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Not Big News Abroad

"Not Big News Abroad"
Published: HAARETZ, 2002-03-27
Author: Yair Ettinger

ABSTRACT: Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago compared the Israeli treatement of Palestinians in the West Bank to aushwitz.

QUOTE: Don't think that I'm an anti-Semite; it's got nothing to do with it," Saramago said. "The suffering that everybody knows the Jewish people suffered should have taught the Jewish people that it cannot behave according to methods that often resemble those of which it was itself a victim."

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Jose Saramago visits the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday.

Many of the readers of the popular Portuguese daily Publico probably skipped the short item on page 13 of yesterday's edition. Under the headline "Saramago compares the Israeli occupation to Auschwitz," the paper quoted the Nobel Prize for Literature laureate's remarks in Ramallah that caused such a storm in Israel.

"Every day, we give wide coverage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we were not aware of the powerful reaction that the statement aroused in Israel," said the article's author, Alessandra Coalio. "And besides, in Portugal we're already used to controversial remarks by Saramago."

On Monday, Saramago, on a visit to Ramallah, said, "What's happening here is a crime that can be compared to Auschwitz." His statements enraged not only Israeli government spokesmen, but also leading Israeli writers. Saramago, who came to the region with seven of his colleagues from the International Parliament of Writers, made his comments after a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The delegation, which also includes 1996 Nobel prize laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, visited Gaza yesterday and is scheduled to meet Israeli intellectuals and leftists in Jaffa tomorrow.

Despite Saramago's harsh statements and his lofty status, the international media paid little attention to the comments, with only a handful of papers even bothering to publish them.

In Portugal, Saramago's statement received "moderate coverage," according to Coalio, although in the coming days the country's media will probably cover the reaction in Israel.

In an interview with the radio station Antenne 1, Saramago yesterday repeated his comparison between the occupation with the Holocaust, rejecting accusations made against him by, among others, author Aharon Applefeld, that he is an anti-Semite. "Don't think that I'm an anti-Semite; it's got nothing to do with it," Saramago said. "The suffering that everybody knows the Jewish people suffered should have taught the Jewish people that it cannot behave according to methods that often resemble those of which it was itself a victim."

Saramago, 80, who has written over 30 works and won the Nobel prize in 1998, has never concealed his Communist and atheist beliefs. In recent years, he has commented on a number of regional conflicts, including calling for international intervention in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and supported Zapatista rebels in Mexico. In 1989, he was elected as the representative of the Communist Party to the Lisbon council, and three years ago he symbolically joined the party's list for elections to the European Parliament.

While Saramago is a popular figure in Portugal, it is unclear how much he influences public opinion there. "Saramago has a very important place in the public debate," said Collete Avital, a former ambassador to Lisbon. "He is quoted; he is talked about. But the local papers don't follow his every word. Saramago lives in the Canary Islands, and his Communist and anti-institutional beliefs have for years distanced him from the establishment," she said.

"It is difficult to believe that his comparison will be accepted by the Portuguese public. The Portuguese people are not an aggressive people; the Portuguese do not use such harsh language. This is a country that saved Jewish lives in the World War II, and one cannot truthfully say that today Portugal is an anti-Semitic country."

Coalio said the Portuguese are quite aware of the situation in the Middle East, and Israel's image there is not very positive. "People read about it every day in the paper, and we get a lot of reactions from readers," he said. "But one has to remember that Saramago's remarks were not about a national or Portuguese matter. Perhaps people will be interested in the shock that Saramago's comments aroused in Israel, and perhaps a couple of our columnists will respond to them, but it's hard to believe they'll kick up a storm."

But Saramago, whose books are read by millions in dozens of languages, has an influence on public opinion beyond Portugal and Israel. Therefore, Israel's Foreign Ministry, which has in the past year become accustomed to responding to criticism of the country by foreign statesmen, responded with harsh words to Saramago's comparison. "Stupidity," "ignorance" and "anti-Semitism" were just some of the words ministry officials used to describe Saramago's comments.

One official said that comments by intellectuals have a far wider impact than those by statesmen. He said the ministry was trying to point out the absurdity of Saramago's comparison, adding that he believed the author's remarks would spur some intellectuals in Israel and around the world into publishing articles in response, presenting the situation in a different light.

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