As readers of this blog are aware, on Jan 19 2011 Ian McEwan announced he would accept the Jerusalem Prize, awarded by the Jerusalem Municipality to a writer whose work embodies the theme of ‘the freedom of the individual in society’. Twenty members of BWISP responded with a letter to The Guardian on Jan 24, urging McEwan to reject the Prize on the grounds that it is awarded by an apartheid state that routinely violates the human rights of Palestinians and Arab Israelis. This letter sparked a chain of responses.
Jan 25 brought a brief anti-boycott letter from Melvyn Bragg, defending (but not defining) ‘academic and intellecual freedom’; and a letter from Roland Rance describing McEwan as an ‘equivocating fence-sitter’. Jan 26 Ian McEwan replied to the BWISP letter, restating his intention to accept the Prize. He linked his decision to his faith in ‘dialogue, engagement’ and the ‘longer reach’ of literature and art, the latter embodied for him in what he called ‘Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’ (WEDO).
Jan 27 The Guardian published a letter from Boycott from Within!. This letter from Jerusalem reiterated BWISP’s main point that the prize, awarded by City Hall, is inherently political, the signatories refuting by their own example McEwan’s implication that the boycott movement is against cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. Jan 29, fourteen BWISP members who wished to continue this campaign responded to McEwan. In this second letter we asked him three direct questions, including whether or not he would have accepted a literary prize funded by apartheid South Africa. The letter was published above one by Royal biographer William Shawcross, who described the prize as not political, and Jerusalem as a multi-faith city where all may worship as they please. Like Melvyn Bragg’s pronouncement, these (at best) blinkered statements were not substantiated in any way by argument or example.
BWISP is still waiting for Ian McEwan to respond to the serious questions we put to him on Jan 29. In the meantime, Feb 2 The Guardian published a letter from Mariam Said, the widow of Edward Said. Said reminded McEwan of her late husband’s founding role in WEDO, and drew a sharp distinction between the Orchestra and the Jerusalem Prize. The latter, she argued, being awarded by a key Israeli state institution, undoubtedly fits the criteria outlined by the BDS movement.
BWISP would welcome the opportunity to take our conversation with Ian McEwan further. We trust that his commitment to ‘dialogue and engagement’ will compel him to respond to our letter, and to those from his other critics, all of which have called into question the factual and moral basis of his defense of his decision. We also dare to hope that, being opposed to the illegal settlements currently dispossessing the Palestinians of any kind of viable future statehood, Ian McEwan will earnestly want to act now in a way commensurate with the strength of that opposition. That way is to join the international BDS movement, a non-violent method of protest clearly and widely endorsed by Palestinian civil society.