British Writers In Support of Palestine

January 5, 2017

Jenny Diski and John Berger: In Gratitude Both

One would be forgiven for thinking that the famously traumatic 2016 also claimed BWISP – my last post was in November 2015. But although my silence was in part due to a breast cancer diagnosis in June, I received the All Clear two days before Christmas, and attended a New Year’s Eve party full of Palestinian rights activists, so rest assured 2016 didn’t have things all its own way: both I and the organisation are still kicking. Though perhaps there won’t be the need to leap into action: as I said at the party, it looks like BWISP has been so effective that either Israel hasn’t dared to offer another British writer a prize, or no British writer has wished to accept one!

Joking aside, my illness, which followed a period of travel in the spring, sadly meant that I did not post a timely tribute to one of our most renowned members, Jenny Diski, whose public journey with cancer ended in her death on April 28th. Diski hated being called a ‘fighter’ of cancer – and even ‘journeyer’ probably made her wince – but she did not shy away from political conflict: as one of the 94 signatories to John Berger’s Dec 2006 letter to The Guardian, she joined the first international roll-call of supporters of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), driving her legendary acumen straight into the mast of the Palestinian cause – and into the side of Zionism. Later she emailed support to BWISP in its early days. We never met, but also exchanged Tweets on the subject of fish and chips: a Jewish import to the East End, I had read. She replied: “We had cold fried fish on Fridays. & the Nautalus in NW6 serves fish battered with matzo meal. Gefilte fish never caught on tho”. I will be adding In Gratitude, Diski’s cancer memoir, to my growing collection of the genre, and now I’m recovering, I’ll make a trip to the Nautalus in her honour.

jenny-diski1

 

Diski’s loss is still keenly felt, and the death of BWISP ‘patron saint’ John Berger on January 2nd, felt like 2016’s final vicious swipe at the common good. Berger was a literary and political gentle giant, a man who combined an undimmed sense of wonder with moral leadership all the more persuasive for his playful nature. Like Diski’s, Berger’s death is summoning tributes from the most august journals; like hers too, few if any of these literary obituaries mention his deep commitment to the academic and cultural boycott. Yet, as the heartfelt tribute from PACBI makes clear, Berger was first among the ‘first responders’ to the boycott call and, as as author of the 2006 letter to The Guardian, was instrumental in ensuring the campaign gained traction amongst writers and artists. He too lent BWISP personal support, lending his name and telephoning me from France to discuss strategy. In particular he wanted to ensure that I was clear on his position: that the boycott did not apply to brave Israeli dissidents – or indeed to any Israeli as an individual. The conversation made me even keener later on to participate in ‘Redrawing the Maps’, the 2012 London celebration of Berger’s 86th birthday, for which I organised the event ‘Letter(s) To Gaza’, encouraging members of the public to write to people in the besieged strip. The panel included Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza – two young men who, as one commented, could never have met in their homeland, travel between the two territories being forbidden by Israel. Although himself absent, Berger occasioned this joyful reunion – just as his work will continue to generate fruitful encounters now he himself is gone.

With what I came to learn was his characteristic generosity, Berger also took a kind interest in my poetry, yet another genre of literature he breathed like mountain air. His Collected Poems (Smokestack Books, 2014) is dedicated to his late wife Beverly, ‘mistress of each page’, who also deserves our great respect and gratitude. Fondly remembered here by a high school friend for her impeccable taste in protest music, as the recent BBC documentary in honour of John’s ninetieth birthday makes clear, Beverly was not just simply Muse, but amanuensis. A librarian by profession, she gave John a vast amount of practical support, from typing his manuscripts to handling his voluminous correspondence. As a recipient of emails from her I know he could not possibly have accomplished all he did without her help.

Upon hearing the news of John Berger’s death I summoned to mind one of my favorite lines of his poetry: ‘The tongue / is the spine’s first leaf”. This image, to me, expresses the intrinsic relationship between voice and courage that John embodied.  The line became an epigraph of a poem in his memory this week, published today by International Times. Here at BWISP I will leave you with John’s own words, his personal message to the signatories of the 2006 letter to The Guardian in support of PACBI:

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I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Their call is attached, together with my After Guernica drawing. I hope you will feel able to add your signature, to the attached letter, which we intend to publish in national newspapers.
The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years – for almost three generations.
During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!
As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded from the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.
As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist
apartheid).
Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.
How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).
How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.
For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.
What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.
John Berger

November 20, 2015

Refuting J.K. Rowling + A Farewell to Irving Weinman

Followers of the UK debates around cultural and academic boycott will be well aware of the launch of the new anti-boycott group ‘Culture for Co-existence’, a response to this year’s significant formation of Artists For Palestine UK (APUK), which has to date garnered over 1090 signatures for its Artists Pledge for Palestine, and has in addition published a 64 page book The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel, a comprehensive response to all the questions that typically arise about the campaign.

In their recent brief letter to The Guardian (Oct 23) signed by, among others, J.K. Rowling and Simon Schama, ‘Culture for Co-existence’ argues that ‘Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and do not bring peace’ while ‘cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.’

I was sorry and frustrated, but not surprised, to see the cultural and academic boycott of Israel once again misrepresented by its opponents. Rather than research the issue and respond to the detailed case we have time and again put forward, the signatories have made veiled accusations of anti-Semitism, and in their own defense have offered only easy slogans that bear no relevance to how the arts are in fact leveraged in Israel.

Once again it must be pointed out that pro-boycott campaigners do not ‘single out’ Israel. Many of us also reject funding or prizes from other authoritarian regimes. I’ve never been offered such a prize, but I didn’t watch a minute of the Sochi Olympics – and this was a sacrifice, as I love figure skating. Not watching TV is not, however, an effective political action. The boycott of Israel has gained such traction and visibility – and carries additional moral weight – because it is not simply a set of isolated refusals, but a growing collective response to an organised call made by the Palestinians themselves. This demand for solidarity from artists, writers and academics comes from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), whose existence ‘Culture for Co-existence’ signally fails to acknowledge.

In addition, far from being ‘discriminatory’, the entire boycott movement is grounded in respect for human rights and international law. It does not target individuals at all, let alone on the basis of religion or nationality. Rather, it rejects co-operation with Israeli institutions and the Israeli state,  insisting that we not accept cultural offerings funded by a government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing and illegal occupation in defense of an apartheid state. Like its great precedent against apartheid South Africa, the boycott also asks international artists to reject commercial ventures in Israel until such time as the country honours its responsibilities under international law. If signatories would not have ‘played Sun City’, then they should not play Tel Aviv.

I am a poet and novelist and I do believe in the power of art to generate empathy and understanding for others. But art exists within a globalised economy of money and power, and cultural products cannot be automatically assumed to nurture positive political change: in fact, they may well do the opposite. In the case of Israel ‘cultural bridges’ serve only to strengthen a highly privileged relationship with the West. Decades worth of literary prizes,  rock-n-roll concerts in Tel Aviv, and state-sponsored theatre tours of UK have not led to freedom for the Palestinians and peace for all in the region. Cultural engagement has not even put a brake on Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements, its demographic warfare on its Arab citizens, or its ruthless assaults on Gaza. In Israel the arts flourish, but the situation for the Palestinians simply gets worse. Cultural events are not neutral, either: they buttress the country’s self-styled reputation as a ‘liberal democracy’, a reputation that ensures its war crimes do not simply go unpunished, but are rewarded with sympathy, respect, and eye-watering amounts of military and financial aid.

In contrast, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement subjects Israel to sustained moral pressure, and provokes the honest and informed debate that all campaign proponents welcome. Finally, cultural and academic boycott does not burn bridges. Nothing in the PACBI call prevents cultural exchanges or intellectual collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, or visits to the UK from Israeli artists, as long as these events do not involve Israeli state or institutional funding.

For further replies to the ‘Culture for Co-existence’ letter, please see PACBI’s Open Letter to JK Rowling, the astute analysis by BWISP member Sarah Irving of the Zionist actors driving the group, and statements by British artists for APUK.

* * *

Irving WeinmanVery sadly, I must also report in this update the loss of novelist, short story writer and BWISP co-founder Irving Weinman, who died suddenly on October 26th 2015, at the age of 78. His loss will be keenly felt by many. I first met Irving in 2007, when I came to Lewes to interview his wife Judith Kazantzis about her poetry. At the end of the interview, Irving joined us from the kitchen with three stubby bottles of beer on a tray, and we never looked back. I became a frequent visitor to their colourful home, often spoiled by Irving’s fabulous pescatarian cooking, always entertained by his marvelous raconteurship and inspired by his warm internationalism. Irving’s parents were shtetl Jews from Romania who lived in Paris before emigrated to Boston in the thirties where Irving was born. His mother spoke seven languages and Irving grew up hearing mainly Yiddish, Russian and French, and also much music in the house. A talented jazz pianist, Irving switched allegiance to literature in his youth. He attended writing classes with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, called James Baldwin ‘Jimmy’, and co-founded the Key West Writers Workshop and Lewes Needlewriters. As well as successful crime novels, he wrote powerful literary fiction. Wolf Tones is funny and tough, a punchy, insightful portrait of a difficult father-son relationship, and ‘the sad arterioscleroris of America’.

Irving, Judith and I founded British Writers In Support of Palestine in 2010, and Irving was a prime force behind BWISP’s early recruitment drive and letter writing campaigns. He also lent his significant presence to local supermarket protests, and spent four weeks in 2010 as a driver for the Road to Hope Convoy to Gaza, blogging en route.  In a tribute penned for his own anti-fascist blog and reposted by Jews for Justice for Palestine, Tony Greenstein notes ‘Irving stood in an anti-racist tradition that went back to the Jewish fight against anti-Semitism in Europe, not the Zionist tradition of anti-Arab racism. Irving was proud to be Jewish.  His attitude to Israel’s war crimes was ‘not in my name’.’

Recently, Irving published books on the craft of fiction, and was writing short stories based on his family history, including the experience of refugees fleeing the pogroms. He spoke of his mother to me after I returned from Odesa last year – he was very taken by the fact I had seen Isaac Babel’s drinks cabinet in the city’s small Jewish museum. I still have Irving’s copy of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People on my shelves, and there are many more conversations I would dearly love to have had with him. He is survived by Judith Kazantzis and her daughter Miranda; his son and daughter in America, Michael and Zoe; as well as grandchildren. Farewell to a wonderful friend.

October 5, 2013

American Association of University Professors on the Academic Boycott of Israel

The American Association of University Professors, arguably one of the most influential academic unions in the world, has just published Volume 4 of its Journal of Academic Freedom, focusing on the academic boycott of Israel. All the articles are available as PDFs, and the links are posted here for convenience. The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent BWISP positions, though I am of course delighted to see Omar Barghouti of PACBI given such a prominent platform, and to anyone still ‘sitting on the fence’ about academic boycott, I recommend Joan W. Scott’s article.  ~Naomi Foyle

 

Volume 4

Table of Contents

​All essays are in .pdf format.

JAF invites responses to the essays it publishes. While we are interested in supporting dialogue in general, given the academic character of the journal, we particularly encourage submissions that engage in thoughtful and well-supported ways with the content and arguments of our published essays. Send your response to jaf@aaup.org.

Editor’s Introduction
By Ashley Dawson

Rethinking Academic Boycotts
By Marjorie Heins

Palestine, Boycott, and Academic Freedom:  A Reassessment Introduction
By Bill V. Mullen

Boycott, Academic Freedom, and the Moral Responsibility to Uphold Human Rights
By Omar Barghouti

The Israeli State of Exception and the Case for Academic Boycott
By David Lloyd and Malini Johar Schueller

Boycotts against Israel and the Question of Academic Freedom in American Universities in the Arab World
By Sami Hermez and Mayssoun Soukarieh

Changing My Mind about the Boycott
By Joan W. Scott

Academic Freedom Encompasses the Right to Boycott: Why the AAUP Should Support the Palestinian Call for the Academic Boycott of Israel
By Rima Najjar Kapitan

Market Forces and the College Classroom: Losing Sovereignty
By Michael Stein, Christopher Scribner, and David Brown

Academic Freedom from Below: Toward an Adjunct-Centered Struggle
By Jan Clausen and Eva-Maria Swidler

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