Frankfurt Book Fair hit by furor after postponing prize for Palestinian author

600 sign letter accusing organizers of muting Palestinian voice by withholding award from Adania Shibli, whose book ‘A Minor Detail’ has been panned as antisemitic, anti-Israel

Screen capture from video of Palestinian author Adania Shibli, 2021. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screen capture from video of Palestinian author Adania Shibli, 2021. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The postponement of a Palestinian author’s award ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair due to the Israel-Hamas war triggered condemnation Monday from high-profile authors, while several Arab publishing groups withdrew.

Palestinian author Adania Shibli was due to be honored at the fair for her book “A Minor Detail,” a thriller based on the real events of a 1949 rape and murder by Israeli soldiers. However, the work has faced criticism for what some accuse are antisemitic and anti-Israel themes, with one critic saying it portrays Israel as a “murder machine.”

The annual fair is the world’s biggest publishing trade event, bringing together thousands of book industry players and authors.

After Palestinian terror group Hamas launched the deadliest assault in Israel’s history on October 7, killing over 1,300 people, book fair organizers condemned the “barbaric” attack and said Israeli voices would be given prominence.

It was also announced that Shibli would not be honored with the LiBeraturpreis, a German award, at the fair, as had been originally planned on October 20.

It is organized by the group Litprom, which awards it each year at the book fair.

But the group said it had decided not to go ahead with the ceremony “due to the war started by Hamas.”

Graphic content: The bodies of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas terrorists lie covered in the southern city of Sderot on October 7, 2023, after a massacre carried out by over 1,500 gunmen from the terrorist organization from Gaza. (Oren ZIV / AFP)

It said in a statement that it was looking for a “suitable format and setting for the event at a later point,” adding that: “Awarding the prize to Adania Shibli was never in question.”

But the decision was condemned in an open letter with over 600 signatories, including Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk, both winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and other writers including Pankaj Mishra, William Dalrymple and Colm Toibin.

The organizers were “closing out the space for a Palestinian voice,” said the letter, published on Monday.

“The Frankfurt Book Fair has a responsibility, as a major international book fair, to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down,” it added.

As well as authors, it was signed by publishers and literary agents.

Some Arab publishing industry groups announced over the weekend they were pulling out of the fair, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday.

Announcing its withdrawal, Sharjah Book Authority, in the United Arab Emirates, said in a statement that “we champion the role of culture and books to encourage dialogue and understanding between people.”

“We believe that this role is more important than ever,” it said.

The Emirates Publishers Association released a similar statement, while the UAE-based National newspaper reported the Arab Publishers’ Association in Egypt had also pulled out.

“A Minor Detail” already faced controversy in the past when Ulrich Noller, a journalist on the Litprom jury, resigned in protest over its being awarded the prize, reportedly saying the novel has “anti-Israel and antisemitic narratives, and it not only allows such readings, but opens up space for them.”

Last week, Carsten Otte, a literary critic in the left-leaning German newspaper Die Tageszeitung, questioned giving the prize to Shibli, saying her novel portrays Israel as a “murder machine.”

“All Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers,” he wrote.

Describing Shibli as a “committed” activist of the boycott Israel movement, Otte wrote that “after the mass murders by the Hamas terrorists, awarding of the prize would be almost unbearable.”

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel on October 15, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In its shock assault on Israel, Hamas breached the border with the Gaza Strip and sent over 1,500 gunmen who overran military posts, towns and communities in the south. Under the cover of a simultaneous barrage of 5,000 rockets all over Israel, the terrorists murderously rampaged through the south, slaughtering men, women, and children. Over 1,000 civilians were killed, including dozens of babies, with reports of rape, torture, and victims mutilated. In addition, the terrorists abducted nearly 200 people of all ages who were dragged back to Gaza as hostages.

Thousands more were injured, hundreds of them seriously. Hamas has continued to rain rockets on southern and central Israel since the initial assault, causing more deaths and injuries.

Israel has retaliated to the massive terror attack with intensive artillery and airstrikes on Gaza and has declared its intention to eradicate Hamas, and officials from the Hamas-controlled health ministry estimate that some 2,700 Palestinians have been killed. Israel says it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out, while issuing evacuation warnings to civilians in regions it plans to attack.

“Minor Detail” is almost a thriller, recounting a historical horror story: the rape and murder of a young Arab Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers in 1949.

A timeline detailing the true-life incident alternates with that of a fictional young woman in present-day Ramallah who becomes obsessed with the crime, which was revealed decades later in the pages of the Haaretz daily.

Twenty soldiers involved in the 1949 rape and murder were sent to military prison; then-prime minister David Ben Gurion deemed the assault a “horrific atrocity,” according to Haaretz.

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