Egyptian Minister Forced to Apologize for Threatening to Burn Books About Israel

11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Between Joe Wilson's outbreak in Congress, Kanye West's tantrum at the MTV music awards, and Serena Williams's meltdown at the US Open, the media has had plenty of mea culpas to focus on this week. All these other events, however, may have obscured the most important apology uttered recently. That dubious distinction belongs to Egypt's minister of culture, Farouk Hosny, who wants to be the next Director General of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

As Michael Slackman of the New York Times reported, the 71-year-old Hosny is more liberal than many of his Egyptian counterparts, and has criticized women's use of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

But in 2008, Hosny publicly said that he would burn all the books in Alexandria's library that had anything to do with Israel. He also called Israeli culture "racist." During his tenure as minister of culture, Hosny banned Israeli books and films, most notably The Band's Visit, a film about an Egyptian musical ensemble lost in a small, sand-blown Israeli town who eventually develop a bond with some of the resident Israelis.

According to reports, Hosny apologized in May but opposition to his appointment remains intense, with prominent Jewish voices like Elie Wiesel and Bernard-Henri Levy registering their disapproval. Other solid candidates for the position from Japan, Russia, and Africa have also emerged.

As part of his apology, Hosny promised to help commission the translation of Israeli writers into Arabic, but that's a wait-and-see if there ever was one.

In his recent column in the New York Times, Roger Cohen argues that we should forgive Hosny, let bygones be bygones, and embrace this potentially transformative figure in the Middle East. I happen to agree, but not wholeheartedly. Should we forgive Hosny? How meaningful is his apology? Should we really dismiss his threats to burn books? I might expect this from the minister of hyperbole, but it's a little unfitting for a minister of culture of an influential country that has a peace treaty with Israel.

Should the international community forgive Hosny? Or should it take a page out of Congress' playbook and have the UN scold him a la Joe Wilson?

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