunday evening, at the annual meeting of Friends of the Hebrew University in
Paris, a prize was awarded to Holocaust survivor and stateswoman Simone Veil. When
she spoke about her Jewishness and her bond with Israel, actor Alain Delon was so
moved he rose to his feet. "Every year there is more warmth and love," said Hebrew
University President Menachem Magidor.