TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — An Israeli author whose book was rejected from the national high school curriculum because it depicts a Jewish-Arab love affair is achieving star status at home and abroad.
Sales of "Borderlife" by Dorit Rabinyan have skyrocketed, international inquiries have doubled, and American filmmakers are jockeying for the movie rights.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rabinyan described the uproar as embarrassing and said it has created "major chaos" for a writer who cherishes her private life. But she said the outpouring of support, at a time when critics are accusing the hard-line government of trying to stifle dissent, is "an expression of support for Israeli democracy."
Rabinyan, 43, wrote "Borderlife" in 2014 and won Israel's prestigious Bernstein literary prize last year. The novel rose to prominence in late December when Israel's Education Ministry rejected a request from teachers to add it to the national high school curriculum. At the time, the country's education minister said he did not want to promote the values in the book.
The novel describes a romance between Liat, an Israeli academic, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist from the West Bank, who meet in New York and fall in love. The couple's romance fizzles once they contemplate returning to the Holy Land. Hilmi hopes to maintain their relationship, while Liat is convinced it is doomed.
"Maybe the desire of Hilmi the Palestinian for togetherness, and the need of Liat for separation is the central issue of the Israeli-Palestinian space," Rabinyan said.
Rabinyan said the book is not autobiographical, but that she was inspired to write "Borderlife" after spending a year in New York City. While there, she said she met Palestinian students, scientists and artists — a rarity. Although 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs, Jews and Arabs have minimal interaction, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have little contact with Israelis other than soldiers.
"I had to cross two oceans to get to know for the first time, eye-to-eye, on foreign soil and speaking in English, my neighbors, those who grew up under the same sun on the same strip of land between the river and the sea," Rabinyan said. "It was a very meaningful experience."
Rabinyan said her book sold well when it was first released, but sales fell behind newer novels until the Ministry of Education decision sparked accusations of censorship.
"All of a sudden 10 days ago, boom, the book turned into the first topic at the news bulletins," she said. "It's not something you ever think will happen to you with a novel you write."
The press office at the Am Oved publishing house said more than 5,000 copies of Rabinyan's book have sold in the last 11 days, a huge figure in a country of 8 million people. Publishers have ordered an additional print run.
Jerusalem-based book agent Deborah Harris, who represents Rabinyan abroad, said the storm over the book had doubled interest from foreign publishers to some 20 countries. She said American filmmakers had approached her for film rights. The English edition of "Borderlife" should be published during 2016, she said.
In a TV interview, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the religious Jewish Home party, claimed the book glorified violence against Israeli soldiers and celebrated a romance between a "criminal Palestinian security prisoner" and an Israeli woman. "The education system does not have to promote values that contradict the principles of the state," he said.
He said the book was not banned, and students were welcome to read it on their own time. Israel's high school curriculum includes other books on several explosive issues, including "Khirbet Khizeh," a 1949 novel about the expulsion of Arabs from a fictional village by Israeli soldiers, and "A Trumpet in the Wadi," a 1987 novel about a love affair between a Jewish man and a Christian Arab woman. Rabinyan herself has another work on the curriculum.
Even so, the controversy erupted at a time of public debates over democratic values in Israel. Last month, Israeli Cabinet ministers gave preliminary approval to a bill, apparently aimed at groups that criticize the government, which would require activists for nonprofits that receive funding from foreign governments to wear special tags in the parliament building.
Earlier last year, Israel's culture minister froze funding for an Arab theater in the Israeli city of Haifa over the staging of a controversial play, eliciting criticism that she was impinging on freedom of expression. One of Israel's most celebrated authors, Amos Oz, announced in November he would not attend events at Israeli embassies overseas to protest the "growing extremism" of the government.
Rabinyan said the public rush to buy her novel was "not just an expression of support for me and my book and my work, but it's actually an expression of support for Israeli democracy."
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel has filed a petition to the Education and Justice ministries asking to reverse the decision. Attorney Tal Hassin wrote that the rejection "has no connection to professional and educational considerations."
The Education Ministry said it is not planning to revisit the decision. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is checking the legality of the decision, said Eden Klein, a Justice Ministry spokeswoman.
Books about Israeli-Palestinian romance are rare in both societies. Sameh Khader, the general manager of the Mahmoud Darwish museum in Ramallah, said few Palestinian writers explore the issue.
"People are very much stuck behind the concept of the hero who got arrested or wounded by Israelis," Khader said. "Palestinians have not gotten out of the issue of occupation in literature."
After the Ministry of Education decision, the entertainment magazine TimeOut Israel produced a video of Jewish-Arab couples kissing. It received more than 2.5 million views.
"We decided to make a stand against this racist and discriminating decision," said magazine editor Alexander Polonsky.
Rabinyan said the attention has been jarring. She moved apartments last week amid a tidal wave of press and still has not had time to hang art on the white walls of her modest living room in central Tel Aviv.
"I want my peace of mind back," she said. "There's a reason I picked this profession, and now I'm being asked to be the hero of a scandal."