British Writers In Support of Palestine

October 16, 2012

SOAS Panel Discussion on Palestine: 3 Questions about BDS

On Tues October 9th I appeared with British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, British filmmaker and cultural boycott activist Miranda Pennell, and the British-Israeli-Iraqi-Jewish writer and journalist Rachel Shabi in a panel discussion at SOAS, organised by the Centre for Palestinian Studies and chaired by Bidisha. The discussion was wide-ranging and included the role of Arab women in political struggle, the question of ‘fashionable causes’ and the usefulness of comment threads.  Cultural boycott was also high on the agenda, and the subject of some disagreement on the panel and in the audience. I would therefore like to respond here to three questions raised during the evening.

1. Not all Palestinians support BDS, so why should I?

Rachel Shabi helpfully stressed that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a Palestinian initiative. However, she counter-claimed that Palestinian society is diverse, and not all Palestinians believe in boycott. This statement is undeniably true. Leaving aside the question of militant resistance, some Palestinians believe in working within the Palestinian Authority and the UN, or with charitable NGOs. Others are simply trying to survive, and may place their faith in Allah, God, or the Shekel. So how does one, as a solidarity activist, decide which Palestinians to support?

The question is a political one, and must be answered politically. Only politically organised activity with strong and principled Palestinian leadership can bring positive, lasting change in the region. So, which such groups are reaching out to solidarity workers, and requesting our support?

We can immediately rule out the PA. Unless one is a UN representative, the PA is not reaching out to foreign individuals. In addition, the UN route to change is blocked by the veto power of America, and – as Wikileaks demonstrated – the PA is seriously compromised by corruption within the organisation. There is no way for solidarity workers to effectively help change this situation, apart from campaigning for UN reform.  While I do not disparage such a goal, to devote all one’s energies to it would be an incredibly indirect way of expressing support for Palestine.

One can of course join direct action groups, helping with the olive harvest, accompanying children in Hebron on the way to school, working with faith groups, or joining non-violent protests against the apartheid wall. But doing so will still leave you with the fundamental choice for peace campaigners in the region: do you support ‘dialogue’ groups or the boycott divestment and sanctions movement?  For many Westerners, dialogue seems instinctively attractive, but in my own view, careful thought and research must inevitably lead to the conclusion that it is not the option for the true solidarity activist.

The concept of ‘peace through dialogue’ appeals to many Westerners and left-wing Israelis because in our own personal experience we often need to engage in conflict resolution with antagonists in our families or workplaces, and this process is predicated on the understanding that both parties must listen to each other and take responsibility for their own failings.  However, it is a huge mistake to project this personal process between equals – or those in a mutually agreed power structure, such as a workplace – onto the Israel-Palestine conflict. While political and personal dialogue is indeed fundamental to the peace process, it is essential that this dialogue takes place within a framework that acknowledges the true scale and roots of the conflict: the occupation of Palestine; the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; and the Israeli denial of the refugees’ right of return.

In other words, in the case of Israel-Palestine, any dialogue that takes place is never between equal partners.  Analogies all break down at some point, but rather than a ‘bad marriage’ between incompatible people who have to co-parent their children, the Israel-Palestine conflict is akin to a highly abusive relationship where the abuser has huge wealth and social prestige, and the abused person has been disbelieved by the police for years – and in fact has been punished for resisting the attacks, or occasionally responding to them in a violent manner. Only if the authorities and the abuser finally recognise the nature of this abuse, is it safe or indeed worthwhile for the two parties to attempt any kind of dialogue. Think of the difference between divorce counselling and a bullying tribunal at work. In the former, a neutral mediator helps two people make compromises; in the latter, the victim and the bully have clearly differentiated roles to play in proceedings, and if found guilty the bully will be punished. Again, this is only an analogy, and I apologise to Palestinians who may find it ill-fitting or simplistic. But I think it is worth making because I believe that many Westerners think of dialogue mainly in personal terms.

The ‘dialogue peace camp’ does not offer solidarity to the Palestinians – not just because it does not start from the understanding that the conflict is hugely imbalanced, but because it explicitly forbids such an analysis.  A list of 66 Palestinian-Israeli ‘co-existence’ organisations can be found here, on the website of the British charity Children of Peace. I wish to stress that I am in no way judging the motives of the Palestinians involved in these grassroots organisations. I have not lived their lives, and I have not faced their choices. What I want to highlight here is the fact that Children of Peace only funds groups that sign up to its ‘non-partisan’ values.  These values are expressed in the charity’s claim that, in relation to adults, Israeli and Palestinian children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the conflict: to get funding from Children of Peace, organisations are not allowed to politically challenge the fact that, thanks to the occupation, Israeli apartheid and the refugee camps, it is overwhelmingly Palestinian children who have died or been maimed, and who suffer from poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Children of Peace is a throwback to Empire. The charity is operating like a group of secular Victorian missionaries, providing vital aid only to those who are willing to subscribe to its world-view.  Given the fact that Israel chronically underfunds education, health and basic social services for Arab-Israelis, and systematically attacks the basic infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank, there is huge financial incentive for Palestinians to sign up to such deals. But without the ability to name the conflict for what it is, such organisations will never be able to effect substantive and lasting change.   As Faris Giacaman argues here, Palestinians have long known that what they call ‘the peace industry’ has not built up significant Palestinian power or leadership:

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups.” A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce “a single peace activist on either side.” This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be “children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.” The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”

By insisting on a narrative of two equal parties to conflict, and by making financial aid dependent on Palestinian acquiescence to this narrative, the ‘peace industry’ only reinforces the imbalance of power in the region. This is the process of ‘normalisation’ that the boycott movement decries.

In contrast, the assets of the BDS movement are limited to moral capital only.  And yet it has attracted the broad support of 173 Palestinian grassroots organisations, including many unions, and a growing group of Israeli activists, Boycott from Within. PACBI has the express support of over 60 Palestinian cultural and academic organisations. The BDS movement has not bought this support: on the contrary, boycott advocates within Israel now face severe penalties from Israel – heavy fines or imprisonment – for expressing their views. A solidarity activist can therefore support BDS knowing that the movement represents not only an accurate analysis of the conflict, but also the free and principled self-expression of a huge range of community and professional organisations. No external authority or funding body is dictating the operating terms of these groups. Unlike the ‘dialogue peace camp’, BDS is a purely Palestinian-led political movement with a huge base of mobilised popular support, and is therefore the only option for international activists who wish to work in solidarity with Palestinians.

2) Isn’t cultural boycott ‘a bit witch hunty’?

Rachel Shabi expressed support for divestment, but stated that she felt cultural boycott in particular could be ‘a bit witch-hunty’.  This is not an uncommon reaction to boycott campaigns; I therefore wish to take this opportunity to expand on what I said at SOAS and entirely reject the comparison.

Political witch-hunts involve substantial punishments: the loss of employment, the destruction of one’s career, perhaps even imprisonment.  Modern day ‘witch hunts’ also often involve smear campaigns. The subjects of cultural boycott campaigns are never remotely in any such dangers.

To start with, the boycott targets institutions, not individuals.  When boycott activists direct campaigns toward individuals, it is simply to ask them not to appear in Israel or at Israeli-funded events. If they insist on crossing this picket line, then boycott activists may protest against their activities on that particular tour of the region. Otherwise, activists have never called for the ‘boycott of boycott busters’

Crucially, boycott activists cannot force writers, musicians or artists not to take a gig in Israel: any loss of employment that results from respecting the boycott is entirely voluntary, and amply offset by the reward of right relationship with one’s own conscience.  The only pressure that boycott activists can apply is sustained moral pressure, and to suggest that we should not be doing so verges on questioning our right to protest. I personally have led campaigns politely but persistently requesting high-profile writers not to appear in Israel. These writers are wealthy professionals with teams of publicists, editors and festival staff to support them. If they make a decision to take money from an apartheid state, they ought to be prepared to face a rational public debate about it.

It constantly disappoints me that British writers who appear in Israel do not want to participate in that debate.  I do not possess a tall black hat, a ducking pond, or any kind of power or desire to wound these writers. I just want them to change their minds about shaking hands with ethnic cleansers, and if they cannot do that, then I believe they should at least answer all the questions the BDS movement lays at their doors.

3) Can BDS lead to peace, and if so, how?

This was a question from the audience, and it is a good one. BDS is obviously a controversial strategy because it strikes at the heart of neo-liberal values, and the concept of unlimited free speech; its detractors therefore sometimes argue that adopting BDS only inflames the conflict. I obviously do not agree.

In South Africa, sustained international pressure played a huge role in bringing apartheid to an end. How BDS can help do this in Israel is suggested by a recent article by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf: the reason the peace process has stalled, he argues, is because for the average Jewish Israeli the status quo is preferable to either the one-state or the two-state solution. The one-state solution would involve the kind of demographic and democratic shift Zionists most fear, and the two-state solution would involve giving up settlements, land and resources.  I am grateful to Boycott from Within activist Ofer Neiman for sending me the link to this article, and for his succinct summation that what boycott does is make the status quo uncomfortable.  BDS is a constant reminder that the world does not approve of the political choices Israel is making.  BDS may in the short-term add to friction, but this friction is necessary grit in the process of real change: change that results in the priceless pearl of justice.

I hope that these responses flesh out my comments on the night. I will also post them on the BWISP FAQs page for ease of future reference.

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May 13, 2012

Update on Mishkenot Sha’ananim Campaign

The Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers’ Festival begins today in Jerusalem.  While neither Tracy Chevalier nor Tom Rob Smith have engaged with BWISPs open letter requesting them not to attend, nevertheless there have been some significant developments:

Tom Rob Smith at first agreed to be facebook friends with BWISP members Eleanor Kilroy and  Naomi Foyle, and responded politely to Foyle’s private message by saying that he would think seriously about the issues and get back to her.  He also posted a reply to Kilroy on his wall, stating that his main reason for attending was to engage with his Israeli fans.  Kilroy and Ofer Neiman of Boycott from Within responded with pertinent arguments.  Three days later, Smith unfriended all of us and we have heard nothing from him since.  For a fuller account, read Eleanor Kilroy’s article here.

Eleanor Kilroy started posting links to the BWISP letter and other relevant sites on the Festival facebook page.  Seni Seneviratne and Naomi Foyle added comments, expressing our disappointment at the lack of engagement from the two writers.  So far the threads are still on the wall.(See the box on the right-hand side of the timeline – you may have to scroll down within the box to see the posts.)

Ynet then reported that Chevalier wanted to ‘meet Palestinian writers’, and had asked the Festival director to arrange such an opportunity in Ramallah.  The Ynet story mentioned our campaign in general terms, and also announced that Indian writer Vikas Swarup had cancelled his appearance at the festival, for ‘diplomatic’ reasons.  PACBI had asked Swarup not to attend.

PACBI and GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Writers) have issued an authoritative statementstatement requesting Palestinian writers to shun such an encounter with Chevalier and other festival attendees, which they frame as a voyeuristic Orientalist endeavor.

In the meantime, the Festival coincides with the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, and takes place as the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike reaches a highly critical stage.  Two Palestinians have currently refused food for 76 days – longer than any hunger striker has yet survived this form of extreme non-violent protest.  Many activists in Jerusalem are making the hunger strike their main focus, but a small group of us are hoping to stage some kind of protest at the festival.

Finally, Naomi Foyle is scheduled to report on BWISP activities at a PACBI/GUPW panel discussion in Ramallah on May 21st, and will blog on the event.

June 29, 2011

Reflections on Daniel Vais’s ‘Memoirs of a Soldier’

Filed under: Boycott Israel,IDF — Naomi Foyle @ 2:13 pm
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by Naomi Foyle

 

Dancer, choreographer, angel therapist and ex-IDF soldier Daniel Vais gave an extraordinary and compelling performance at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton last night. For over an hour and a half he spoke about his traumatic experiences as an Israeli army conscript in the early nineties, and his subsequent efforts not only to heal himself of the resultant anger, humiliation and shame, but also to find solutions to the racism and hatred pervading his culture of origin.

A sensitive, artistic, flamboyant gay teenager, Daniel first ignored his call up papers; then he tried to fool the interview panel into thinking he was stupid, a prostitute, a drug addict and, finally, suicidal. But at that time, psychological frailty was not sufficient reason to be excused from military service, and to be a refusenik was unheard of. Daniel’s parents, an Iraqi Jewish mother and Hungarian father, delivered him to his captors, proudly waving him off to what he thought would be his death. That day, he told us, a crack opened up in his heart. He realised that his country and his family were making a willing sacrifice of his youth, and possibly his life, all to fight an ‘enemy’ he knew did not exist. To serve one’s country, he has always believed, is to farm the land, or help those with special needs; not to kill one’s neighbours.

Daniel’s account of his training period and continued attempts to rebel against the indoctrination and strict discipline was both funny and chilling. While the thought of him pleading with his officers to let him bring his own hairdresser in to shave his head had the audience in giggles, we were also acutely reminded of the process of dehumanisation that aims to turn naïve and vibrant young people into cogs in a killing machine. Some soldiers, as Daniel reported, take to this process willingly, enjoying the power a gun and uniform brings them. Some, like Daniel, go numb, hide their feelings away. But faced with a sadistic punishment for daring to look an officer in the eyes, Daniel found strength in himself he did not know existed. He redoubled his efforts to sabotage the whole project in as many ways as he could, including putting sand in the engines of tanks. But to no avail: though it was recognised he would not be a good bet on the front lines, he was posted to Gaza as a sentry.

At this point in his story, Daniel said many things that were hard to hear – his reports of Palestinians subjected to beatings around the head with rifle butts, or victims of cruel games played at checkpoints by bored teenagers with guns, were painful examples of the endemic abuses many at the event – co-hosted by Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign – are committed to resisting. He also described a moment of great anguish, when, hearing the screams of women and children he thought were being tortured and killed, he felt so overcome with fear and horror he thought he would die. Only the intervention of a voice in his head, telling him to dance and sing, saved his body and soul from shutting down. The experience gave him spiritual beliefs that sustain him to this day. And hope was evident in other aspects of this narration too: it was always clear to Daniel that the Palestinians were human beings suffering a grave injustice at the hands of Israel; even confronted with order after order to collude with this abuse of human rights, he refused, obeying instead the dictates of his conscience. At one point he threatened to hand his weapons over to the Palestinians.

In his performance, Daniel also said things that perhaps some activists, accustomed to looking at the conflict in the Middle East predominantly at a political level, might find challenging. Describing his futile efforts to help an old Palestinian man with seven children to get a pass to cross into Israel to work, he stated that he, a young man forced to carry a gun and enforce arbitrary restrictions, was more of a victim than the desperate father. This might seem at first unlikely, but thinking about it more I thought I understood what Daniel meant: despite his desperation, humiliation and hunger, the old man at least had nothing to reproach himself about.  Daniel was being forced to be an agent of oppression, to perform acts he would feel deeply ashamed of, and spend two decades trying to expunge.   Existentially speaking, one could argue that it is infinitely worse to be the perpetrator than the victim of a crime.   And without comparing levels of suffering, it is important to remember that ordinary Israelis also are victims of the conflict, their very humanity damaged by the vicious ideology of their state.

Daniel warned that Israeli intransigence reaches deep into the psyche of its citizens, who are brainwashed into believing that unless they stick together they will not survive. To the average Israeli citizen, the state can therefore do no wrong. He told us, for example, that it is common knowledge in Israel that the assault on the Mavi Marmara was a botched operation: that the commandos had orders not to fire, but the first solider coming down the ropes panicked and shot an activist, leading to the deaths of nine men. Nevertheless, the Israeli public empathises not with the victims of the attack, but with the commando: just a vulnerable soldier doing his job. He cautioned that confronting Israelis with their misdeeds would only inflame their extremist view that ‘everyone is against them’. To call oneself pro-Palestinian, he thinks, implies that one is anti-Israeli, which is not a basis on which to convince Israelis to change. Throughout his talk he emphasized his own refusal to judge others, and his decision to love everyone. Again, this message might frustrate or exasperate some activists, whose role it is to openly confront and challenge injustice wherever it occurs, and who are adamantly opposed to the current policies of the state of Israel. But this would be to miss both the complexity and evolving nature of Daniel’s views and approach.

First, it was clear that Daniel himself struggles with the appropriate response to the sickness that is Zionism. While he wishes to have good relations with his family, he nevertheless does confront them with their racism, and in very personal terms: he asks his sister and brother-in-law if they are good parents to allow their children to grow hating Arabs, or to watch live TV footage of the assault on Mavi Marmara (another shocking revelation). His persistence has had results: his sister has moved from being a right-wing settler to someone who has apologised on her blog for inciting hatred against Arabs, and now buys her vegetables from Palestinians. And while Daniel believes that the boycott movement runs the risk of feeding the right wing Israeli survivalist mentality, he is also encouraged by the South African precedent: he stated that if BDS is taken up by the whole world, and presented to Israelis as a movement that can save lives, it can work.  Politically, he welcomes the upcoming Palestinian declaration of statehood, though he envisions that due to transmigration, in thirty or forty years a One State solution will come.

Daniel’s performance starts and ends on the subject of forgiveness. It is hard, and takes a big person, to say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness, he observed, but that is what he, as an Israeli is doing. He also forgives his officers for their brutality, and any Palestinian who may have hurt Israelis. Once more, some activists may argue that this kind of personal transformation is not enough, that we cannot put the cart of Reconciliation, before the horse of Truth. But at the same time, as Joel Kovel argues in Overcoming Zionism, for Israel to acknowledge its crimes against Palestine and ask for forgiveness is an essential part of the political process that needs to occur in the Middle East (p240). And for individuals to do this in their own lives can only aid that process. Ultimately, there are many levels to Truth. That the Occupation is the root cause of the violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict is one Truth. That we must be the change we want to see in the world is another Truth: one that Aung San Suu Kyi reminds of us in both word and deed. These Truths are not hierarchical; they co-exist and we would do well to remember them both.

Warm, open, and highly articulate, Daniel Vais is a peacemaker, one who is perhaps just beginning to do his most important work in the world. He has always challenged racism in his own family and friends, in ways that he finds effective. Currently, speaking out openly in Israel does not feel like an option for him: if he gave his performance in Israel, he would be branded a traitor. BHPSC and the Brighton Unemployed Centre are to be commended for providing a safe space for him to tell his story and engage in productive and positive dialogue with activists and members of the general public. I came home reflecting on the challenging points that he raised.  In my experience the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is actively anti-racist and anti-Semitic, and favours any solution that will bring peace and justice to the region, thus benefit all the people who live there. Perhaps the name of this group ‘British Writers in Support of Palestine’ suggests a hostile partisanship, but that is not the case. BWISP is actively supported by Israelis who share our belief that Palestinians, excluded for so long from mainstream political discourse, need both recognition and outspoken support.  I absolutely do not believe that the solidarity movement should pander to right-wing fears, or violate the boycott call, but at the same time I recognise the need to put our uncompromising message across to ordinary Israelis in ways that they can hear. I myself will endeavour to do so more frequently and persuasively in my own work.

Palestine needs far more Israelis like Daniel, and it is to be hoped that Daniel may also be strengthened by his involvement with the solidarity campaign. By making links with other anti-Zionist Israelis and Palestinians he may yet find ways to bring his profoundly anti-racist and anti-war message to the lion’s den that is Israel.  Meanwhile, I encourage everyone with an interest in the conflict in the Middle East, and, in general, in peace, to see his deeply honest and gripping performance.

To book Daniel Vais, email daniel.vais@gmail.com

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.

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.

January 28, 2011

BDS is Working: A Letter from Israel

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 6:05 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Boycott from Within! is a group of Israeli citizens – Jews and Palestinians – working together to support the PACBI BDS call. BWISP thanks them for this tremendous letter of support for our own solidarity efforts.

In the eyes of the world, the question is what can be done when the relevant institutions do not succeed in enforcing international law?
Tanya Reinhart May 5, 2005 [1]

January 25, 2011

Dear British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP)

We are members of BOYCOTT! [2] – a group of Jews and Palestinians, citizens and residents of Israel, who are struggling to end the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. We are writing to reassure you that here, in Israel, your attempts to bring about a change in the Middle East will not fall on deaf ears. There is increasing evidence showing that the boycott movement, inspired by the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel [3] may eventually affect Israel’s policies. Indeed the loss of Israel’s legitimacy, caused by the state’s war crimes and violation of international law, is affecting the Israeli public, its opinion shapers, as well as policy makers.

• For instance, in September 2009, Col. Gabriel Siboni portrayed the BDS movement as “The third threat” [4] aiming to destroy Israel’s legitimacy as a political entity. Later on, in November, mainstream journalist, Sever Plocker, [5] admitted that “Israel’s image has hit a nadir; it is isolated, unwanted, and perceived as bad. The world is telling us that should we continue along the same contemptible path, we will lose our legitimacy”. In February 2010, another mainstream journalist, Ari Shavit, described Israel’s distress over the delegitimization “assault”. [6]
• This loss of Israel’s international status has evoked different voices inside mainstream academics as well. In May 2010, Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and former Tel Aviv University President, said, during a symposium on “The Delegitimization of Israel as a Strategic Threat” at Tel Aviv University that “to regain Israel’s legitimacy, Israel’s policies will have to be geared towards establishing real peace”. [7]
• Recently 180 Israeli academics – university and college faculty members – signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of the Ariel University Center. [8]
• This move was preceded by mainstream Israeli artists who announced that they are boycotting Ariel, a settlement/city in the occupied territory, and urged Israeli artists not to perform there. [9]
• The BDS movement has already affected government members as well. For instance, Minister Fuad Ben Eliezer acknowledged that Israel’s “legitimacy is fragile and only a real attempt to reach an agreement with the Palestinians will repair it. [10] When meeting with non-violent resistance activists in Palestine in November 2010, the British Foreign Minister, William Hague, stated that “when negotiations seem like a timeless promise that is never fulfilled due to Israel’s unwillingness [to offer a] fair solution, popular resistance to the occupation is the only remaining possible alternative for the Palestinians to achieve their rights and avoid armed struggle.” [11]

The ball is rolling. Now EU is preparing the basis for sanctions against Israel; [12] South African states and Latin America states [13] recognize Palestinian independence. [14]

Israelis are no longer deluded. They realize that when there is an activist “sitting in front of the computer screen, there is no marine soldier that can eliminate him”; “Zahal [Israel “Defense” Forces] is not the answer”. [15-17]

These are just instances reassuring you that your contribution to the international effort to bring non-violent measures to bear against Israel’s illegitimate policies will not be in vain. We support your struggle and its continuance as urged by the Palestinian call, until Israel recognizes the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and until it fully complies with international law by ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and by dismantling the Wall; by recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and by respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Sincerely,

Reuven Abergel (Israeli black panthers)
Ofra Ben Artzi
Ronnen Ben-Arie
Yoav Beirach
Joseph Dana
Kelvin Bland RIBA
Prof. Dr, Uri Davis
Naama Farjoun
Prof. Rachel Giora
Neta Golan
Shir Hever
Yael Kahn
Yossef Lubovsky
Rela Mazali
Dr. Anat Matar
Dr. Dorothy Naor
Ofer Neiman
Eyal Sivan
Kerstin Sodergren
Sonya Soloviov
Jonatan Stanczak
Sahar Vardi
Elian Weizman

On behalf of
BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS call from within
http://boycottisrael.info/

[1]http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/14683
[2]http://boycottisrael.info
[3] http://bdsmovement.net/?q=node/52
[4]http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/the-third-threat-1.6988
[5]http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3798761,00.html
[6]http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/lieberman-is-helping-to-delegitimize-israel-1.263122
[7]http://www.jpost.com:80/Israel/Article.aspx?id=175337
[8]http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/israel-prize-laureates-join-academic-boycott-of-settlement-university-1.335954;http://www.facebook.com/pages/Petition-opposing-Ariel-College/183436191691018
[9] http://news.walla.co.il:80/?w=%2F1%2F1752210
[10] http://coteret.com/2010/05/16/maariv-minister-ben-eliezer-shaken-by-hostility-to-israel-in-eu-oecd-membership-notwithstanding/
[11] http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1196723.html
[12] http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2011/01/10/eu-lays-basis-for-sanctions-against-israel/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+richardsilverstein%2FZOfh+%28+Tikun+Olam-%D7%AA%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%9F+%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D%3A+Make+the+World+a+Better+Place%29
[13]http://www.haaretz.com:80/news/diplomacy-defense/guyana-becomes-7th-south-american-state-to-recognize-palestinian-independence-1.336944
[14]http://www.haaretz.com:80/print-edition/news/chile-joins-five-others-recognizes-palestine-1.335965
[15]Channel 10, 25.8.10
[16]http://www.mysay.co.il/articles/ShowArticle.aspx?articlePI=aaafzp
[17]http://news.nana10.co.il/Article/?ArticleId=741729&sid=126

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