Israel’s best-known novelist, Amos Oz, this week declared himself to be “very angry” with the Israeli government over its Gaza incursion, and insisted that the operation should have been restricted to just 48 hours. It had been, he said, “very cruel”, and had resulted in “unjustified loss of life” among the civilian population.
But Mr Oz, speaking on the opening night of Jewish Book Week to a capacity audience, nevertheless cautioned that criticism of Israel, while legitimate, should be tempered with “solidarity” for the Jewish state.
This year’s festival, which ends on March 1, has seen an upsurge in ticket sales and attendances compared to last year, when the event was hit by the pull-out of several headline names.
By Monday, the main 550-seat venue at the Royal National Hotel, central London, had hosted four evening sell-outs: both of Amos Oz’s events, Jonathan Miller’s conversation with Mark Lawson and Simon Schama’s talk on American politics.
But interest in daytime sessions was also high, with Irma Kurtz and Maureen Lipman reading excerpts from their books on the ageing process to a sizeable lunchtime crowd on Monday.
Children’s events on Sunday also attracted a high turnout, with US author Joe Friedman performing comedy to entranced four to eight-year-olds.
Book Week director Geraldine D’Amico said the record-breaking turn-outs had been pleasantly surprising.
“Last year’s numbers were down a little, for the first time. But this year has been bigger than 2007,” she said.
“We were worried because of the credit crunch but we haven’t raised the prices for the last three or four years and maybe people feel this is one essential event of the year.
“I thought last year we had fantastic speakers but not necessarily ‘celebrities’. Many were well-known in Israel but not the UK; we live in a world led by celebrity culture and that extends even to Jewish Book Week.
“It buoys us for the future, but it will also be a difficult act to follow.”
Miriam Robinson, promotions executive for Foyles, the festival’s bookseller, said sales supported Ms D’Amico’s positive view.
“We are very pleased with how things have gone. Sales have been better than we expected.
“There have been a number of really strong events and, with ticket sales up, more people seem to be buying books as well.
“Amos Oz was clearly a big attraction and lured people in. Both his events were very successful for us.”