Last week’s attack by Hamas on Israel and the ongoing Israeli retaliation is reverberating through the publishing world, particularly at two key upcoming publishing conferences: the Frankfurt Book Fair and Sharjah International Book Fair.
Last week, Israeli publishers, literary agents, and publishing organizations hurriedly sent emails canceling meetings they’d planned for Frankfurt, and the grief over the events of the past week has been palpable—especially over social media. Lucy Abrahams, a scout living in Tel Aviv, encouraged people to reach out to their colleagues in Israel, many of whom have family directly impacted by Hamas's attacks and the response. Benjamin Trivaks, chairman of the Book Publishers Association of Israel, told the Bookseller: “In light of the war in Israel, as far as I know, all the Israeli publishers and agents who had planned to attend Frankfurt will be canceling.”
Trivaks added: “Many stores, including bookstores, are currently closed or open for only limited hours and people are mostly staying home watching the news. Many people are also out volunteering. The publishers in the association are organizing donations of books—mainly children’s books—to the survivors of the massacres in southern Israel.”
Frankfurt Expresses Support for Israel
Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, released a statement last week saying that the fair intends to highlight Israeli voices at this year’s show—and that that the book fair “stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel.”
“We strongly condemn Hamas’s barbaric terror war against Israel," Boos stated, "and we are horrified. Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and all the people suffering in Israel and Palestine because of this war. The terror war against Israel contradicts all the values that Frankfurter Book Fair stands for. Frankfurter Book Fair has always been about humanity, its focus has always been on peaceful and democratic discourse. This humanity has been shattered once again by the attack on Israel by Hamas’s terrorists."
The fair has taken several actions in response to the news of the war, including adding more opportunities and time for Israeli and Jewish voices to take to the show's various stages. PEN Berlin is organizing a new event, “Out of Concern for Israel,” which will take place in the Frankfurt Pavilion on the first day of the fair; a panel discussion on the war is being planned with Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Centre in Frankfurt; and author Lizzie Doron will discuss the recent events during the Literary Gala on Saturday at the Fair.
Earlier in the week, the fair announced that it would no longer host a ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli, who was to be awarded LiBeraturpreis for her novel Minor Detail. Noting that the awards administrator, Litprom, made the decision, as it is "the organizer and solely responsible for awarding the prize," which is chosen by an independent jury, Boos added that "Litprom is looking for a suitable format and setting for the event after the book fair.” Initially, reports suggested that the Shibli had agreed to the changes, though that was denied by her publishers.
Minor Detail, a historical novel about the rape and murder of a Palestinian girl in the Negev Desert during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, has been widely praised; originally published in Arabic, the English-language translation by Elisabeth Jaquett and published by New Directions was shortlisted for a National Book Award in 2020 and longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021.
Litprom was founded in 1980 as a “Society for the Promotion of Literature from Africa, Asia, and Latin America” by journalists, publishers, translators, professors, church employees, development aid organizations, and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Since 1984, Litprom has operated a program to promote the translation of fiction works from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Arab world and, since 2017, from Turkey. The program is financed by funds from the German Federal Foreign Office, and provides annual grants to publishers for translation costs.
Some in the business have been rankled at comments, noting that Boos has a greater influence on the organization than he has suggested, as its site notes: "Litprom is headed by the president of Frankfurt Book Fair, Juergen Boos, underlining the strong connection to and within the German book market."
Writers Olivia Snaije and Marcia Lynx Qualey have circulated a letter condemning the decision to cancel the award ceremony that has garnered hundreds of signatures from authors, publishers, and other members of the industry. Snaije is a writer and editor who is presenting a new platform for the promotion of Arabic literature, LEILA, at the fair. Lynx Qualey is the publisher of Arablit, an English-language website and quarterly that covers Arabic literature.
The letter, which has been published on the Arablit website, reads, in part: "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. We need to look for new language and new ideas in order to approach these bleak times in a new way. For this, we need writers—including Palestinian writers—more than ever." Nearly 700 authors, editors, translators and other publishing personalities have signed. Bold faced names who are listed as having signed include Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ian McEwan, Mazaa Mengiste, Colm Toibin and Olga Tokarczuk.
Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, also signed the letter, and told PW, "For Germany to cancel an event of an important Palestinian book is a serious mistake. Germany has atoned for the Holocaust in very visible and respectable ways and to support Israel's announcement of their plan to commit a new genocide doesn’t align with an ethical stand."
Arabic Organizations Withdraw from Frankfurt
In reaction to the news of the postponed award ceremony for Shibli and Boos's subsequent comments, a number of major Arab publishing organizations have begun withdrawing from the Frankfurt Book Fair. Those organizations include the Arab Publishers' Association, the Emirates Publishers Association, the Sharjah Book Authority, and the PublisHer network, founded by Sharjah Book Authority chair Bodour Al Qasimi.
The aforementioned organizations typically have a significant presence at Frankfurt, including large stands on the show floor and jam-packed meeting schedules. This year, the SBA-sponsored Sharjah International Literary Agency was set to make its Frankfurt debut, under the leadership of Egyptian publishing professional Tamer Said; Sharjah was expected to be announced as the Guest of Honor at the 2024 Thessaloniki International Book Fair; and PublishHer was set to host several events, including daily morning coffee meetups and several panel discussions focused on professional development.
"Given the recent announcement by the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair, we have decided to withdraw our participation this year," the Sharjah Book Authority said in a statement announcing its plan to forgo attending Frankfurt. "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."
In her own statement, Bodour said: "I strongly believe in the fundamental rights of civilians worldwide to live in safety, free from the dangers of armed conflict. In times of crisis and conflict, I strongly advocate for the role of books, culture, authors, book fairs, intellectuals, and artists in promoting unity, deescalating tensions, and making diverse voices heard. By doing so, we can improve the prospects for peace and harmony."
Bodour added that the decision to pull out from the fair was "due to the FBF's choice to cancel the voice of an entire demographic by fully supporting Israel, which effectively leaves no space for dialogue and cultural exchange. In Sharjah, we firmly believe that book fairs should serve as platforms to foster dialogue and unite people, rather than driving them apart, especially at time of wars and conflict."
She continued: "At this time, there are no plans to change the topics covered in the panels or the overall program" at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which currently has more than 2,000 publishers and exhibitors from 108 nations scheduled to attend.
Abu Dhabi–based publication the National quoted from a letter addressed to Boos by Arab Publishers' Association president Mohammad Rashad, which expressed regret "at the biased and unjust stance towards the tragic events in the region," adding: "We certainly denounce any attack on a civilian from any side, but viewing the case from a single angle and accepting this injustice that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for decades is a big mistake. Moreover, your statements don't reflect at all the exceptional Arab relationships that have developed over the years between Frankfurt Book Fair administrations and Arab publishers. In light of your position, the Arab Publishers' Association has decided to withdraw its participation."
It remains to be seen whether the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, which sponsors the The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, will pull out from Frankfurt as well. The Frankfurt Book Fair and Litprom have been active in supporting the prize since its inception in 2007.
“We are sad to see that some exhibitors from the Arab region withdrew their participation in this year’s fair,” Boos said in a statement over the weekend. “To dispel false reports and misunderstandings that may have arisen in the past days: millions of innocent people in Israel and in Palestine are affected by this war, and our sympathy goes out to all of them. We truly hope that ways can be found to bring them out of this violence. Frankfurter Buchmesse stands for the peaceful encounter of people from all over the world. With people from more than 100 countries coming together in Frankfurt every year, the book fair has always been about humanity and its focus has always been on peaceful and democratic discourse.”
Others Condemn the War
"More killing, more loss, another generation who will remember the atrocities," José Borghino, secretary general for the International Publishers Association, told the Bookseller. "Humanity is poorer for our inability to resolve these long-standing conflicts. We extend our sincere hope to our publishing colleagues, and everyone in the region, that hostilities will cease as soon as possible."
In a statement, Richardo Franco Levi, president of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP), speaking on behalf of Europe's publishers, said that “European publishers condemn firmly the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas. Books should be the vehicle of peace and democracy everywhere in the world and we call on our fellow publishers to support peace with the means they have; books contributing to build empathy between people. FEP has written to the Israeli Publishers Association to ensure them of their solidarity in these dire times.”
On publishing social media forum Publishers Without Borders, comments grew heated and the moderators, which include individuals from Canada, Egypt, India, Italy and the U.K., were forced to shut down comments on the forum for a period of time to allow “heads to cool.” Hundreds of individuals on the forum will attend either the Frankfurt Book Fair or Sharjah International Book Fair.
Frankfurt has long dealt with cultural clashes and strained juxtapositions due to geopolitical turmoil. In 2008, the stands for Georgia and Russia were adjacent to each other only weeks after Russia had invaded and annexed Georgian territory and bombed its capital, Tbilisi. In 2009, China's guest of honor program saw vigorous protests from those supporting the plight of the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group that has been subjected to human rights abuses by the Chinese government.
In 2016, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's mass jailing of authors and reporters roiled fairgoers, and last year, Frankfurt suspended Russia's stand at the fair following the onset of the nation's war against Ukraine. The Israel booth at Frankfurt has been the target of antisemitic activity in the past, and is typically guarded by armed security.
Additional impact resulting from the war on Sharjah’s forthcoming fair remains to be seen. The show has seen a growing presence of American and international publishers and librarians over the past several years, and includes an education program for 120 Arab and African publishers cohosted by New York University.
This story was updated on October 16 and will continue to be updated as it develops.