British Writers In Support of Palestine

January 20, 2011

The Jerusalem Book Fair & Prize: Both Eminently Boycottable

It was announced yesterday that British novelist Ian McEwan has been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded biennially at the Jerusalem Book Fair, to a writer whose work explores the theme of the ‘freedom of the individual in society’. The Book Fair is notable for its Fellowship scheme, in which selected ‘promising’ international editors and agents are treated as guests of the Fair, and offered tours of the city and environs. The Prize, which comes with a trip to Jerusalem and $10,000, has been awarded to authors including Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller and J.M. Coetzee. Five previous winners have gone on to be Nobel Laureates, giving the Prize a prestige beyond its relatively modest cash reward.

BWISP reacts with dismay to today’s further announcement that McEwan intends to accept the Prize. The writer stated in The Guardian:

“I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.

“I am not a supporter of the Israeli settler movement, nor of Hamas. I would align myself in the middle of a great many of my Israeli friends who despair that there will ever be peace while the settlements continue. I support the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s call for a freeze on the settlements. But I also have no time for Hamas lobbing missiles into Israel either.”

In a sign of how far the BDS movement has come, The Guardian solicted a response from Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who said: “We welcome Ian McEwan’s statement about his disapproval of the settlements but we would point out that accepting this prestigious prize is a way of giving support to the Israeli government, which is dedicated to pursuing illegal expulsion policies against the Palestinian people. His acceptance will be used as a public relations exercise by the Israeli government.”

BWISP would like to support Hunter’s statement with the following arguments in favour of boycotting both the Jerusalem Book Fair and Prize:

1) Israel has illegally occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. The Arab residents of what ought to be the capital of a Palestinian state are instead subjected to house demolition, routine humiliation at checkpoints, and arrest and/or expulsion for peacefully demonstrating against these soul-destroying injustices. Considering also the continuing illegal settlements in the West Bank; the siege of Gaza; the detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children; and the murder of nine humanitarian aid workers on the Mavi Marmara; the ‘Jerusalem Prize’, with its theme of ‘individual freedom in society’, is both a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state.

2) The Jerusalem Book Fair is not a civil society initiative. It is organised by the Municipality of Jerusalem (please see the email address of the Israeli contact on the official website ‘Contact Us’ page). The ‘Friends of Jerusalem Award’ – which recognizes publishing people who have devoted themselves in one way or another to the Book Fair – is presented in ‘the surprisingly intimate surroundings of the council chamber of Jerusalem’s City Hall’. And the Fair operates in tandem with the national government: in 2009 both the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and President Shimon Peres presented the Jerusalem Prize to Haruki Murakami.

In addition, Publishers Weekly reports that the major Israeli retailers represented are Steimatzky and Academon, the latter of which has bookshops on all Israel’s university campuses (all of which are subject to the Academic boycott). And the official site of the Fellowship Scheme provides links to the Israeli Tourist Board. At all levels, the Fair is inextricable from the State of Israel and its institutions.

3) Regardless of who organises or participates in it, the Jerusalem Book Fair’s basic premise is ‘business as usual’ in an Apartheid state and illegally Occupied Territories. According to a recent Fellow:

”Most evenings wound down in the wee hours at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, near the Old City. The last evening, the hotel’s bartender kept serving drinks and then played deejay. The group danced to Arabic music, to ABBA, to American pop. Said [one] literary editor, “The basement bar of the American Colony Hotel is now my favorite place in the world to do publishing deals.”

The Fellowship scheme itself excludes Arab editors and agents. In 2005 Publishers Weeklyconjectured that:
“Perhaps, if the hope of peace is realized, the fellows program could also include editors from Arabic countries.”

BWISP welcomes correction on this point, but to our knowledge the Book Fair gives absolutely no reason for excluding these literary professionals from the scheme.

In short, as an Israeli business venture that normalises and whitewashes the Occupation, uses the Occupied Territories as a commercial venue, and maintains an apartheid selection process for its Fellowship Scheme, the Book Fair is as legitimate a target for boycott as Carmel Agrexco, Caterpillar Inc, or any Israeli university.

4) The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a Palestinian and international civil society campaign. It is not organised by Hamas; rather it represents a non-violent alternative to rocket attacks.

5) Finally, the Book Fair treats the Arab-Israeli conflict as a clash of cultures, not a struggle to resist Occupation.

A 2005 Publishers Weekly article gives a flavour of the misleading impressions that Fellows receive from their hosts. One Fellow stated:

“Jerusalem is an awe-inspiring city to walk or drive around. It offers unique vantage points on the passions currently renting the fabric of modern life. As one of our guides put it, when you have a mosque built on top of a church which is built on top of a temple, you have a great visual of the exceptional vertical real estate battle inspiring the never-ending clashes of East and West in this city. And you understand why the problem is so difficult to solve.” Another Fellow was impressed by Jerusalem’s “sense of history, the sense of it being a debatable city in every way, with most cultures and religions laying claim to it at various times since its establishment.”

Similarly, on the official Fellowship website the traditional trip to the Dead Sea is described by a Fellow without even the words ‘West Bank’, and passing reference only to ‘Israeli history’; while another Fellow compares the Book Fair to one in Brazil with the comment: ‘Paraty’s past is in Colonial trade; Jerusalem’s history is Biblical of course’.

Some might argue that Palestinian authors are sometimes invited, and that in 2005 the Fair hosted panel discussions and poetry readings on the theme of ‘Bridging Two Culture’, an event entitled Voices from Two Sides of the Bridge, which took place at the at ‘the crossing point between North Israel and Jordan, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge’. But this no doubt well-intentioned effort to at least acknowledge decades of conflict, was essentially an extension of the Book Fair practice of normalising the Occupation, by presenting the Occupiers and the Occupied as equal parties to the conflict. It is to be noted that the boxed report on the 2005 event doesn’t mention the word ‘Occupation’, or quote more than one Palestinian.

To conclude:

In light of the points raised above, BWISP believes that writers, editors and agent of conscience should boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair and the Jerusalem Prize. We therefore respectfully ask Ian McEwan to reconsider his decision to accept this corrupt and cynical honour.

BWISP, however, is a loose affiliation of writers with common cause, but sometimes slightly different viewpoints. Some BWISP members feel that given McEwan’s express intention to accept the Prize, he should consider following in the footsteps of the 2001, 2003 and 2009 Prize recipients Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and Haruki Murakami by criticizing the Israeli government in his acceptance speech.

If Ian McEwan is truly opposed to the Israeli settlements and the obstacle to peace and justice they represent, his conscience should at least dictate that he likewise use his ‘individual freedom in society’ to explicitly criticise the ruthless, expansionist policies of the Israeli government in his acceptance speech. However, this would not erase the fact that by accepting the Prize, he would have decided to override the wishes of Palestinian civil society and lend his illustrious name to the illusion that Israel is a freedom-loving state. That would be a decision with which BWISP does not, and can never, agree.


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