British Writers In Support of Palestine

May 25, 2012

[Report] BWISP / GUPW / PACBI Panel Discussion, Ramallah May 21st 2012

Some writers, British or otherwise, try to give words to the voices they hear in other languages.  Here are the words of a Palestinian voice I’m hearing tonight.  Perhaps it’s the voice of several loved ones, but also the voice of many I don’t have the privilege of knowing. Listen to the words the voice is quietly saying:

“So we know, don’t we?  This is life and we live it, and we don’t repeat ourselves too much.  Naturally we argue sometimes.  Oddly enough we are among the world’s experts in making the best of it.  The lies still being told against us are more than sixty years old.  They wall us in ceaselessly.  Nevertheless, and despite some of what happens every minute of the day, we make the most of it.  But for this life of ours not to become the living death which it also is, we have to continue – nothing can stop us – to proclaim and insist to the world that what we are being forced to live is a monstrous injustice……. Isn’t this how it is?”

                                                                                        John Berger  / May 2012

[Naomi Foyle writes:] Capitalising on my visit to the West Bank to visit The Freedom Theatre, PACBI  arranged an opportunity for me to share news of BWISP activities with a Palestinian audience, and to learn more about their struggle against Israeli apartheid in a panel discussion with Murad al-Soudani, Secretary-General of the General Union of Palestinian Writers.

The event, held at the Al-Bireh Municipality Hall and chaired by Dr Samia Botmeh, was very well-attended, especially considering that Nakba Commemoration Day and Hunger Strike Solidarity demonstrations were still on-going.  Over fifty people were present, filling the hall, and many made contributions to the Q & A.  The key results were:

  • the creation of an event that broke the cultural siege on the West Bank – let us not forget that I had to hide my visit from Israeli officials or risk certain deportation;
  • an opportunity for political networking that clearly demonstrated the current mood of hope, determination and solidarity that characterises the whole BDS campaign;
  • the promise of greater strategic links in the future between BWISP and GUPW.

Murad al-Soudani began by declaring that Palestinian culture includes all Palestinians – refugees, the diaspora and those within the West Bank and the 1948 borders.  At the same time, he insisted that Palestinian culture is outward-looking and evolving, and seeks to take its rightful place in a context of international exchange.  He also framed the academic and cultural boycott as a key strategy in the struggle against the normalisation of Israeli apartheid.  This is significant for BWISP members, who may encounter criticisms that only ‘dialogue’ with Israel can bring lasting political change.  The message from Occupied Palestine is that our colleagues resoundingly reject any Zionist façade of state-sponsored cultural exchange, which only buys Israel time to consolidate its stranglehold on Palestinian lives and land.  al-Soudani also noted that the GUPW has recently passed a motion committing the union to the struggle for freedom for Palestine, something new in its history.  This mobilisation of union members is a significant step, as demonstrated by the recent strongly-worded GUPW statement rejecting Tracy Chevalier’s efforts to meet with Palestinian writers while she was violating the boycott.  The Union call was heeded, and no Palestinian writer agreed to meet with her.

I then gave a summary of BWISP campaigns, including: protesting Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize; organising the Southbank debate on cultural boycott; our recent efforts to dissuade Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier from attending the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival; and our members’ deep involvement in the on-going Globe Theatre/Boycott Habima campaign.  I noted the positive progression of these campaigns, each of which has provoked international debate in the mainstream media:

  • each has pushed the issue of cultural boycott deeper into mainstream British discourse, so that now with the Globe Theatre campaign it is no longer possible to brush off boycott arguments with platitudes about freedom of speech; instead, critics of the boycott are being forced to grapple with the real issue – the need to refuse complicity with apartheid and war crimes.
  • attempts by Zionists and boycott critics to ignore or misreport our campaigns in the media have increasingly exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘dialogue’ argument;
  • the pressure is clearly being felt, as indicated by Chevalier’s misguided attempt to reach out to Palestinians, and the Globe Theatre’s attempts to offer compromise solutions – which were similarly rejected.

I ended my talk with a personal message from John Berger to the audience, which was received with pleasure and gratitude.  With his kind permission, I have included it above.

Questioners opened up the discussion in a variety of ways.  One noted that international archaeologists have long been operating a silent boycott of Israel, and are emboldened by more vocal campaigns.   The role of religion in the conflict came under critical scrutiny: I discussed the need for UK activists to counter accusations of anti-Semitism by making a sharp distinction between Zionism and Judaism, and a questioner highlighted the role of Christian Zionism in cementing the Occupation – something I am aware of from my efforts to challenge Michael Gove’s bias in the application of the Education Act.  The importance of Palestinian culture as a sometimes overlooked weapon in the struggle was also discussed, with al-Soudani suggesting that for Palestinians to organise their own international literary festivals would not be a ‘reaction’ to Israeli events (ie, a ‘balancing’ effort) but a positive action in its own right.  I cited Ghada Karmi’s comment that of all her books, her memoir has made the most impact on international readers, and here humbly offer the opinion that fiction, poetry and memoir can help scale what Berger calls ‘the wall of lies’ about Palestine.

I was also asked what it took to change a writer’s mind about appearing in Israel, to which I replied I wish I knew!  But thinking about it later, I realised that the current policy of ‘name and shame’ is the most useful strategy we have.  Of course, this is initially intended to chastise writers for breaking an international picket line, and as such may be misinterpreted as a purely punitive measure.  But shame is such an uncomfortable negative emotion it may in the long run provoke a change of conscience.  Certainly when I have felt shame in my personal life I have altered my behaviour in order not to experience it again.  Some writers, like Ian McEwan and Tom Rob Smith, appear to be impervious to shame, but others, like Chevalier, may feel it at some level, and thus be prompted to question their own blind participation in Israeli propaganda events.  It is important to note that the door is open for such writers to communicate with Palestinians in the future – just not while they are actively violating the boycott.

In conclusion, BWISP members and all UK boycott activists will be honoured to know that questioner after questioner thanked us profusely for our efforts on their behalf.  One had clearly been unaware of the amount of BDS campaigning in the UK, so the event was a chance to demonstrate to him the strength of UK resistance; another remarked that he felt Palestine’s ‘South Africa moment’ was approaching – a truly hopeful statement, but one that felt not unreasonable given recent BDS successes, and the powerful sense of unity and indeed excitement in the room.

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