British Writers In Support of Palestine

July 23, 2011

Why Boycott Culture? – Reflections on the Southbank Debate

Hosted by the Southbank Centre as part of the 2011 London Literature Festival, the long-anticipated debate  Why Boycott Culture? attracted an audience of about 140, and generated an electric atmosphere.  The debate is now online as a podcast; here, after a short summer break offline, Naomi Foyle summarises the arguments, and asks what next for the academic and cultural boycott in the UK?

 

Motion:

Where basic freedoms are denied and democratic remedies blocked off, cultural boycott by world civil society is a viable and effective political strategy; indeed a moral imperative.

 

Why Boycott Culture? was introduced by Rachel Holmes, Southbank Head of Literature and Spoken Word, who is to be highly commended for commissioning this debate on a controversial issue state-funded UK organisations understandably often seek to avoid.  Holmes introduced the motion, commenting on its pertinence for literary festivals and programmers all over the world.  The Chair, Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, then gave an informed overview of the background to the debate, citing South Africa, Sri Lanka, China, the London Book Fair, and the current suggestion that the UK should be boycotted for its visa regulations that treat international artists like criminals.  As PEN Director, and Chair, he was clearly unable to take sides on this issue, however it was encouraging to hear him seriously address the contention that cultural disengagement may be as powerful a political tool as cultural engagement.

The Chair then introduced the two teams: speaking for the motion, human rights activist Omar Barghouti, author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, and poet Seni Seneviratne, author of Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin; speaking against the motion Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian, The Jewish Chronicle and The New York Times, and author of six books, and Carol Gould, writer, film producer and author of  Spitfire Girls and Anti-Americanism in the UK .   Each was to speak for ten minutes, then the floor would be opened to the audience for questions.  Heawood took the temperature of the audience, and a quick display of hands easily determined that the vast majority of the room was in favour of the motion, with about a dozen or more people undecided, and approximately the same number against the motion.

Personally, I was disappointed by these proportions.  As a volunteer consultant to the Southbank, helping to choose the speakers for the motion, I had hoped for the event to attract a mainstream, undecided audience as well as numbers of passionate supporters of both sides of the motion.  At the same time, I was not surprised.  The BWISP letter-writing campaign against Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize demonstrated that a lazy, unexamined view of cultural boycott as an assault on free speech is the status quo in the UK.   It is not in the interest of those who hold the upper hand to debate an issue; and as a result Zionists and pro-Zionists themselves tend to informally ‘boycott’ such public exchanges.  Certainly our offers to debate McEwan were ignored.  However, I was extremely pleased that Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, both high profile speakers with an international reach, had accepted the invitation to attend.  The ball was rolling, and I was excited to see how it would carom.

Jonathan Freedland took to the podium first.  An experienced, confident speaker, he clearly set out his three main arguments against the motion, by the use of signposting and framing helping the audience to easily grasp and follow his main points.   Freedland’s experience at debating was also evident, however,  in his adroit use of sleight-of-hand to redefine the motion to suit his own agenda.  He began by paying lip-service to the notion of cultural boycott as a versatile political tool, but then declared that, due to its current prominence, he was going to focus on the boycott of Israel.  The first objection he then made against this boycott was that of ‘exceptionalism’ – arguing that BDS unfairly isolates Israel on the world stage, when countries like Syria, for example, are guilty of far worse violations of human rights.

From my position in Row G, I wasn’t sure if I had just witnessed a instance of breathtaking sophistry, or if Freedland has been blinded by Zionist rhetoric to the point that he could not see himself how illogically he was speaking.  He himself was isolating Israel from the motion as a whole – which in fact was carefully worded so as to avoid any suggestion of making a moral exception of Israel.  Indeed, one of the points of the motion, as I saw it, is that if cultural boycott demonstrably applies effective pressure on the state of Israel – as it did on apartheid South Africa –  then the Palestinian call for BDS can help set a precedent for the use of cultural boycott in other countries.

Freedland’s second point was that cultural boycott shuns the very people one wants to reach – artists, writers and scholars.   Careful to position himself as an occasional critic of Israel, he also argued here that dialogue and co-existence projects can put us in the hearts and minds of the other; surely an essential aspect of any peace process.   These are some of the most common liberal arguments against cultural boycott, and ones I was confident that Omar Barghouti and Seni Seneviratne would address.

Finally, Freedland claimed that the cultural boycott of Israel could not be viable or effective, and therefore it was immoral.  Cultural boycott, he declared, would only entrench right-wing Israeli and diasporic Jewish public opinion, thereby worsening the conflict.  Cultural boycott, at best, is an empty gesture that only helps its proponents feel better, he argued.  ‘Don’t fetishize a tactic’ he warned.   Again, these objections to the boycott of Israel are not unusual.  Detractors often claim that because most Israelis have a bunkered mentality, any attempt to ostracise them will only strengthen their perception of themselves as victims of anti-Semitism.  Freedland, despite his disingenuous beginning, had ended on a strong note, citing an argument that causes many people sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians to shun or doubt the efficacy of cultural boycott.

Seni Seneviratne began by quoting Bertolt Brecht: ‘When evil-doing comes like falling rain’, from a poem which observes that when suffering is seemingly endless, people look away, do not call out ‘stop’.  Cultural boycott, she declared, was her way, as a writer, of saying ‘stop’.  She then broadened the terms of the argument thus far comparing the cultural boycott of Israel to that of South Africa and noting that the former was far more limited than the latter, applying not to individuals, but only to literary and cultural visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli state.  In all cases, however, she contended, boycott effectively raises global awareness of injustice, embeds issues in people’s consciousness, and in fact, opens up debate. Responding indirectly to Freedland’s second point, she also argued that far from being neutral or transcendent observers, artists and writers in Israel, or its guests, are used by the state to normalise its actions.  So the Mayor of Jerusalem on the one hand shuts down PalFest and approves the building of illegal settlements, and on the other hand awards the Jerusalem Prize to Ian McEwan and other international writers.  While writers may understandably want to ‘find out for themselves’ about the conflict, art is not above or beyond politics, and artists cannot work alone to resist political repression.  It is not cultural boycott, but appearing in Israel, she stated, that is the empty gesture.  Writers and artists who wish to spread their message in Israel can, like Naomi Klein, work with resistance groups to organise tours that do not violate the terms of the boycott.

Seneviratne’s speech was both from the heart and intellectually wide-ranging.  A calm and articulate speaker, she presented persuasive arguments for cultural boycott in general, and in particular that of Israel.  Cultural boycott, she concluded, is making the state of Israel nervous, and the world aware of the issues that have led to the Palestinian call.

Carol Gould began by declaring that boycott is a poisonous word to Jews.  She then gave a short summary of her own family’s journey from the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement to America, where they encountered economic and cultural anti-Semitism.  Jews were barred from country clubs, while Hollywood, she informed the audience, was founded after Thomas Edison started a petition to stop Jews operating film studios in New York.  But while I was glad to hear of such initiatives from a community subject to persecution and gross intolerance, Gould pushed the envelope to shredding point when she compared Jewish immigrants to America to Palestinians.  The latter, whether refugees, victims of Occupation, or living under seige,  do not have the opportunity to –  ‘despite their anguish at the loss of their homes’ – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and make new, good lives for themselves.  Audience impatience with Gould was  soon audible.  People snorted when she referred to Hamas and the rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon; and when she said that of course Israel was not perfect and had made ‘mistakes and blunders’ she was heckled by a chorus from the back retorting ‘Policy!’

Perhaps the Chair should have intervened, or stronger points of order should have been established at the outset.  However, Gould appeared strong-minded and willing to engage directly with her detractors.   She also, however appeared unable or unwilling to acknowledge basic political realities.  She denied Israel was an apartheid state because Omar Barghouti was able to attend Tel Aviv University – though in a personal moment she acknowledged he had not been made to feel welcome – and in a bizarre reference to South Africa, she cited South African Jews who supported the liberation struggle, seemingly unaware that most of these, including Joe Slovo, also supported the boycott of apartheid.

Gould also cited the rockets fired into Israel by Lebanon and Gaza as examples of the hatred Israeis face from their neighbours – a topic I have discussed at length in my recent post When Will Howard Jacobson Learn to See the Palestinians?   She concluded by expressing her horror at the recent decision by West Dunbartonshire Council to observe BDS and not buy books from Israeli publishers – a decision falsely reported in the UK as the equivalent of anti-Semitic book-burning (in fact, no books by Israeli authors or publishers will be removed from library shelves, while books by Jewish or Israeli authors published outside Israel are never boycott targets).  Boycott, she summed up, was Joseph Goebbel’s favourite word.  But while Gould’s speech was throughout emotive and lacking a relevant political context, that very emotionalism is a stance that pro-boycott activists confront daily, and need to be able to counter and defuse: or at least put in perspective for the benefit of undecided observers concerned about the issue of anti-Semitism.

Omar Barghouti was the final speaker.  He began on a philosophical note, citing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: that one’s actions should be consistent with a universal moral law.  He thus logically declared that he would sign up to any boycott called for by any oppressed group; directly rebutting Freedland’s charge of Israeli exceptionalism.  Barghouti then focused on the cultural boycott of Israel, which he is a founder of and expert on.  BDS, he stated, has three aims: to end the Occupation of Palestine; to end Apartheid within Israel; and to honour the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return.  He gave a brief overview of the long suffering of the Palestinians: 90-95% of Gazan water is now unfit for human consumption, resulting in birth defects and infant deaths, while Israel, with the complicit support of the international governments, operates a racist culture of impunity, its genocidal mentality summed up by an IDF T-Shirt design in which a pregnant Arab woman is depicted in gun sights below the slogan ‘2 in 1’.

Like Seneviratne, Barghouti stressed that culture in Israel is a branding exercise: in fact, he explained, Israeli culture is a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, explicitly manipulated to show the world Israel’s ‘prettier face’.  The state of Israel, he reminded us, views its artists as service providers, and asks internationally successful ones to sign contracts agreeing to promote the policy interests of the State. Barghouti also noted that cultural boycott is hardly taboo in the country – many Israeli intellectuals are now refusing to work at or appear at Ariel University and Theatre, deep in the Occupied Territories.  In conclusion, he returned to the moral aspect of the motion – in all our actions of resistance, he declared, we should endeavour to Do No Harm: cultural boycott, as a non-violent political strategy, fulfils this end, and embodies the values of basic human decency.

The Chair then thanked the speakers and asked them if they wished to respond to any points the others had made.  Here Jonathan Freedland attempted to question the integrity of Omar Barghouti by suggesting that BDS did not have the support of the majority of Palestinians, a piece of misinformation Barghouti  soundly refuted: over 170 civil groups support BDS, including trade unions, women’s groups, and writers’ and artists’ associations.  Freedland and Carol Gould reiterated their belief that cultural boycott would only make Israelis ‘circle the wagons’, to which Barghouti stoutly responded that colonial power cannot be persuaded to surrender  – never in history has this happened –  but must be compelled.

Heawood then opened the floor to questions.  Hands shot up all over the room, and sadly there was not enough time to hear from everyone.  As was to be expected, most of the audience had tough questions or strong words for Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, countering these speakers’ arguments with observations including the fact that young Jewish activists in North America are increasingly and vocally pro-boycott; that Israeli apartheid extends to Jewish only roads and neighbourhoods; that the Jews of Berlin scuppered the Nazi threat to their shops by in turn boycotting German businesses (an action the Zionists of the time denounced); that over 7000 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since the beginning of the siege, a figure that dwarfs the number of victims of rocket attacks in that period; that it would be immoral to pander to the right-wing opinions and criminal activities of extremist settlers, but that if BDS did in the short-run make things worse for the Palestinians, it must be the Palestinians who should decide if they wanted to change tactics.

Pro-boycott sentiment so dominated this section of the event that Heawood made a special request for tough questions directed at Barghouti and Seneviratne.  A supporter of the One State solution asked Barghouti to clarify his position on co-existence projects: he replied that in order to avoid being targets for boycott such groups must accept Palestinian national rights, and actively work in resistance to the occupation (whether by making art, or other means). Freedland declared that for PACBI to make such distinctions smacked of Maoist thought crime committees; another questioner told him that after working on co-existence projects she was now firmly in favour of boycott.  Unfortunately there was not time to hear more from this questioner, but to his credit Freedland expressed genuine interest in what had made her change her mind.   The issue of anti-Semitism cropped up again, with Carol Gould remarking on Gaddafi’s extreme anti-Semitism, until Omar Barghouti won a round of applause by demanding that the debate not be Judaized – the religion of the oppressors is irrelevant.  And throughout the question period the issue of the definition of apartheid was constantly referred to, as Freedland and Gould attempted to portray the conflict as one of competing national interests, and Barghouti and members of the audience insisting that Israel was a settler-colonial state, run along lines that fit the UN definition of apartheid.

The Chair made sure as many people as possible had their say, then asked the speakers to sum up.  Seneviratne addressed Freedland’s third point, explaining that in South Africa boycott had awoken many whites to the gravity of world opinion against apartheid.   Freedland countered by stressing again his belief that Israel was not South Africa, and cultural boycott there would only make matters worse.  He suggested that the ‘flytilla’ was a better tactic – overlooking the fact that this action is only open to people with money to spend on flying to Tel Aviv airport and being deported, and does not have the potential to become a mass movement, as the boycott so clearly is.

Freedland then concluded the event with a startling, and to my mind, extremely important admission.  ‘Tonight,’ he said, leaning forward in an almost personal address to the audience, ‘has been hugely revealing. I thought my disagreement with the boycott movement was because I want to see the end of occupation and you want to see the end of occupation and it was an argument about tactics. What has come through loud and clear is your motivation is not actually just the end of occupation but it’s with Israel itself – you have a fundamental problem with it.’

It appeared that in light of this revelation Freedland was, as he spoke, re-aligning himself with the fears of his friends who view BDS as a sinister existential threat to Israel.  Clearly we were supposed to feel ashamed of ourselves, but what I sensed in the room was a collective desire to shout back – ‘damn right!’  For me, though suppressed, that exchange between Freeland and the audience decisively shifted the grounds of debate on Israel in the UK.

Thanks to the Southbank’s initiative, and the speakers’ collective focus on the cultural boycott of Israel, a mainstream public debate in the UK openly questioned the repressive contradictions inherent in a state – one without a constitution or fixed borders – that describes itself, impossibly, as both Jewish and democratic.  While Carol Gould’s obdurate insistence that anti-Semitism is at the root of all criticism of Israel is sadly representative of anti-boycott sentiment, at the same time it was blindingly obvious from the large number of self-identified Jewish anti-Zionists in the audience, that anti-Semitism has no place in this international mass movement.  As the movement grows in size and confidence, we can now start to break the taboo that prohibits many from publically questioning Israel’s ‘right to exist’ in its current incarnation.   For does not South Africa still exist?  To increase support for the boycott and for a just peace in the Middle East, such discussions must build on the achievement and example of the Southbank debate and be well-structured, well-publicised, well-mannered and well-chaired.

Three days after the debate the Knesset shamefully passed its long-awaited anti-boycott bill, criminalising peaceful protest in Israel.  Jonathan Freedland would no doubt argue that this proves his point.  However, while such a draconian measure does demonstrate that BDS will inevitably result in a crack-down, it also shows up all the huge cracks in Israel’s ‘democratic’ façade.   If the Palestinians are willing to endure the outraged response of the Israeli State to their non-violent resistance, then it is our moral obligation to support them until the whole world can see Israel for what it is – a rogue state that systemically crushes basic human liberties and is financially rewarded for its efforts by America.   We in the UK must continue to honour the boycott in all its forms, and must agitate for more discussion and debate on the pressing issues it confronts us all with.   I look forward to future high profile debates on cultural boycott and Israeli apartheid on television and the radio, in newspapers and at literary festivals.  I hope for mixed audiences, and for basic human decency to prevail.

April 17, 2011

Invite to the Catastrophe Club

You are warmly invited to join the next Catastrophe Club – an excellent documentary from Connie Field (‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Rivetter’) and a discussion about the ethics of Cultural Boycott with Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine.
Please do circulate to interested parties

Invite to April Catastrophe Club

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.

Ian McEwan: Not the Last Word

Omar Al-Qattan’s critically astute response to Ian McEwan’s ‘very lame’ acceptance speech was only published in the print edition of The Guardian Review (March 5th 2011). BWISP is pleased to report that Mr Al-Qattan has since made his letter available on his own blog. BWISP hopes the public debate on BDS is far from over.

Omar Al-Qattan is a British Palestinian film director and producer. He is also Secretary of the Board of the The AM Qattan Foundation, a charitable organisation that works towards the development of culture and education in Palestine, with a particular focus on children, teachers and young artists.

February 26, 2011

What Ian Did Next: McEwan in Jerusalem

By Naomi Foyle

No Atonement

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:

Dear Editor,

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.

Rowyda Amin

Prof Mona Baker

Oshra Bar

Ronnie Barkan

Ofra Ben-Artzi

Joseph Dana

Dr Naomi Foyle

Prof Rachel Giora

Ohal Grietzer

Connie Hackbarth

Iris Hefets

Shir Hever

Dr Ghada Karmi

Eleanor Kilroy

Zoe Lambert

Diane Langford

Eytan Lerner

China Miéville

Judith Kazantzis

Wendy Klein

Prof Nur Masalha

Dr Anat Matar

Dr James Miller

Dr Dorothy Naor

Ofer Neiman

Dr David Nir

Jonathan Pollak

Michael Rosen

Jonathan Rosenhead

Leehee Rothschild

Seni Seneviratne

Tom Vowler

Irving Weinman

Eliza Wyatt

Sergio Yahni

Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 14, 2011

BWISP Open Letter to Ian McEwan

Dear Ian McEwan,

We, the undersigned, understand that you may feel you have said your piece to us; we are nevertheless disappointed at your lack of response to our recent letter to The Guardian critically dissecting your defence of accepting the Jerusalem Prize. In that letter we asked you three direct questions, including whether or not you would have taken a state-funded prize from Apartheid South Africa. We were very much hoping for a reply.

We remind you that the Jerusalem Municipality, which awards the Prize, openly pursues apartheid urban planning policies. To maintain Jewish demographic superiority in the city, the Municipality ruthlessly orders the demolition of Palestinian homes and approves the building of new dwellings for extremist settlers: another thirteen just last week in Sheikh Jarrah. This dispossession is enabled by racist Israeli laws that permit Jews, but not Palestinians, to reclaim property from pre-1948 – this in diefiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and often on the basis of dubious ancient titles. The result is internationally illegal enclaves of often physically aggressive settlers whose presence is intended to make it impossible to establish East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Ian McEwan, you claim you are opposed to these settlements, but committed to ‘dialogue and engagement’. Why, then, would you rather appear to be pandering to the architects of ethnic cleansing than hold a civil debate with your fellow British writers? We remind you also that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is not our own ‘line’, but a Palestinian-led initiative borne out of decades of fruitless ‘dialogue and engagement’ with the intransigent Israeli state. BDS seeks not to end political processes, but to pressure Israel to commit itself to genuine negotiations and respect for international law. BDS is endorsed by, among many others, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mariam Said, and the Israeli group BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within – the latter at risk of their jobs for expressing their views in The Guardian. Urgently, we need to inform you that under a proposed parliamentary anti-boycott bill, due to be debated again tomorrow in the Knesset, members of BOYCOTT! would also face criminal charges

We applaud the courage of our Israeli friends, and invite you to seriously discuss these issues and events with us on your facebook page, the BWISP blog, in private, or however would suit you best. Should you ignore or decline this invitation, we stress that you can reject the Jerusalem Prize right up to the moment that your hands are dirtied by receiving it. And please believe us, should you make this momentous personal decision, we will be the first to celebrate you.

Yours

Rowyda Amin
Prof Mona Baker
Hugh Dunkerley
Naomi Foyle
Dr Ghada Karmi
Judith Kazantzis
Wendy Klein
Eleanor Kilroy
Zoë Lambert
Diane Langford
China Miéville
James Miller
Jonathan Rosenhead
Seni Seneviratne
Tom Vowler
Irving Weinman
Eliza Wyatt

February 6, 2011

BWISP ‘Dialogue & Engagement’ with Ian McEwan

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.

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