British Writers In Support of Palestine

November 20, 2015

Refuting J.K. Rowling + A Farewell to Irving Weinman

Followers of the UK debates around cultural and academic boycott will be well aware of the launch of the new anti-boycott group ‘Culture for Co-existence’, a response to this year’s significant formation of Artists For Palestine UK (APUK), which has to date garnered over 1090 signatures for its Artists Pledge for Palestine, and has in addition published a 64 page book The Case for a Cultural Boycott of Israel, a comprehensive response to all the questions that typically arise about the campaign.

In their recent brief letter to The Guardian (Oct 23) signed by, among others, J.K. Rowling and Simon Schama, ‘Culture for Co-existence’ argues that ‘Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and do not bring peace’ while ‘cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.’

I was sorry and frustrated, but not surprised, to see the cultural and academic boycott of Israel once again misrepresented by its opponents. Rather than research the issue and respond to the detailed case we have time and again put forward, the signatories have made veiled accusations of anti-Semitism, and in their own defense have offered only easy slogans that bear no relevance to how the arts are in fact leveraged in Israel.

Once again it must be pointed out that pro-boycott campaigners do not ‘single out’ Israel. Many of us also reject funding or prizes from other authoritarian regimes. I’ve never been offered such a prize, but I didn’t watch a minute of the Sochi Olympics – and this was a sacrifice, as I love figure skating. Not watching TV is not, however, an effective political action. The boycott of Israel has gained such traction and visibility – and carries additional moral weight – because it is not simply a set of isolated refusals, but a growing collective response to an organised call made by the Palestinians themselves. This demand for solidarity from artists, writers and academics comes from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), whose existence ‘Culture for Co-existence’ signally fails to acknowledge.

In addition, far from being ‘discriminatory’, the entire boycott movement is grounded in respect for human rights and international law. It does not target individuals at all, let alone on the basis of religion or nationality. Rather, it rejects co-operation with Israeli institutions and the Israeli state,  insisting that we not accept cultural offerings funded by a government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing and illegal occupation in defense of an apartheid state. Like its great precedent against apartheid South Africa, the boycott also asks international artists to reject commercial ventures in Israel until such time as the country honours its responsibilities under international law. If signatories would not have ‘played Sun City’, then they should not play Tel Aviv.

I am a poet and novelist and I do believe in the power of art to generate empathy and understanding for others. But art exists within a globalised economy of money and power, and cultural products cannot be automatically assumed to nurture positive political change: in fact, they may well do the opposite. In the case of Israel ‘cultural bridges’ serve only to strengthen a highly privileged relationship with the West. Decades worth of literary prizes,  rock-n-roll concerts in Tel Aviv, and state-sponsored theatre tours of UK have not led to freedom for the Palestinians and peace for all in the region. Cultural engagement has not even put a brake on Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements, its demographic warfare on its Arab citizens, or its ruthless assaults on Gaza. In Israel the arts flourish, but the situation for the Palestinians simply gets worse. Cultural events are not neutral, either: they buttress the country’s self-styled reputation as a ‘liberal democracy’, a reputation that ensures its war crimes do not simply go unpunished, but are rewarded with sympathy, respect, and eye-watering amounts of military and financial aid.

In contrast, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement subjects Israel to sustained moral pressure, and provokes the honest and informed debate that all campaign proponents welcome. Finally, cultural and academic boycott does not burn bridges. Nothing in the PACBI call prevents cultural exchanges or intellectual collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians, or visits to the UK from Israeli artists, as long as these events do not involve Israeli state or institutional funding.

For further replies to the ‘Culture for Co-existence’ letter, please see PACBI’s Open Letter to JK Rowling, the astute analysis by BWISP member Sarah Irving of the Zionist actors driving the group, and statements by British artists for APUK.

* * *

Irving WeinmanVery sadly, I must also report in this update the loss of novelist, short story writer and BWISP co-founder Irving Weinman, who died suddenly on October 26th 2015, at the age of 78. His loss will be keenly felt by many. I first met Irving in 2007, when I came to Lewes to interview his wife Judith Kazantzis about her poetry. At the end of the interview, Irving joined us from the kitchen with three stubby bottles of beer on a tray, and we never looked back. I became a frequent visitor to their colourful home, often spoiled by Irving’s fabulous pescatarian cooking, always entertained by his marvelous raconteurship and inspired by his warm internationalism. Irving’s parents were shtetl Jews from Romania who lived in Paris before emigrated to Boston in the thirties where Irving was born. His mother spoke seven languages and Irving grew up hearing mainly Yiddish, Russian and French, and also much music in the house. A talented jazz pianist, Irving switched allegiance to literature in his youth. He attended writing classes with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, called James Baldwin ‘Jimmy’, and co-founded the Key West Writers Workshop and Lewes Needlewriters. As well as successful crime novels, he wrote powerful literary fiction. Wolf Tones is funny and tough, a punchy, insightful portrait of a difficult father-son relationship, and ‘the sad arterioscleroris of America’.

Irving, Judith and I founded British Writers In Support of Palestine in 2010, and Irving was a prime force behind BWISP’s early recruitment drive and letter writing campaigns. He also lent his significant presence to local supermarket protests, and spent four weeks in 2010 as a driver for the Road to Hope Convoy to Gaza, blogging en route.  In a tribute penned for his own anti-fascist blog and reposted by Jews for Justice for Palestine, Tony Greenstein notes ‘Irving stood in an anti-racist tradition that went back to the Jewish fight against anti-Semitism in Europe, not the Zionist tradition of anti-Arab racism. Irving was proud to be Jewish.  His attitude to Israel’s war crimes was ‘not in my name’.’

Recently, Irving published books on the craft of fiction, and was writing short stories based on his family history, including the experience of refugees fleeing the pogroms. He spoke of his mother to me after I returned from Odesa last year – he was very taken by the fact I had seen Isaac Babel’s drinks cabinet in the city’s small Jewish museum. I still have Irving’s copy of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People on my shelves, and there are many more conversations I would dearly love to have had with him. He is survived by Judith Kazantzis and her daughter Miranda; his son and daughter in America, Michael and Zoe; as well as grandchildren. Farewell to a wonderful friend.

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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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