Why Major Israeli Bookstore Chains Won’t Open in Arab Neighborhoods

There are two major bookstore chains inside Israel: Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. Haaretz recently looked at why neither has “even a single branch in an Arab [Palestinian] city or in the large population centers of the Arab [Palestinian] society in Israel.”

A Steimatzky. From Wikipedia.
From Wikipedia.

One big issue is that the import of Arabic books from Arab countries into Israel and occupied Palestine is subject to the approval of military censors. However, Arabic-book importer Saleh Abassi optimistically told Haaretz that the influence of the censors “has not been as great since the tenure of Shulamit Aloni.”

But buying Arabic books in most cities in Israel and occupied Palestine continues to be a challenge, and most Israeli-owned bookstores that offer Arabic books are very small.

About 20 percent of the population of Israel (not including occupied Palestine) is Palestinian. So why no book-store branches in Palestinian towns or neighborhoods? From Haaretz:

Asked about the subject, Steimatzky CEO Iris Barel offered the following comment: “I have asked Arab MKs several times to help locate Arab-language publishers, but regrettably there are hardly any. As a consequence, it’s not possible to open Steimatzky stores in locations with a clear-cut Arab majority and ensure that they will have the appropriate mix for that population. If enough publishers can be found, I will immediately open a branch in Arab locales, in addition to those that exist in places where there is a mixed [Jewish-Arab] population.”

A spokesman for competitor Tzomet Sfarim told the newspaper:

Tzomet Sfarim operates about 100 branches across Israel and sells the greatest possible variety of books in different languages. Because of a shortage of books that are translated into Arabic and the problems entailed in importing Arabic-language books into Israel, the number of Arabic-language books sold is relatively small. Lately, we have launched a pilot project of offering a selection of books in Arabic – those that are available from local publishers and distributors – in our new branch in Upper Nazareth. In the future, Tzomet Sfarim will examine the possibility of opening branches in the Arab community as well.

And the statement from the deputy chief military censor, Lt. Col. Ron Karnieli:

Military censorship carries out its tasks and missions according to the law. The military censor’s office examines publications, including the importation of books from Arab countries. As to the question of what influence this has on the market for books in Arabic in Israel, my subjective opinion is that it has no influence, but as the saying goes, a person shouldn’t blow his own horn.



  1. “About 20 percent of the population of Israel (not including occupied Palestine) is Palestinian.”

    What is ‘Israel’ if it is not occupied Palestine? What do you mean exactly by ‘Israel not including occupied Palestine’? That just doesn’t make sense.

    1. Yes, you’re right. In trying to distinguish between the different areas without using the ordinary worn-to-meaninglessness words I have simply created my own meaningless words. Next time.

  2. I only partially agree with D.

    If you’re making a moral argument, then yes, Israel is occupied Palestine. But if we’re speaking legally, it is important to distinguish. The state of occupation, which is a legal distinction, applies to the West Bank including Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. It does not apply to Palestinians who live inside the Green Line who are colonized, not occupied. From a strategy perspective, this is important because Palestinians derive certain rights from law. Rights-claiming is undermined when we distort the legal basis of claims. Similarly, Palestinians inside Israel, who are citizens of Israel, have claims to rights based on their legal status as citizens, which are rights that Palestinians in the occupied territory can’t claim–not legally at least. Now, if we talk neither morally nor legally but politically, then I personally think it’s critical to treat the Palestinian people as a unified whole, not as geographically or geopolitically distinct (which is, of course, Israel’s strategy, and one that the international governments have aided).

    But this particular article–another brilliant and important article by Marcia–really highlights the clash between the moral, legal, political and (to complicate matters even more) the cultural. Because speaking as someone who lives here and with the Palestinian community (though not biologically Palestinian), I think there are tensions and conflicts about Israeli provision of services in Palestinian areas under Israeli control. On the one hand, it feels important to fight for Israel to provide the services for which Palestinians pay taxes and to which they are entitled as rights-holders. This is a way to pressure Israel from within, to confront the inherent hypocrisy of claiming to be both zionist and democratic. On the other hand, I really don’t know of any Palestinians who would want an Israeli bookstore in a Palestinian area. I mean, they already took the whole country, can’t they just leave a little space that is Palestinian? On the other hand (I have three hands, apparently), those of us who buy books are very limited in where we can buy, and we do sometimes end up buying from Israeli bookstores, so why should we have to go so far to do so? On the other hand….

    My point is: The article brings up some deep issues that are worthy of discussion, far beyond what we call that space “inside” that, having been there myself, is definitely not Palestine–at least not right now.

  3. One part of the equation that might be overlooked in this specific instance is the availability of import from countries of Arabic language origin that have business relations in the territory. I thought of this when the reply came to be the inability to find Arabic language publishers smack dab in the center of the arabic cultural sphere. I live in the US and have no problem finding an arabic language bookstore in major cities. The publishers are there, but the business relationships are not. In a nuanced sort of way, it almost seemed to insinuate (the response given, not the article) that the Arabs are illiterate and have no publishing culture, which is not true.

Comments are closed.