British Writers In Support of Palestine

March 14, 2011

McEwan in Context

Thank you to BWISP member Eleanor Kilroy, for this incisive summary of the BWISP McEwan campaign. Her article for The Morning Star discusses the writer’s shameless acceptance of The Jerusalem Prize in relation to other, more principled artists who have, in contrast, decided to heed the Palestinian call to boycott the ethnocratic state of Israel.

Two weeks ago the celebrated British novelist Ian McEwan attended this year’s Jerusalem International Book Fair to receive the Jerusalem Prize, awarded biennially to writers whose work explores the theme of “individual freedom in society.”

The prize is funded by the Jerusalem Municipality, a key institution of the Israeli state and a major instrument in the illegal colonisation of occupied east Jerusalem.

McEwan decided to reject a public appeal made to him by British Writers In Support Of Palestine (BWISP) to respect the Palestinian civil society boycott call to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.

After making one official defence of his position, he ignored replies, including a letter from Israeli citizens who warned that by accepting the award he would be “legitimising the actions of Jerusalem’s racist Mayor Nir Barkat.”

BWISP, which endorses the 2004 call of the Palestinian Campaign For The Academic And Cultural Boycott Of Israel (PACBI), stayed on the case with McEwan.

They asked if he would have accepted a state-sponsored award from apartheid South Africa, reminding him that an anti-boycott bill that would severely penalise advocates of the boycott is currently one step away from being made law by the Israeli Knesset.

But despite the author’s stated commitment to “courtesy, dialogue and engagement,” he failed to respond.

For the Israelis McEwan’s presence at the award ceremony was crucial because, as an Israeli literary agent told Publishers Weekly, “It is more than a metaphor to say that the Jerusalem Book Fair is an essential, irreplaceable cultural and intellectual lifeline between Israel and the world and the world and Israel.”

Proponents of the Palestinian boycott call concur with the metaphor.

Official cultural events nourish an ailing apartheid and settler-colonial state and if Israel’s growing international isolation is a proportionate response to grave violations of international law, then it is morally reprehensible to give sustenance to this “lifeline.”

Much has been made in the mainstream media of Ian McEwan’s criticism of a selection of Israel’s illegal practices in his acceptance speech, but regardless of the author’s half-truths, the Book Fair is principally a photo opportunity for Israeli establishment figures and the artist’s presence as a guest of the Israeli state far outweighs the impact of his words.

In spring last year, the singer Elvis Costello announced he was pulling out of two concerts in Israel.

On his website, Costello wrote: “There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent. It is a matter of instinct and conscience.”

In acting on his conscience, he joined a growing list of artists who have decided to boycott Israel, including performers Gil Scott-Heron and the Pixies, British filmmaker Mike Leigh and writer John Berger.

Costello’s positive response to the boycott call is repeatedly and angrily brought up by Israel’s apologists and the state has since intensified its aggressive public relations campaign to brand Israel – against all available evidence – as an enlightened democracy.

The Israeli state and those opposed to a cultural boycott consistently seek to obfuscate the fact that the boycott does not prevent dialogue, engagement and the exchange of ideas and culture – PACBI guidelines clearly state that the boycott applies to institutions, not individuals and an artist can always deliver her or his message to the Israeli public outside any establishment venue.

The Palestinian-US author and journalist Ali Abunimah argues in a recent piece for Al-Jazeera that it is time for the unelected Palestinian Authority to have its “Mubarak moment.”

Given that the Arab revolutions were leaderless, the Palestinians should not worry about creating representative bodies. Instead they should focus on powerful, decentralised resistance, particularly boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

“The BDS campaign is powerful and growing because it is decentralised and those around the world working for the boycott of Israel – following the precedent of apartheid South Africa – are doing so independently.

There is no central body for Israel and its allies to sabotage and attack,” he says.

Last month founding PACBI member Omar Barghouti wrote a riposte to French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy’s attack on BDS, in which he reflects on the changing situation in the Arab world.

“With more of Israel’s friends in the region being dethroned,” he says, “it is becoming abundantly clear how much Israel and its Western partners have invested in safeguarding and buttressing the unelected, autocratic regimes in the Arab world, partially to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of Israel as the ‘villa in the midst of the jungle,’ the myth often repeated by Israel’s lobby groups.”

Yet it was this mythical villa with its “precious tradition of a democracy of ideas,” that McEwan praised in his Jerusalem acceptance speech.

Two years ago the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan turned down the opportunity to be part of a retrospective co-organised as part of the international centenary celebration campaign of Tel Aviv.

Insisting that he and his Palestinian colleagues made art not thanks to Israel’s democracy, but in spite of it.

In so doing he avoided falling into the trap laid for artists and intellectuals. “From the very beginning I have carefully avoided being appropriated and manipulated into becoming the evidence of Israel’s liberal attitude, freedom of speech and tolerance, on behalf of the Israeli establishment,” he declared.

Sivan and many others are choosing instead to express non-violent opposition to the ongoing apartheid regime in Israel with this act of boycott. It’s a principled stance which other artists would be well advised to follow.

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