Hesh Kestin, the author of Siege of Tel Aviv, the controversial novel about the conquest and destruction of Israel by five Arab armies led by Iran that was pulled by Dzanc Books a week after its April 16 release, is offering a free sample of the book on his website. Currently, half of the book is free for download, but Kestin expects to soon be selling complete digital editions both on his website and through Amazon.
Kestin, who disagrees with Dzanc's decision to pull the book after it was condemned on social media and elsewhere for containing Islamophobic themes and content, told PW in a telephone interview that he is considering self-publishing the book in paper formats at some point, or else he will obtain hard copies from Dzanc to put out into the marketplace himself. Dzanc reverted all rights to Siege of Tel Aviv to Kestin as of April 23. According to the publisher, 1,000 copies of the 2,000 copy first print run already have shipped to retailers. Dzanc intends to pulp any returns that Kestin does not buy from the small literary nonprofit press.
The same day Dzanc announced it was reverting the rights to Kestin, Arkansas International, a review publication affiliated with the University of Arkansas, which had published a review of Siege of Tel Aviv that Kestin described as “glowing,” removed the review from its website, stating only that it had made a mistake in posting the review. A Google search did not turn up any other book reviews in consumer or trade media for Siege of Tel Aviv.
“The only solution is for me to make the book available. I want people to read it and I’d like to sell books,” Kestin said, maintaining that, as far as he could ascertain, only "13 people on Twitter" criticized the novel for what he considers trivial reasons, such as calling Muslims "Moslems," adding that he believed most of them did not read it.
It's an assertion that Dzanc disputes. In an email to PW, Michelle Dotter, Dzanc's publisher/editor-in-chief, says that besides "significantly more than 13" tweets condemning the novel for its "portrayal of Palestinians, 'othering' language, racial stereotypes, and sexist portrayals of the female characters," what decided the matter for the the small literary nonprofit press was the private receipt of messages from more than 100 individuals, as well as Dzanc authors, book reviewers, and various booksellers, all expressing their concerns that Siege of Tel Aviv "spread harmful narratives that are all too prevalent in the current political climate." After Dzanc personnel reread the book, "[we] independently came to the conclusion that we no longer supported the work's narrative or generalizations regarding Muslims. The book doesn't read as satire in 2019; it reads as mean-spirited and cavalier toward the harm it may do."
Much of the blame for the novel’s mixed reception, Kestin argues, is that Dzanc misrepresented it as "bizarrely funny" satire, a parody. “It’s realistic, drenched in blood,” he told PW. “Even though there’s humor in it, it’s hardly satire. It’s not meant as fantasy. It’s not inconceivable that Arab armies would attack Israel: it’s happened five times already.”
Kestin denies that he hates or fears Muslims, but rather, only those who oppose the existence of a Jewish state. Pointing out that Siege of Tel Aviv "has Arab heroes," Kestin disclosed that he served under Arab commanders and alongside Arab soldiers during his five years in the Israel Defense Forces. Declaring himself as “Islamophobic only while being faced with mechanized divisions of Arab armies,” Kestin said that fearing “militant Islam is hardly a neurosis.”
“That a publishing house pledged to independence has allowed itself to be bullied by a mob that could fit into my kitchen—and my kitchen is a small one—says entirely too much about the [current] state of publishing in America," Kestin says. It's a point on which Dotter agrees with, though with a caveat. "Conceptually, the idea of books being pulled because of online outrage is concerning," she said. "That can't mean, however, that a press can never legitimately make a mistake in publishing a book that doesn't pass the balancing test, and once that mistake's been made, that we can't correct it."