Frankfurt Book Fair faces international pressure and isolation following cancellation of a literature award to Palestinian author: Nobel laureates protest, authors and publishers leave.

FRANKFURT AM MAIN (Own report) – International protest is mounting against the cancellation of a literature award to a Palestinian author at the Frankfurt Book Fair. At the end of last week, the director of the book fair, Juergen Boos, had decreed that “in light of the terror against Israel” the internationally highly praised book “A Minor Matter” by author Adania Shibli could not be honored in Frankfurt. A discussion panel with the Palestinian was also canceled. More than 700 writers, translators and publishers from all over the world, including Nobel Prize laureates and other world-famous authors, have been protesting against the German decision: Literature must “encourage understanding and dialogue between cultures,” they write. Moreover, writers and publishers from the Arab and/or Islamic world are withdrawing from the book fair. An Egyptian author declared that he does not want to be a party to “the silencing of Palestinian voices” in Frankfurt. Using cultural events to serve German foreign policy interests can already be observed since February 24, 2022 with the example of cancelling Russian culture – and now it is becoming more widespread.

“A Horrific Atrocity”

Palestinian author Adania Shibli was originally scheduled to receive the LiBeraturpreis this Friday within the framework of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The prize is awarded annually to writers from Africa, the Arab world, Asia and Latin America by the Frankfurt-based LitProm association. LitProm’s president Juergen Boos is also Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The novel “Eine Nebensache,” (Minor Detail) for which Shibli was to be awarded, describes how a unit of Israeli soldiers caught a Muslim Bedouin girl, held her captive, gang-raped and executed her in 1949. It is based on historically verified facts uncovered almost exactly 20 years ago by the Israeli daily Haaretz. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, called the crime a “a horrific atrocity.”[1] Shibli's novel has been translated into several languages. In the United States it has been published by the prestigious New Directions Publishing and was a 2020 National Book Award finalist. The book has been criticized; however, as observers generally note, it has been “largely praised by literary critics.”[2]

Double cancellation

The decision to cancel the award ceremony for Shibli was announced by the Book Fair late last week, without consulting the author. “In light of the terror against Israel” the book could no longer be honored in Frankfurt, was the reason given. [3] Instead. “standing with complete solidarity on the side of Israel,” the Book Fair will make “Jewish and Israeli voices (…) particularly visible,” Director Boos announced. A discussion panel with Shibli and her translator Günther Orth, originally planned in addition to the award ceremony, was also canceled by the book fair.

“Racist Stance”

The decision to exclude Shibli and with her Palestinian perspectives on the Middle East conflict has provoked strong protests. Several authors, who have been asked to appear at the book fair have canceled their participation. Syrian writer Mohammad al Attar explained his reason, “the Frankfurt Book Fair seems to have abandoned its basic duty to provide an environment that welcomes free expression and debate.”[4] Egyptian author Shady Lewis cited the fair’s “racist stance and direct participation in the silencing of Palestinian voices.” Exhibitors also withdrew from the fair. Already on Saturday, the Sharjah Book Authority from the United Arab Emirates explained why it would no longer participate in the Frankfurt event: “we champion the role of culture and books to encourage dialogue and understanding between people.”[5] At the beginning of this week, Malaysia’s education ministry and the Indonesian Publishers Association pulled out and several Arab publishers announced that they would stay away from the book fair.[6]

Dialogue not Exclusion

At the beginning of the week, an Open Letter was published in which already more than 700 writers, translators and publishers – - with new signatures being added by the hour – have protested vehemently against the cancellation of the literature prize award to Shibli. The Open Letter cites Shiblis’ British publisher Jacques Testard (Fitzcarraldo),”one of the purposes of literature is to encourage understanding and dialogue between cultures. At a time of such horrific violence and heartbreak, the world’s biggest book fair has a duty to champion literary voices from Palestine and Israel.”[7] This is endorsed by the signatories. They include three Nobel Prize winners - Abdulrazak Gurnah, Annie Ernaux, Olga Tokarczuk -, three Booker Prize winners - Anne Enright, Richard Flanagan, Ian McEwan -, the 2021 LiBeratur Prize winner Pilar Quintana, other world-renowned authors such as the Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra or the British historian William Dalrymple, and many more. Particularly German names are rare on the list of signatures.

Banning Palestinian Scarfs

The cancellation of literature prize award to Shibli is paralleled by rapidly increasing repression of public expressions by Palestinians in Germany. In recent days, Palestinian rallies have been regularly banned – and not just when they appeal for support of Hamas. Even a rally of Jews in Berlin, who intended to protest the bombing of the Gaza Strip, was banned by the authorities.[8] According to a decree issued by the Senate of Berlin on October 13, “visibly wearing of relevant articles of clothing” can be banned at Berlin’s schools, “such as the kufiya known as the Palestinian scarf.” This and other bans are explicitly only “examples” of a list that can be extended.

Standing Ovations

The cancellation of the award ceremony is but the latest example of the use of cultural events to serve German foreign policy interests.[9] The measures taken against Russian culture since February 24 last year, are well known. Immediately after the beginning of the war, presentations of Russian films were canceled in Germany, Russian artists were disinvited, and music by Russian composers was removed from the program. The Frankfurt Book Fair excluded the Russian national exhibition stand [10] Even beyond that, Russian publishers would not be represented because citizens of Russia were not granted visas, a spokeswoman for the book fair announced last year [11]. At the same time, Ukrainian author Serhij Zhadan received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in October 2022. In his book “Heaven over Kharkiv” published shortly before by the renowned German Suhrkamp publishing house, Zhadan had called Russians “criminals”, “animals”, “filth”,[12] and written, “Russians are barbarians.... Burn in hell, you swine.” At the award ceremony in Frankfurt's Paulskirche, the audience gave him a standing ovation lasting minutes.[13]


[1] Aviv Lavie, Moshe Gorali: ’I Saw Fit to Remove Her From the World’. haaretz.com 29.10.2003.

[2] Preisverleihung verschoben. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 16.10.2023.

[3] Preis für palästinensische Autorin wird nicht auf der Buchmesse verliehen. spiegel.de 13.10.2023.

[4], [5] Dismay over silencing of Palestinian voices overshadows day 1 of 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair. arablit.org 17.10.2023.

[6] Israel-Hamas tensions hit world’s biggest book fair. arabnews.com 17.10.2023.

[7] An Open Letter in Support of Adania Shibli From More Than 350 Writers, Editors, and Publishers. lithub.com 17.10.2023.

[8] „Gefahr der Volksverhetzung”. Berliner Polizei untersagt jüdische Kundgebung am Oranienplatz – Palästina-Soli-Demo am Brandenburger Tor aufgelöst. tagesspiegel.de 14.10.2023.

[9] See also Waffen für Israel and Imminent Humanitarian Catastrophe.

[10] See also Die dritte Front.

[11] Frankfurter Buchmesse ohne russische Verlage. deutschlandfunkkultur.de 11.10.2022.

[12] Volker Weidermann: Krieg und Frieden. zeit.de 20.10.2022.

[13] Serhij Zhadan mit Friedenspreis ausgezeichnet. hessenschau.de 23.10.2023.