Last month Maajid Nawaz, above, writer and broadcaster best known for his anti-extremist activism via Quilliam, heartily recommended a new book called The Siege of Tel Aviv by Hesh Kestin to his many friends and followers.
Today, in his daytime slot on London’s LBC radio, Nawaz, a staunch opponent of censorship, expressed his outrage that the book, a parody, had been pulled by its independent publisher, Dzanc Books after “Twitteridiots” castigated the publication’s “Islamophobia” and “racism”.
When the book was published last month, Stephen King said it was “scarier” than anything he ever wrote, but also that:
An irrepressible sense of humor runs through it … it’s stuff like the cross-dressing pilot (my favorite character) and any number of deliciously absurd situations (the pink jets). It’s the inevitable result of an eye that sees the funny side, even in horror. So few writers have that. This novel will cause talk and controversy. Most of all, it will be read.
In an interview with Nawaz today, Kestin explained that the publisher had initially stood its ground against the “Twitteridiots” who attacked it, but later buckled under pressure.
So what is it about? Amazon, which still has it in stock, says:
Iran leads five armies in a brutal victory over Israel, which ceases to exist. Within hours, its leaders are rounded up and murdered, the IDF is routed, and the country’s six million Jews concentrated in Tel Aviv, which becomes a starving ghetto. While the US and the West sit by, Israel’s enemies prepare to kill off the entire population.
On the eve of genocide, Tel Aviv makes one last attempt to save itself, as an Israeli businessman, a gangster, and a cross-dressing fighter pilot put together a daring plan to counterattack. Will it succeed?
Originally the book’s description said “five Arab armies” but this was changed after it was pointed out that Iran is not an Arab nation. But this was a minor gripe compared to the outrage expressed on Twitter about the novel’s “Islamophobia” and “racism”.
The book’s description immediately sparked an uproar on Twitter. Writer Nathan Goldman Goldman said that as soon as he read the marketing copy of the book – he says he has not read the book in its entirety– he knew the racist rhetoric it was implying.
This is clear from the copy’s misidentification of Iran as an Arab nation, the stated premise of a broad multinational Islamic conspiracy to wipe out the Jews, the use of the pejorative spelling ‘Moslem’, the link drawn between the ‘Moslem armies’ and Nazis, and the promise of fun and humor in justified Israeli retribution against Muslim oppressors.
I found it indistinguishable from right-wing Israeli propaganda. This is the kind of thing that helps to bolster rampant Islamophobia in Israel (which justifies continued violence against Palestinians), among Jews worldwide, and in the broader culture.
Emmy Award-winning poet Tariq Luthun, who also engaged in the Twitter conversation, said that he doesn’t know the writer’s specific ideologies, but what he read in the description and the excerpt available online goes beyond Islamophobia.
We’re also talking about racialized communities; we’re talking about the conflation of Iranian with Arab [identity] – this kind of trope that Arabs are trying to enact a second Holocaust.
Steve Gillis, co-founder of Dzanc Books, has now apologised.
If an error has been committed, it is not in our intent, but in the failure to consider how readers might perceive the novel. It was my own blindness, and reading the novel as a parody, which has me so troubled now.
But some worry that even as a parody, the book would tap into the fear-mongering against Muslims that happen in right-wing spaces. Said Goldman:
I think the most generous reading of this defense would be that the entire book is meant to parody a racist, Islamophobic, right-wing Israeli attitude. But the excerpts of the book I have read don’t display the self-awareness such a project would have to show, at a bare minimum – nor does the marketing copy, nor do the statements I’ve seen from the author. In fact, the quotes I’ve seen from his preface to the book suggest that the book presents his worldview quite earnestly.
For the record, Nawaz has dismissed the word ‘Islamophobia” and its definition as being “not fit for purpose“– and today he exhorted his listeners to buy the book.
Hesh Kestin was for two decades a foreign correspondent, reporting from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa on war, international security, terrorism, arms dealing, espionage, and often equally shadowy global business.
Formerly the London-based European correspondent for Forbes, he is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces.