British Writers In Support of Palestine

November 11, 2012

Letter(s) To Gaza: a beautiful event

Saturday November 10th, as part of Redrawing the Maps: A John Berger Free School, BWISP co-ordinator Naomi Foyle and Palestinian human rights worker Saleh Hijazi co-hosted a very special event, Letter(s) to Gaza. The event allowed the audience to converse with Palestinian speakers Ahmed Safi (Gaza and Oxford Brookes University), Ahmad Alaraj (The Freedom Theatre) and Selma Dabbagh (British Palestinian novelist), then write their own letters to the besieged population of Gaza, to be posted on the Letter(s) to Gaza blog. The letters will be circulated in Gaza via Palestinian students and their families, courtesy of Dr Haidar Eid of Al-Aqsa University, whose 2009 open letter to Barack Obama challenges the American President to end his indifferent lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, and hold Israel to account for the suffering caused by the blockade.

The Letter(s) to Gaza event was a response to John Berger’s video reading of Ghassan Kanafani’s short story ‘Letter from Gaza’, which can also be read here. ‘Letter from Gaza’ is a haunting portrait of the courage of Palestinian children. Written over forty years ago, it is no less relevant today, when as I write reports are coming in of four teenage boys killed in Gaza by IDF shelling of a football playground. Two were killed in the initial assault; two in a second shelling when they ran to help their friends. The mother of one boy gave birth to a new son today, and named him after his murdered brother. On Remembrance Sunday here in the UK, one could read no more searing account of the impossibility of forgetting the dead.

In the context of such brutal repression, hoping to make a difference by writing letters to people one has never met may seem a fey notion. But Ahmed Safi told us that people in Gaza are so isolated any kind of friendly contact from the outside world would be hugely welcomed. He also told us of the spirit of the people is strong, that they smile in the face of relentless IDF attacks, and maintain a vision of freedom from the blockade that has crippled their economy and infrastructure. His own grandfather spoke for sixty years of his home in Jaffa, which he was forced to flee in the Nakba in 1948. This tenacious remembrance, Ahmed realised after his grandfather died, was not despair but a kind of hope: the hope of return.  Ahmad Alaraj spoke of how touched he, as a Palestinian forced to live in the West Bank, was to meet Ahmed Safi.  He also talked about the Freedom Theatre’s recent Freedom Bus project, a travelling theatre initiative which included a video link to Gaza, to gather stories which actors then performed for audiences in the West Bank.  Again, to feel a sense of connection with those imprisoned in Gaza had been a very moving experience for him. Selma Dabbagh spoke of her own love of Kanafani’s stories, and her recent experience judging Gazan blogs, which she admired greatly, but felt did not always convey the lively spirit of their authors, whom she’d met on her visit to Gaza for the 2012 Palestinian Festival of Literature. Perhaps this disconnect between personal and public expression is the result of cultural factors; perhaps it also indicates what the huge responsibility it is for a young person to speak as a member of a suffering population in a public forum, unsure of who is listening. At the event, in a discussion facilitated by BWISP member Jonathan Rosenhead, we discussed the political situation in Gaza – including Saleh Hijazi’s investigation of human rights violations by Hamas, and Ahmed Safi’s work in the international aid industry, which he feels does not address the cause of the crisis, the Occupation; but we also stressed that a letter was a personal document, and that we hoped to encourage an intimate exchange based on mutual interests and curiosity about the other. We wanted to allow people here to ask questions and offer support, and for Gazans to feel free to reply and share something of their daily lives, the routines and dreams that keep them going.

Something wonderful happened in the room itself, as Palestinians who cannot meet in their own homeland were brought together, while the audience overcame some initial shyness and wrote intensely for half-an-hour, resting their papers on copies of the John Berger exhibition catalogue. When we shared the gist of our letters, it appeared we had all found a personal path into our correspondence. One man wrote about Palestinian cinema; a woman wrote a letter to a little boy who had open heart surgery in her London hospital six years ago; another related the émigré history of her own Finnish family to the Palestinian refugee experience of losing one’s home; another man had recently been hit by a car, and discovered that his surgeon was a dedicated member of Medical Aid of Palestine. I wrote about my efforts to get to Gaza in 2009, and recalled my dream of co-editing a collection of poetry from Gaza. As we parted, it felt like not the end of the event, but the beginning of a conversation.

The letter-writers will be sending final copies to the organisers this week, to be posted on the Letters to Gaza blog. If anyone reading this post would also like to contribute a letter, please get in touch with Saleh Hijazi and Naomi Foyle at lettertogaza@gmail.com

Finally, Saleh and Naomi would like to thank the organisers of Redrawing the Maps, a week of events, screenings and discussions celebrating the work of John Berger. We would also like to thank John Berger himself, whose long, warm and incisive commitment to Palestine, and bold early advocacy of the cultural boycott of Israel, have laid the foundation for all BWISP’s campaigns and activities.

July 20, 2011

When will Howard Jacobson see the Palestinians?

By Naomi Foyle

As the third co-founder of British Writers In Support of Palestine, I also feel compelled to respond to Howard Jacobson’s attack on the integrity and intelligence of Alice Walker, who chose to attempt to sail to Gaza with the sabotaged Freedom Flotilla II.   While I disagree profoundly and heatedly with Jacobson’s arguments, I recognize that they are held not only by the defenders of Israel, but also by many undecided observers of the conflict in the Middle East.  I will therefore attempt to reply calmly in the spirit of dialogue and engagement I myself aspire to at this stage in the ‘ethical history’ of humanity (let us remember, Howard, that ‘mankind’ is nowhere without womankind).

Alice Walker sets her courageous decision to sail to Gaza firmly in the context of the civil rights movement, and its non-violent protests against intolerable oppression.  She also makes it abundantly clear that the loving bravery of Jewish human rights activists, including her own husband, has inspired her to put her own body in the potential line of fire.  Yet Howard Jacobson makes no mention whatsoever of segregation in America or Israel when he besmirches her intentions.  And reading his article one might easily conclude that he is accusing Alice Walker of being a naive anti-Semite: guilty of ‘a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.’  Ignoring her historical arguments, and personal experience of resisting racial prejudice, Jacobson instead narrows his focus to a gross over-simplification and distortion of the ‘facts on the ground’.  The blockade of Gaza, he claims, is necessary because Hamas fires rockets at Israeli children, and refuses to recognize the state of Israel. Walker, he implies by citing Don Quixote, is tilting at windmills: foolishly demonizing the innocent folk of Israel, and its military.

Let me not dwell on Jacobson’s patronizing attitude to a literary giant, a writer who in both word and deed has made an incalculable contribution to the global struggle for human rights.  Instead, I will examine his arguments, such as they are.  For the conflict in the Middle East is not nearly as simple as Jacobson would have his readers believe.  To begin with the rockets.  An understanding of context is essential if one is to get to grips with the moral questions at stake here.  Hamas fires their Qassams from and into a political context in which Israel is a brutal occupying power that routinely steals Palestinian land, trees and water, and humiliates, imprisons and tortures Palestinians on the slightest pretext.  In Gaza, the seriously ill are denied access to Israeli hospitals, and die of treatable conditions; pregnant women die at checkpoints; and IDF military attacks have poisoned the water supplies to the extent that babies are now being born with a potentially lethal blood disorder – ‘blue babies’. Under international law, occupied people have the legal right to defend themselves against such abuses: abuse in this case so systemic it is indistinguishable from ethnic cleansing, or slow genocide.  This is what Hamas and its supporters believe it is doing – legitimately resisting an occupying force: Sderot, after all, was built on the ruins of a destroyed Palestinian village, Najd.

But while the Palestinians have as much right to a military as any nation, self-defence does not include deliberately targeting civilians.  Here, again, context is crucial: Israel is guilty of killing and punishing civilians on a scale that dwarfs the impact of the rockets.  Children, old people, families, unarmed refugees, members of peaceful protests: IDF soldiers, themselves mostly teenage conscripts, have killed them all. It is difficult to get exact numbers, but based on statistics provided by human rights group B’Tselem and the Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs, I have calculated [1] that in the last four years the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli civilian deaths stands at 33:1, while that of child deaths is a heart-stopping 100:1. By condemning the rocket attacks without breathing a word of Israeli atrocities, Howard Jacobson glaringly exposes his own partiality: his blind loyalty to an oppressive regime, a state that calls itself democratic, but is better described as a militant ethnocracy.  At the same time, if Israel is wrong to target civilians, then so too is the militant wing of Hamas. I do condemn the rocket attacks on civilian centres.  I can well imagine that it must be terrifying to be subjected to random missiles, and to fear that they might kill or maim you or a loved one.

This wall of fear in the Israeli psyche, however, tragically prevents the country’s citizens from seeing the far greater suffering of those on the other side of that barrier.  As Omar Barghouti, key architect of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, recently pointed out, while the Israelis claim they are afraid of being annihilated, it is the Palestinians who, day by day, year after year, are being ‘disappeared’.  One only has to look at the maps of the Holy Land since 1948 to perceive the self-evident truth of this statement.  It is obvious to me that the root cause of the pain experienced by both sides is Israel’s aggressive expansionism and apartheid policies. Hamas, after all, regularly offers Israel ten year cease-fires, which Israel just as regularly rejects. And the Palestine Papers demonstrated conclusively that Israel has never been a partner for peace.

I also believe that in order to dismantle all the walls – concrete and psychological – that divide the Holy Land, it is necessary to defend the human rights of everyone in the region.  I joined the BDS movement to order to help build a non-violent alternative to missile attacks on Israel.  But – and this is a crucial ‘but’ – much as I wish Israeli children to be able to sleep safely at night, unlike Howard Jacobson, I do not think that the firing of rockets at Sderot justifies the medieval siege of an entire civilian population.

Even at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, did the UK government blockade and carpet-bomb Belfast?  Such a course of action would have been unthinkable.  But the illegal siege of Gaza has continued for five years now, with no end in sight.  In this time, Israel has prevented the import of basic necessities including concrete, paper, food and medicine.  Howard Jacobson complains that Alice Walker’s ship is carrying:  “Letters expressing solidarity and love.’  Not,’ he scoffs, ‘presumably, for Israeli children.  Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already.’  Well, Howard, they are certainly at least the recipients of enough food, which is more than Gazan children can say.  Chillingly, Israel has calculated the caloric needs of the population, and has indeed, as it boasted in 2006, ‘put the Palestinians on a diet’ by deliberately letting in less to eat than the people need.

The siege has also involved fatal IDF sniper attacks on Palestinian farmers, and a three week military assault in which schools, hospitals, mosques and homes were bombed, and over 1400 Palestinians, over 400 of them children, were killed.  Operation Cast Lead also subjected Gaza to the use of white phosphorus, illegal due to the extreme suffering to which it subjects the human body.  Who, I ask, is the worse ‘terrorist’ in this conflict?  And why cannot Howard Jacobson see that it is the hugely disproportionate violence meted out by Israel that turns people like Alice Walker into passionate supporters of the rights of the Palestinians?

But Howard Jacobson does not want to talk about the horrific mass killing of Palestinian civilians we all saw on television.  He wants to talk about Hamas.  So let me now challenge a central Israeli advocacy shibboleth: that Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel.  Hamas, in fact, was a co-signatory to the 2006 ‘Palestinian Prisoners Document’, which – while later set aside due to internal disagreements – expresses a willingness to accept the 1967 borders of the State of Israel, subject to negotiations.  Such negotiations should have started when Hamas was democratically elected.  In discussions with political opponents, surely one must set compromise as an end-goal, not demand it as a pre-condition.  Let me state the truth, as clear as clean water for Howard Jacobson to drink: it is Israel that refuses to recognize the State of Palestine, and until it does so, there will be no peace for any of its children.

It is only through justice that real and lasting peace can come.  And when international governments look away, rebuke Israel but do not punish it for mass killing, torture and theft, then international civilians must step forward.  Yes, the Freedom Flotillas are political acts – all human acts are political, and emotional, and spiritual!  And yes, they are provocations.  They are intended to provoke, not Israeli commandos, but world leaders – to do what they should have done long ago: free Gaza.

Finally, let me try to explain to Howard Jacobson the significance of the name ‘The Audacity of Hope’.  Palestinians, I have learned, do not use the word ‘hope’ lightly.  Their hopes as a people are continually dashed against a wall of Israeli intransigence and international indifference.  The central pillar in the Palestinian psyche is sumud, meaning, roughly, ‘steadfastness’.  All that ordinary Palestinians can do is not give up.  Not give up their land, not give up their struggle, and not surrender their humanity.  For them, to hope is truly an audacious act.  In this spirit, I call on Howard Jacobson to surmount the walls of fear in his own heart and mind, and finally acknowledge that the state of Israel was founded on a fundamental injustice that only the state of Israel can apologise for and undo.  I call on him to retract his sneering tilt at Alice Walker, and channel his own considerable intellectual powers into persuading Israelis that the time is long overdue to honour the basic human rights and legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. And if he cannot yet do all that, I respectfully ask him to converse with me on these issues, in whatever form he chooses: live public debate; an exchange of private or public letters; or a private meeting.

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[1] Wikipedia provides a chart of civilian deaths in the conflict drawn from Israeli human rights group B’tselem and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  This chart includes intra-Palestinian casualties, making it harder to draw exact conclusions.  But discounting the internal casualties, from 1987-2010 the average number of Israeli fatalities per year was 65 (including an average of 6 children per year); the number of Palestinian deaths per year was 276 (including 70 children per year).  This is a ratio of 4:1 total Palestinians killed to Israelis, and nearly 12:1 children.

Since the end of the second intifada in 2006, and the completion of most of the Apartheid Wall, the numbers of Israeli deaths per year have dropped dramatically – averaging 16 fatalities per year from 2007-2010, including the total loss of 5 children in four years.  In that same period, Palestinian fatalities have risen.   Allowing the figure for 2009 to stand – it represents the casualties of Operation Cast Lead – subtracting 20% from the totals of the other three years (to account for internal casualties); and assuming that the Palestinians did not kill any of their own children; the average yearly number of fatalities was 529 (including 125 children per year [total 503]).  This represents ratios of 33:1 (Palestinians to Israelis killed) and 100:1 (Palestinian to Israeli children killed) in the last four years.  I note that, as the real number of Palestinian casualties has risen, while the Wall is making Israelis more secure, it is making Palestinians vastly less safe.

July 3, 2011

[Poem] ‘Red Onions’ by Agnes Meadows

Filed under: Gaza,Poems — Naomi Foyle @ 11:37 pm
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As the captains and crew of  Freedom Flotilla II face sabotage, imprisonment and the concerted efforts of Israel and the US to thwart their mission, BWISP remembers the reason for their efforts: the courageous, long-suffering people of Gaza, and in particular its children.  Thinking of them, we publish a poem by Agnes Meadows, from her collection At Damascus Gate on Good Friday (Waterways Publishing, 2005).

Red Onions

My sparrow-spring girl is crying again, not silently,

With the precocious dignity of those old before their time,

But with noisy, terrified tears as befits an 8-year-old

Who has just seen her best friend murdered before her eyes.

Her weeping splits apart the fabric of evening,

A grey cotton shroud torn to bitter shreds,

A wailing siren of grief shaking the walls of her home

Like an angry robber intent of stealing midnight’s stillness.

This vibrant, joyful, dancing child,

Who turned me around with her laughter,

Spun me like a top until I became dizzy with love,

Now shouts and trembles, convulsing with torment,

Beats her father in blind uncomprehending rage,

Her small fists nailing stations of the cross upon his flesh.

He smokes too many cigarettes, becomes absorbed in the mending

Of clocks, radios, other broken things, a family joke

That seems to have lost its punch line, for his child cannot be fixed

Tonight, a clockwork toy that has been wound up once too often,

Spitted by a soldier’s sniping savagery.

She has been undone by horror, unravelled by memories of blood

Splashed with geranium freshness onto the fearful ground.

Her brothers hold her close

As if by doing so they will absorb her anguish,

Join up the circle of her broken heart,

Rekindle the flame of innocence within her.

Her mother occupies herself in the kitchen,

Holding things together with soup,

Slivers of chicken,

Eggplant, green peppers.

It is the red onions that make her eyes water,

Nothing more.

Just the red onions.

July 2, 2011

Freedom Flotilla II: No, Howard Jacobson, no.

As the captain of  The Audacity of Hope is arrested at sea, BWISP co-founders novelist Irving Weinman and poet Judith Kazantzis respond to Howard Jacobson’s attack on Alice Walker’s decision to join the Freedom Flotilla II.

I’m writing as a novelist, like Howard Jacobson; as a Jew, like Howard Jacobson. Unlike Howard Jacobson, I’m American, though resident in England. Also unlike Howard Jacobson, I’m not a Zionist.

In writing what he has, Jacobson reveals his arguments for anyone to read and comment upon. And the fact is, his arguments are nonsensical. Does he really believe that Palestinian children in Gaza have the same sort of quality of life that Israeli children do? Do 80% of Israeli children depend on UN food relief for basic nourishment? No, Mr. Jacobson, this flotilla is about helping Palestinians in need. No, Mr. Jacobson, this flotilla is not going to enter Israeli waters, and stopping it outside Israeli waters breaks international maritime laws. No, Mr. Jacobson, the boats will willingly be searched for weapons. No, Mr. Jacobson, Israel will not take the cargo and deliver it. They didn’t with any of the other flotilla boats they stopped and whose cargo they took. And mostly, no, Mr. Jacobson you are not going to change the subject to the kids of Israel. This is about the kids of Gaza, the ones who get to go hungry, go without clean drinking water, get white phosphorus dropped on them by Israeli grownups who indeed were once Israeli kids.

Irving Weinman

So Israel supporter Howard Jacobson derides the brave Alice Walker and all the others on Flotilla II.  It’s as if a Somali pirate were to blame a ship for being in the Indian Ocean. The UN makes the two points over and over again that, first, Israel is blockading Gazan waters – which do not belong to Israel – and, second, Israel has no right under international law to arrest any other ship in international waters. Should we infer that Jacobson as a British citizen denies established international maritime law?

Howard Jacobson may think that the only good Americans are in AIPAC or the AIPAC packed Congress.  Most of the left and the liberal left will see Alice Walker’s presence as heroic witness in a woman of 67 who needs no publicity but is ready to run the blockade in the name of justice and humanity. Perhaps in the long watches of the night, Mr. Jacobson finds himself a little bit jealous of such courage; but don’t bet on it. He sounds more likely to hero-worship one of those tough Israeli pilots whose play-station childhoods (bang – splatter) train them to button-push unmanned drones to bomb Palestinian children (bang – splatter) and to consider such murdering a patriotic virtue.

As for the super weapon(s) with which it seems Mr Jacobson fears Gazans would annihilate Israel if they weren’t starved and besieged, this is official Israel Press Office paranoia – code name Tell It Like You Mean It – looped like a spider web round the world’s media to justify the eternal occupation of the Palestinians. The Big Lie. Not as pretty as a spider web.

Judith Kazantzis

October 8, 2010

BWISP members in Palestine … or en route!

BWISP member Robin Yassin-Kassab is currently blogging on Pulse from the West Bank, while BWISP co-founder Irving Weinman’s Word Convoy will record his journey to deliver surgical supplies to Gaza with the Road to Hope Convoy to Gaza. Both writers will be delivering asute, compassionate and informed observations and analysis of their experiences. You can sign up to follow their accounts via these links:

pulsemedia.org

wordconvoy.blogspot.org

Special thanks to Robin for posting a link to Project Hope, where international and local volunteers work together teaching children and young adults in Nablus. And all strength and good spirits to Irving and The Road to Hope Convoyin their upcoming trek across North Africa to Gaza!

June 13, 2010

BWISP Letter to The Independent on Sunday, June 6 2010

The following letter expresses the support of the signatories for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel.  A shortened version appeared in the IoS 6.6.10.  

Dear Editor

The murder of humanitarian aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters is the latest tragic example of Israel’s relentless attacks on human rights. But while violently preventing the free passage of medical, building and school supplies to Gaza, Israel continues to pride itself as a highly cultured, highly educated state. In solidarity with Palestinian civil society and its call for a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, we the undersigned therefore appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities. (This boycott does not include courageous independent Israeli organisations who openly oppose the occupation.) We also ask that writers, poets and British funding bodies actively support Palestinian literary events, such as the Palestinian Literary Festival and the Palestinian Writing Workshop.

Materially and ideologically, state-sponsored Israeli academic and cultural events both prop up and mask the continuing brutal occupation of Palestine. Israeli universities are key players in the creation and dissemination of government policy, and while some Israeli cultural foundations may promote ‘dialogue’ between the two peoples, there can be no true dialogue when one party is a military superpower and the other a nation of second-class citizens, refugees and virtual prisoners. Appearing as an international guest at all such Israeli cultural and academic events helps to divert attention from, and normalize, Israeli war crimes in Gaza; the annexation of East Jerusalem; and the on-going illegal settlement of the West Bank. Such appearances will also help to normalise Israel’s recent abhorrent military actions at sea.

More information on the cultural and academic boycott of Israel may be found at http://www.pacbi.org and http://www.bricup.org.uk. But in brief, we the undersigned do not wish to lend our presence or approval to cultural or academic events underwritten by the State of Israel, nor do we wish to help sustain the deliberately fostered illusion of moral and military parity between the two actors in this conflict. Rather as Britons and British residents, we believe that we have a historical and moral obligation to support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people in their struggle for long-denied peace, justice and self-determination.

Yours,

BWISP (British Writers In Support of Palestine)

Prof Mona Baker (scholar)

John Berger (novelist, art critic, essayist, poet, Booker Prize winner)

Lauren Booth (writer and journalist)

Prof Marilyn Booth (scholar, literary translator)

Kevin Cadwallender (poet)

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell (writer)

John Chalcraft (scholar)

Leena Dhingra (novelist)

Jenny Diski (novelist, essayist, travel writer)

Dr Hugh Dunkerley (poet and scholar)

Prof Rasheed El-Enany (scholar)

Prof Hoda Elsadda (scholar)

Alison Fell (novelist, poet)

Naomi Foyle (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Prof Patrick Ffrench (scholar, writer)

Maureen Freely (novelist, translator, academic)

Prof Ian Gregson (poet, literary critic)

Prof Peter Hallward (scholar)

Rumy Hasan (scholar)

Mischa Hiller (novelist)

Aamer Hussein (writer)

Ewa Jasiewicz (writer and journalist)

Fred Johnstone (poet, novelist and translator)

Dr Ghada Karmi (writer and scholar)

Judith Kazantzis (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Mimi Khalvati (poet)

Eleanor Kilroy (journalist)

Wendy Klein (poet)

Stephen Knight (poet and critic)

Zoë Lambert (writer and scholar)

Diane Langford (novelist)

Tom Leonard (poet and critic)

Dr Les Levidow (scholar)

Alistair Ligertwood (scholar, literary translator)

Catherine Lupton (writer)

Lauro Martines (writer, socio-political and historical scholar)

Mike Marqusee (writer)

Prof Nur Masalha (scholar)

China Miéville (novelist)

James Miller (novelist)

Alan Morrison (poet and editor)

Dr Dalia Mostafa (scholar)

Ali Nasralla (scholar)

Sybil Oldfield (academic, scholar, feminist historian/biographer)

Julia O’Faolain (novelist)

Jeremy Page (poet, editor, critic)

Thomas Pakenham (historian)

Dr Ian Patterson (poet and scholar)

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead (scholar)

Dr Khadiga Safwat (writer and scholar)

Prof Myriam Salama-Carr (scholar, translator)

Dr Duncan Salkeld (literary scholar)

Seni Seneviratne (poet)

Kamila Shamsie (novelist)

John Siddique (poet and writer)

Mark Slater (scholar, critic and writer)

Catherine Smith (poet and writer)

Dr Derek Summerfield (writer, scholar)

David Swann (poet and writer)

Tom Vowler (writer)

Kate Webb (writer, critic)

Irving Weinman (novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Hilary Wise (scholar and writer)

Eliza Wyatt (playwright)

Evie Wyld (novelist)

Robin Yassin-Kassab (novelist)

(66 signatories)

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