British Writers In Support of Palestine

April 6, 2012

Shakespeare’s Globe: Disinvite Habima!

Many thanks to BWISP member Eleanor Kilroy for her sustained work on the on-going Shakespeare’s Globe ‘Disinvite Habima’ campaign, summarised here in her comprehensive article for Mondoweiss, reposted with permission.

English effort to boycott Israeli theater is likened to…. ‘Nazi book-burning’

In the one week since their Guardian letter, ‘Dismay at Globe invitation’ to the Israeli Habima theatre, was published, signatories such as Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance have been vilified in some quarters. The Jewish Chronicle was expected to hit back the hardest; it has been following the story since late last year, even before Habima’s planned involvement in the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival aroused opposition, initially from the Israeli organisation Boycott from Within.

In an October 2011 JC article, ‘Israelis fear protests at Globe Shakespeare festival‘, a Habima spokesperson, Rut Tonn, described the Palestinian theatre company Ashtar’s appearance in the same festival as “a blessing”, and an example of “collaborations which will help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But Ashtar has refuted any suggestion that its appearance in the festival four weeks before Habima’s implies any sort of balance, and said in a letter to the Globe this February:

“They have insinuated cooperation with us to undermine the growing cultural boycott of complicit Israeli institutions.”

Now The Jewish Chronicle has fashioned its best headline yet out of a quote from a British playwright:

Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars

The call for a boycott of Habima, which was founded by Jews in Moscow in 1905, was condemned by Sir Arnold [Wesker], who said that “depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe”.

Habima’s artistic director Ilan Ronen, responding to the Guardian letter, reiterated this week in Haaretz the falsehood that illegal West Bank settlements are part of Israel. This is the line that Habima co-manager Odelia Friedman took in front of the Knesset in 2010:

“As a national theater company, Habima will perform for all residents of Israel. Residents of Ariel are residents of Israel and Habima will stage shows for them”.

The same Odelia Friedman declared just two months ago that the Globe invitation was ‘an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel’, in the spirit of the infamous 2005 statement by Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” Yet the Globe and its apologists insist on equating the Palestinian boycott of Israeli institutions with an attack on individual (in some cases, Jewish) artistic freedom.

Last night, at a rather chaotic Dash Café London event “Art & Conflict – The Case of Syria”, my Reel Festivals colleague Dan Gorman gave an example of the Syrian Ba’athist regime’s attempt to co-opt their independent cultural festival in 2011, months after the uprising began. The Reel Festivals organisers abandoned plans to stage events in Syria upon seeing the Syrian authorities’ use of cultural events to support their narrative of popular support for the government, with events such as the “Oath of Loyalty to the Homeland festival” last July.

In this interminable propaganda piece by the SANA news agency on the ‘festival’, the following quote is typical: ‘Artist Subhi al-Rifa’ai said “We came here today to show the world that no one can undermine our country and national unity”.’ Crude rhetoric compared to the whitewash of The Jewish Chronicle and Ynet, and yet the parallels should be noted.

I have little doubt that several of the participating Syrian artists were too fearful for their lives to decline the invitation to front this state-sponsored event – the very antithesis of culture, just as the ethnically privileged Jewish Israeli actors in Habima dare not risk careers and government subsidies. As BWISP colleague, Naomi Foyle has stated in response to the Globe’s repeated claim that all Habima company actors are closet dissidents:

“If I were a conflicted Habima actor I would be glad of a boycott that might pressure my employers and state funders to rethink their illegal and profoundly destructive policies.”

June 29, 2011

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

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

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

June 12, 2011

[July 10th] Southbank Debate: Why Boycott Culture?

BWISP is very pleased to announce the following high-profile debate on cultural boycott, featuring the architect of BDS, Omar Barghouti, and BWISP member Seni Seneviratne.  We look forward to seeing you there, and to hearing your questions from the floor.


Sunday July 10th
7 pm, The Purcell Room
The Southbank Centre
£10 / £5 concessions (limited number)

WHY BOYCOTT CULTURE?

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.

Supporting the motion:

Omar Barghouti – author of BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Press).

Seni Seneviratne – British-Sri Lankan poet and performer, author of Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin (Peepal Tree Press).

Opposing the motion:

Carol Gould – ex-patriate American author, film maker, and ‘a vocal critic of what she sees as increasing anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Britain’.

plus one other speaker TBA.

Book tickets here.

March 23, 2011

BDS South Africa Press Release: UJ ENDS ISRAELI LINKS

Nine members of BWISP recently signed a petition calling on the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to sever its ties with Ben Gurion University (BGU). We are thrilled to post today’s press release from the Boycott Divestment and Sanction Working Group (South Africa), announcing the success of the campaign:

Today, setting a worldwide precedent in the academic boycott of Israel, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has effectively severed ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

This was after UJ’s Senate rejected a last ditch motion by pro-Israeli lobbyists to have two separate bilateral agreements – one with a Palestinian University and another with an Israeli University. UJ chose instead to uphold its previous Senate Resolution that required taking leadership from Palestinian universities. Palestinian universities unanimously rejected any collaboration with BGU (in any form) and have come out in full support of the the academic boycott of Israel. UJ chose to respect this.

UJ is the first institution to officially sever relations with an Israeli university – a landmark moment in the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel campaign. Throughout the campaign, academics and international human rights activists have been anticipating this decision. This boycott decision, coming from a South African institution, is of particular significance. This has set a precedent and must start a domino boycott effect!

The movement to end ties with BGU was boosted by the overwhelming support given to the UJ Petition (www.ujpetition.com) – a statement and campaign in support of UJ academics and students who were calling on their university to end its apartheid-era relationship with BGU. As the UJ senate met today, over 400 South African academics, including nine Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors, had signed the UJ Petition.

Included in the list of supporters are some of South Africa’s leading voices: Professors Neville Alexander, Kader Asmal, Allan Boesak, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Barney Pityana and Sampie Terreblanche. South Africa’s popular cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Bishop Rubin Phillips, former Minister Ronnie Kasrils and leading social activist Zackie Achmat also backed the campaign.

Further, over 100 internationals began to lend their support, including several prominent international scholars: Professors Judith Butler, Vijay Prashad, Michael Burawoy, Wendy Brown, Ernesto Laclau, and acclaimed British author, John Berger.

Today UJ has made history by upholding and advancing academic moral integrity. Palestinians, South Africans and the international academic and solidarity community celebrate this decisive victory in isolating Israeli apartheid and supporting freedom, dignity and justice for the Palestinian people. UJ now continues the anti-apartheid movement – against Apartheid Israel.

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

Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace: Press Release

2011, February 14th
For immediate release

The Israeli Parliament will hold tomorrow a hearing on the Prohibition on Instituting a Boycott Bill – The bill will criminalize criticism and action against Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli organization, Coalition of Women for Peace: “This is a step up in anti-democratic lawmaking in the Knesset.”

(Tel Aviv, Israel ) Tomorrow, Tuesday 15.2, the Knesset committee of Constitution and Law will hold a first hearing on the so-called Prohibition on Instituting a Boycott Bill. In practice, the bill criminalizes a variety of political activities that object to Israel ‘s policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, under the claim that such activities may encourage or support a boycott of Israel .

The bill was proposed last summer and passed a preliminary vote. It was initiated by right leaning MKs, including: Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), David Rotem (Israel Beitenu), and Daliya Izzik (Kadima).

The bill’s hazy wording causes concern, as it broadens the scope of prohibited activities that it defines as “aiding and abating” boycott, such as:

· Publishing information about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories – will become illegal.

· Monitoring settlement expansion and publishing settlement maps – will become illegal.

· A Facebook “Like” for a page that supports BDS – will become illegal.

Eilat Maoz, Coalition of Women for Peace Coordinator: “This is a step up in which the government isn’t satisfied with persecution of left wing organizations, but tries to make leftist protest illegal and silence its citizens. It’s a government that’s afraid of democratic debate, because such a debate will expose the disagreement of the public with the destructive policies of the occupation and the settlements.”

Rina Shapira, coordinator of FORA, Feminist Organizing of Russian-speaking Activists:

“This dangerous bill reminds us of the silencing and censorship phenomena that are all too reminiscent of other regimes, such as the Soviet regime. We call on the Knesset members to stop the law making process of this anti-democratic law.”

For further details:

Tamara Traubman, Media and Communications Coordinator, Coalition of Women for Peace: 050-8575730

Roy Yalin: 054-4654431

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 5, 2011

To Ian McEwan … from India & Italy

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 12:22 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Two open letters published this week, urging Ian McEwan to reject the Jerusalem Prize:

From Rete degli Ebrei contro l’Occupazione (Italian Network of Jews against the Occupation)

Jerusalem Prize
Lunedì 31 Gennaio 2011 18:02 Giorgio Forti
| Stampa |

31/01/2011

Dear Ian McEwan,

We heard that you have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, and are expected to participate in the ceremony at the Jerusalem Book Fair. As readers of several of your novels, we certainly agree with the fact that you deserve a prize, as you are indeed an outstanding writer.

However, we think that there are strong ethical grounds to refuse both to participate in this ceremony and to accept the prize. In fact, this event is exploited by the Israeli political authorities to assess if and how they are accepted in the international culture Community, as gentlemen among gentlemen.

This Book Fair is organized by the Municipality of Jerusalem and managed by the Ariel Municipal Company Ltd.; it is supported by the Israeli Government and all its powerful propaganda apparatus. Ariel, as you probably know, is one of the biggest Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land after confiscating it from its legitimate owners. This is a consequence of 43 years of military occupation, which has become more and more oppressive, especially in recent times.

A number of United Nations deliberations has condemned the Israeli occupation, the building of permanent Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the building of the Wall on Palestinian land. Israel defines it as a separation barrier needed for security; Palestinians – and any sensible person in the world – calls it an Apartheid wall. You are certainly informed of the extremely oppressive character of the Israeli occupation: it deprives Palestinians of most human rights. In the last a few years it has even been impossible for Israeli Palestians to live with their spouse, if one of the two is a West Bank resident. It requires non-Jews who wish to become Israeli citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish State. The list of violations of human rights and of international laws is very long; it includes the arbitrary detention in Israeli prisons of about 9.000 Palestinians, many of which are minors. Moreover, we cannot forget the extremely severe siege of the Gaza Strip and the massacre of 1400 persons, mostly of which were civilians, two years ago.

We hope that you will reconsider going to Jerusalem to accept the prize: this will mark your solidarity with the oppressed and your rejection of any complicity with the oppressor.

Barbara Agostini
Paolo Amati
Paola Canarutto
Giorgio Forti
Miryam Marino
Marco Ramazzotti
Stefania Sinigaglia
Susanna Sinigaglia
Ornella Terracini

And from the Indian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel:

Wednesday, February 02

Dear Mr. Ian McEwan,

We are a group of Indian academics, writers, readers and artists who have come together as the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (InCACBI). A number of us who count ourselves among your readers have been saddened by your decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize at the Jerusalem International Book Fair on 20 February 2011.

You have told 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.”

In response, we, like many other groups across the world, would like to call your attention to the following points once again.

1. The 25th International Book Fair that will take place in Jerusalem February 20th-25th, 2011 is organized by the Municipality of Jerusalem and managed by the Ariel Municipal Company Ltd. The Jerusalem Municipality has, since its inception, been a major instrument in the colonization of Jerusalem. It continues to be instrumental in the active discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem, including the demolition of Palestinian homes. In other words, the fair’s sponsor is a key institution of the Israeli state and very much part of its apartheid programme.

2. The book fair is an important occasion on the Israel-promotion calendar, serving to highlight Israel’s image as a patron of book publishing and the arts in general. The offer of visiting fellowships to young editors, agents and scouts from around the world aims to promote this carefully crafted image.

3. The Jerusalem Prize, to be awarded on 20 February 2011 at the opening evening of the Book Fair, is described as “the cultural highlight of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. The Prize is awarded to a writer whose work best expresses and promotes the idea of the ”freedom of the individual in society.” The theme was chosen both for its wider international appeal and for its internal Israeli resonance.” By honoring world-class writers, the Israeli political and cultural establishment is again promoting the state as a patron of the arts, literature, and culture in general. And by accepting the Jerusalem Prize you would be lending yourself and your work to the official hasbara effort—part of the Brand Israel campaign.

4. We are sure you will agree that there are some questions here that we cannot escape. Can an apartheid state promote and celebrate individual freedom? Can a prize planned, sponsored and used by an apartheid state be about literature?

5. Responding to their call for a boycott is one clear way to let the Palestinians know that we have heard their call for support from the international community. This is definitely something we can indeed do to assure the Palestinians that they are not alone. There is still time for you to reconsider accepting the prize. We urge you to refuse the Jerusalem Prize and support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Signatures available here.

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