By Naomi Foyle
It has been widely publicised that on Feb 18th Ian McEwan, in town to pick up his tainted Jerusalem Prize, attended a demonstration against the demolition of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.
On Feb 20th, McEwan’s next photo op found him at the International Conference Centre in West Jerusalem, shaking hands with Mayor Nir Barkat and President Shimon Peres, the authors of the very crimes he had been protesting against two days before. Here Minister of Sports and Culture Limor Livnat welcomed McEwan, and announced the launch of the People of the Book Translation Fund, which, in utter contempt for Arab-Israeli writers, will provide 500,000 NIS (about $150,000) toward translating into English over 10 Hebrew language books each year. Here, also, McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize with a speech he clearly hoped would exonerate him from the charge of profoundly betraying the Palestinian people, as well as his own apparent ideals.
Though not quite the incoherent ramblings of Muammar Gaddafi’s last stand, McEwan’s speech swung wildly in tone and content. He began by expressing craven gratitude to the state of Israel for hoisting his name up to ‘sit so awkwardly beside’ – oops! wrong quote! – I mean ‘stand alongside’ those of Isaiah Berlin and Simone de Beauvoir. [It is ‘the freedom of the individual’ that apparently sits awkwardly in Jerusalem…] McEwan next ‘reluctantly, sadly’ conceded that his critics (BWISP, though he could not bring himself to name us) were correct to insist he could not escape the politics of the prize; then, after retreating into a comforting fantasy of ‘the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel’, and treating his audience to a wholly Euro-centric view of the novel in Israel, he launched into a sustained and stinging criticism of Israeli and Palestinian ‘nihilism’. To strained silence, and a single ‘boo’, McEwan condemned Hamas rocket attacks, home demolitions, Operation Cast Lead, the siege of Gaza, and the racist Right of Return granted only to Jews, naming them all the opposite of ‘creativity’. He concluded by urging his hosts to end the ‘settlements and encroachments’; embrace a vision of Jerusalem as a twin capital; and in their urban planning and nation building ‘to aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel…’
Where to begin? BWISP has always taken a Zero Tolerance attitude to McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize. If he had stood up and endorsed the boycott of settlement goods, or called for diplomatic sanctions against the country until the siege of Gaza was ended, we would not have praised his speech, which was rendered meaningless by the context in which he made it. Nevertheless, in the spirit of ‘dialogue and engagement’ I will make a few personal comments on his words.
First, my own view of politics is miles from McEwan’s. To me it is self-evident that politics – like spirituality, emotion and creativity – extends into every aspect of human life. This is not a fact to be deplored or regretted, but a great challenge and opportunity to be embraced. And by that I do not mean I aspire to stand at a podium and tell war criminals to be poetic and imaginative and embrace diversity. For me, the way is the goal. If I want to live in a free and equal world, I must work with others as equals, in a deeply democratic manner. And when people are clearly oppressed, if I genuinely want to help their cause, I must work constructively through and against my own privileged preconceptions to stand and act in solidarity with them. I am as much a product of Western individualism as any middle-class white Euro-American writer – and I am also a feminist to the bone – but I believe that by opening myself up not only to the suffering and sumud (steadfastness) of the Palestinians, but also their deep insights into their own condition, I will grow as a person in ways that not only I, but also the world may need. For me (and for BWISP) to respond to the Palestinian call for boycott, to engage with PACBI – who have only ever communicated with me in a respectful, open and dynamic manner – is a way of actively dismantling the British and Western imperialism that has created the grotesque injustices the Palestinians have faced for 62 years. Naturally, paradoxes, mistakes and contradictions abound in life and in politics, but for me these could never extend to accepting money, hospitality or accolades from an apartheid state that rains terror and white phosphorus down on children in an open air prison, enacts laws that institutionalise racism, and builds a wall that not only steals a people’s land, but cruelly impedes the free passage of ambulances, pregnant women, students, teachers, day labourers, even truckloads of paper, chocolate and cement.
Perhaps Ian McEwan’s blinkered sense of politics explains his refusal to recognise the asymmetry of the Arab-Israeli conflict: for example, the fact that the rocket attacks, tragic as they are for all concerned, are clearly a reaction to the Occupation and not its cause. I cannot speak for other BWISP members on the issue of Hamas, but I myself made a commitment to BDS – and indeed co-founded BWISP – because it seems to me that if the international community does not actively embrace this non-violent method of resistance, we leave the Palestinians no choice but to resort to rockets and suicide attacks. As the Palestine Papers have demonstrated once and for all, ‘dialogue and engagement’ with the Israeli state only buys it time to consolidate its conquest of Palestine. Israel must discover that its belligerent expansionism comes at a cost. Governments are not yet willing to teach this lesson, so individuals and businesses must do so. The price BDS asks is absolutely not that of human life and limb, but will be taken, brick by brick, from Israel’s wall of ecomonic, cultural and academic wealth and prestige. Naturally political negotiations must continue, but they must include Hamas, with no preconditions. And they should be backed up by the S of BDS – political sanctions against Israel until it respects human rights and complies with international law.
McEwan’s inability to address Israeli violence, ethnic cleansing and apartheid as inherent aspects of the state’s colonialist goals, is an intellectual and moral failure that BWISP has tried to confront since our first letter to him. But oblivious to the political realities of the ‘facts on the ground’ he so deplores, he clings to the vacuous yet lethal belief that Israel ‘is a place of true democracy of opinion’. And in a final effort to have a ‘balanced’ trip to Jerusalem, he donated his $10,000 prize money to the Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace.
CfP, a group of ex-fighters on both sides of the conflict, professes entirely worthwhile goals: to end the occupation, to empower Palestinians and to educate in particular Israelis about the need to stop using violence in place of diplomatic negotiations. I was personally surprised that the group took McEwan’s money, as according to PACBI, two years ago, though an announced beneficiary of the Leonard Cohen concert in Tel Aviv fund, CfP ‘informed the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel in writing that they had decided not to participate in the concert and not to accept any funds from its proceeds’. But this organisation is relatively new, and expanding fast. And its logo, as a BWISP member pointed out to me, depicts two fighters each discarding an equal-sized weapon. Perhaps given its growing bi-national membership, CfP has been unable to sustain its initial support of the cultural boycott of Israel. I personally hope that internal debates may reawaken CfP’s members’ sense that their stated commitments to non-violence, and to working with other peace organisations, should extend to standing with the 170 Palestinian civil society groups that have endorsed the call to BDS. Otherwise, I fear that their position and reputation within the Palestinian Solidarity Movement may be terribly damaged – as indeed is already happening.
Reactions to McEwan’s speech came thick and fast. On Feb 22nd Mondoweiss published two posts, one a sharp retort by BWISP member Eleanor K, concluding that McEwan’s decision to stand with Barkat and Peres ‘underlined the poverty of his discourse’; and one by Marc Estrin, who ‘found the speech on the whole to be intellectually, and perhaps psychologically dishonest, calling up many frequent zionist tropes to mask and distort the reality on the ground.’
As BWISP joined forces with BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian Call to Boycott from Within to collectively compose our own response to the speech, on Feb 22 The Guardian published two short pro-McEwan letters. One kindly suggested that BWISP members now ‘eat their words’; the other was a single sentence declaring that ‘McEwan has shown that dialogue is more effective than boycotts’. This stunning refutation of BWISP’s position was pulled out of a vacuum of logic unencumbered by a single comparative example of a writer boycotting the prize; or indeed, a jot of evidence that McEwan’s speech had had, or would have, any effect whatsoever on the policies he denounced. It was especially disturbing to read this facile comment knowing that the false dichotomy of ‘dialogue vs boycott’ flies in the face of the actual dynamics of a debate in which Ian McEwan feels free to ignore his critics; BOYCOTT! members in Israel may soon face criminal charges for supporting BDS; and The Guardian‘s Harriet Sherwood – despite being sent press releases by BOYCOTT! – did not seek out BDS activists or Palestinian writers for her article of Feb 20, but lazily allowed McEwan to mis-define the movement for the paper’s readers.
On the evening of Feb 22nd, Ofer Neiman of BOYCOTT! and other Israeli activists confronted McEwan at a reading in Jerusalem, unfurling a large banner in the front row to remind the feted author that he was still ‘shaking hands with apartheid’. ‘Mr McEwan,’ Neiman reminded our Ian, ‘an apartheid system is not a democracy’. The writer, Mondoweiss reported on Feb 23rd, ‘did not seem very pleased’.
Meanwhile, Gabriel Ash of Jews Sans Frontieres weighed into the debate with two nicely contrasting posts. The first, Feb 23, was a spoof dialogue between McEwan and Peres at the ICC after award bash, ending with McEwan’s plaintive bleat ‘I feel dirty’, to which Peres responds, ‘You’ve got dip on your tie’. On Feb 24 the indefatigable Ash also contributed a superb analysis of McEwan’s ‘racist, white supremacist, misleading, confused, and Islamophobic’ speech, crediting the BDS movement for forcing the ‘imperial liberal’ to go much further in his criticisms of Israel than he clearly wanted or expected to.
Feb 25th, the BWISP and BOYCOTT! letter appeared in The Guardian Online. Unless McEwan responds, which given his less-than-chatty track record we do not expect, this letter and post will conclude our Jerusalem Prize 2011 campaign. Unlike campaigns to ask Gil Scott Heron and Elvis Costello not to gig in Israel, ours has not been an unqualified success. However, during the last month BWISP has consolidated its national profile, and achieved an international reach, with world-wide reports on McEwan in Jerusalem mentioning the pressure he has been under to reject the prize. This blog has more than tripled its hits, and we have attracted five new members. Most importantly, backed by the moral force of PACBI, and assisted by our gutsy Israeli friends in BOYCOTT!, we have de-normalised the Jerusalem Prize. No writer offered it in the future will be able to take it without giving serious thought to the issues we have raised. BWISP therefore dares to hope that our intense effort over the last month to lobby McEwan, and respond to his actions, has been a valuable contribution to raising the profile of the cultural and academic boycott in the UK.
Please note: The Guardian published our letter in full, with one crucial edit. Where we wrote ‘is rank hypocrisy’, they published ‘appears’. I therefore conclude this post with the original letter and its 35 signatories:
After rejecting the Palestinian call to boycott the state-sponsored Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan has massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group (Report, February 20). Should his detractors, as your correspondent David Halpin (Letters, February 22) suggests, now “eat their words”? We think not. Had McEwan refused the prize, protested in Jerusalem at his own expense, and attacked not Israel’s “nihilism” but its colonialist zeal, his own words of condemnation would have had integrity and bite.
As it is, McEwan has given Mayor Nir Barkat a golden platform for his outrageous views. Jerusalem is not a city where all may “express themselves in a free way”. Activists are arrested and deported, while racist internal laws allow the municipality to flout the Geneva convention by creating illegal settlements – a policy designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them is rank hypocrisy. Likewise, McEwan declares it is “urgent to keep talking” (Report, February 18), yet after his one official defence of his position (Letters, January 26), he has ignored all public and private requests to continue this debate. So much for courtesy, dialogue and engagement.
McEwan’s condescension reached its nadir, however, in Jerusalem, when he surmised that Palestinian writers – who were not sought out by western media – had refused to meet him because of outside “pressure”. By pandering to the state of Israel, Ian McEwan has alienated not only these principled individuals. We, British, Israeli and Palestinian members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, are appalled by his conduct.
Prof Mona Baker
Dr Naomi Foyle
Prof Rachel Giora
Dr Ghada Karmi
Prof Nur Masalha
Dr Anat Matar
Dr James Miller
Dr Dorothy Naor
Dr David Nir