Hosted by the Southbank Centre as part of the 2011 London Literature Festival, the long-anticipated debate Why Boycott Culture? attracted an audience of about 140, and generated an electric atmosphere. The debate is now online as a podcast; here, after a short summer break offline, Naomi Foyle summarises the arguments, and asks what next for the academic and cultural boycott in the UK?
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.
Why Boycott Culture? was introduced by Rachel Holmes, Southbank Head of Literature and Spoken Word, who is to be highly commended for commissioning this debate on a controversial issue state-funded UK organisations understandably often seek to avoid. Holmes introduced the motion, commenting on its pertinence for literary festivals and programmers all over the world. The Chair, Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, then gave an informed overview of the background to the debate, citing South Africa, Sri Lanka, China, the London Book Fair, and the current suggestion that the UK should be boycotted for its visa regulations that treat international artists like criminals. As PEN Director, and Chair, he was clearly unable to take sides on this issue, however it was encouraging to hear him seriously address the contention that cultural disengagement may be as powerful a political tool as cultural engagement.
The Chair then introduced the two teams: speaking for the motion, human rights activist Omar Barghouti, author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, and poet Seni Seneviratne, author of Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin; speaking against the motion Jonathan Freedland, columnist for The Guardian, The Jewish Chronicle and The New York Times, and author of six books, and Carol Gould, writer, film producer and author of Spitfire Girls and Anti-Americanism in the UK . Each was to speak for ten minutes, then the floor would be opened to the audience for questions. Heawood took the temperature of the audience, and a quick display of hands easily determined that the vast majority of the room was in favour of the motion, with about a dozen or more people undecided, and approximately the same number against the motion.
Personally, I was disappointed by these proportions. As a volunteer consultant to the Southbank, helping to choose the speakers for the motion, I had hoped for the event to attract a mainstream, undecided audience as well as numbers of passionate supporters of both sides of the motion. At the same time, I was not surprised. The BWISP letter-writing campaign against Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize demonstrated that a lazy, unexamined view of cultural boycott as an assault on free speech is the status quo in the UK. It is not in the interest of those who hold the upper hand to debate an issue; and as a result Zionists and pro-Zionists themselves tend to informally ‘boycott’ such public exchanges. Certainly our offers to debate McEwan were ignored. However, I was extremely pleased that Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, both high profile speakers with an international reach, had accepted the invitation to attend. The ball was rolling, and I was excited to see how it would carom.
Jonathan Freedland took to the podium first. An experienced, confident speaker, he clearly set out his three main arguments against the motion, by the use of signposting and framing helping the audience to easily grasp and follow his main points. Freedland’s experience at debating was also evident, however, in his adroit use of sleight-of-hand to redefine the motion to suit his own agenda. He began by paying lip-service to the notion of cultural boycott as a versatile political tool, but then declared that, due to its current prominence, he was going to focus on the boycott of Israel. The first objection he then made against this boycott was that of ‘exceptionalism’ – arguing that BDS unfairly isolates Israel on the world stage, when countries like Syria, for example, are guilty of far worse violations of human rights.
From my position in Row G, I wasn’t sure if I had just witnessed a instance of breathtaking sophistry, or if Freedland has been blinded by Zionist rhetoric to the point that he could not see himself how illogically he was speaking. He himself was isolating Israel from the motion as a whole – which in fact was carefully worded so as to avoid any suggestion of making a moral exception of Israel. Indeed, one of the points of the motion, as I saw it, is that if cultural boycott demonstrably applies effective pressure on the state of Israel – as it did on apartheid South Africa – then the Palestinian call for BDS can help set a precedent for the use of cultural boycott in other countries.
Freedland’s second point was that cultural boycott shuns the very people one wants to reach – artists, writers and scholars. Careful to position himself as an occasional critic of Israel, he also argued here that dialogue and co-existence projects can put us in the hearts and minds of the other; surely an essential aspect of any peace process. These are some of the most common liberal arguments against cultural boycott, and ones I was confident that Omar Barghouti and Seni Seneviratne would address.
Finally, Freedland claimed that the cultural boycott of Israel could not be viable or effective, and therefore it was immoral. Cultural boycott, he declared, would only entrench right-wing Israeli and diasporic Jewish public opinion, thereby worsening the conflict. Cultural boycott, at best, is an empty gesture that only helps its proponents feel better, he argued. ‘Don’t fetishize a tactic’ he warned. Again, these objections to the boycott of Israel are not unusual. Detractors often claim that because most Israelis have a bunkered mentality, any attempt to ostracise them will only strengthen their perception of themselves as victims of anti-Semitism. Freedland, despite his disingenuous beginning, had ended on a strong note, citing an argument that causes many people sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians to shun or doubt the efficacy of cultural boycott.
Seni Seneviratne began by quoting Bertolt Brecht: ‘When evil-doing comes like falling rain’, from a poem which observes that when suffering is seemingly endless, people look away, do not call out ‘stop’. Cultural boycott, she declared, was her way, as a writer, of saying ‘stop’. She then broadened the terms of the argument thus far comparing the cultural boycott of Israel to that of South Africa and noting that the former was far more limited than the latter, applying not to individuals, but only to literary and cultural visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli state. In all cases, however, she contended, boycott effectively raises global awareness of injustice, embeds issues in people’s consciousness, and in fact, opens up debate. Responding indirectly to Freedland’s second point, she also argued that far from being neutral or transcendent observers, artists and writers in Israel, or its guests, are used by the state to normalise its actions. So the Mayor of Jerusalem on the one hand shuts down PalFest and approves the building of illegal settlements, and on the other hand awards the Jerusalem Prize to Ian McEwan and other international writers. While writers may understandably want to ‘find out for themselves’ about the conflict, art is not above or beyond politics, and artists cannot work alone to resist political repression. It is not cultural boycott, but appearing in Israel, she stated, that is the empty gesture. Writers and artists who wish to spread their message in Israel can, like Naomi Klein, work with resistance groups to organise tours that do not violate the terms of the boycott.
Seneviratne’s speech was both from the heart and intellectually wide-ranging. A calm and articulate speaker, she presented persuasive arguments for cultural boycott in general, and in particular that of Israel. Cultural boycott, she concluded, is making the state of Israel nervous, and the world aware of the issues that have led to the Palestinian call.
Carol Gould began by declaring that boycott is a poisonous word to Jews. She then gave a short summary of her own family’s journey from the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement to America, where they encountered economic and cultural anti-Semitism. Jews were barred from country clubs, while Hollywood, she informed the audience, was founded after Thomas Edison started a petition to stop Jews operating film studios in New York. But while I was glad to hear of such initiatives from a community subject to persecution and gross intolerance, Gould pushed the envelope to shredding point when she compared Jewish immigrants to America to Palestinians. The latter, whether refugees, victims of Occupation, or living under seige, do not have the opportunity to – ‘despite their anguish at the loss of their homes’ – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and make new, good lives for themselves. Audience impatience with Gould was soon audible. People snorted when she referred to Hamas and the rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon; and when she said that of course Israel was not perfect and had made ‘mistakes and blunders’ she was heckled by a chorus from the back retorting ‘Policy!’
Perhaps the Chair should have intervened, or stronger points of order should have been established at the outset. However, Gould appeared strong-minded and willing to engage directly with her detractors. She also, however appeared unable or unwilling to acknowledge basic political realities. She denied Israel was an apartheid state because Omar Barghouti was able to attend Tel Aviv University – though in a personal moment she acknowledged he had not been made to feel welcome – and in a bizarre reference to South Africa, she cited South African Jews who supported the liberation struggle, seemingly unaware that most of these, including Joe Slovo, also supported the boycott of apartheid.
Gould also cited the rockets fired into Israel by Lebanon and Gaza as examples of the hatred Israeis face from their neighbours – a topic I have discussed at length in my recent post When Will Howard Jacobson Learn to See the Palestinians? She concluded by expressing her horror at the recent decision by West Dunbartonshire Council to observe BDS and not buy books from Israeli publishers – a decision falsely reported in the UK as the equivalent of anti-Semitic book-burning (in fact, no books by Israeli authors or publishers will be removed from library shelves, while books by Jewish or Israeli authors published outside Israel are never boycott targets). Boycott, she summed up, was Joseph Goebbel’s favourite word. But while Gould’s speech was throughout emotive and lacking a relevant political context, that very emotionalism is a stance that pro-boycott activists confront daily, and need to be able to counter and defuse: or at least put in perspective for the benefit of undecided observers concerned about the issue of anti-Semitism.
Omar Barghouti was the final speaker. He began on a philosophical note, citing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: that one’s actions should be consistent with a universal moral law. He thus logically declared that he would sign up to any boycott called for by any oppressed group; directly rebutting Freedland’s charge of Israeli exceptionalism. Barghouti then focused on the cultural boycott of Israel, which he is a founder of and expert on. BDS, he stated, has three aims: to end the Occupation of Palestine; to end Apartheid within Israel; and to honour the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return. He gave a brief overview of the long suffering of the Palestinians: 90-95% of Gazan water is now unfit for human consumption, resulting in birth defects and infant deaths, while Israel, with the complicit support of the international governments, operates a racist culture of impunity, its genocidal mentality summed up by an IDF T-Shirt design in which a pregnant Arab woman is depicted in gun sights below the slogan ‘2 in 1’.
Like Seneviratne, Barghouti stressed that culture in Israel is a branding exercise: in fact, he explained, Israeli culture is a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, explicitly manipulated to show the world Israel’s ‘prettier face’. The state of Israel, he reminded us, views its artists as service providers, and asks internationally successful ones to sign contracts agreeing to promote the policy interests of the State. Barghouti also noted that cultural boycott is hardly taboo in the country – many Israeli intellectuals are now refusing to work at or appear at Ariel University and Theatre, deep in the Occupied Territories. In conclusion, he returned to the moral aspect of the motion – in all our actions of resistance, he declared, we should endeavour to Do No Harm: cultural boycott, as a non-violent political strategy, fulfils this end, and embodies the values of basic human decency.
The Chair then thanked the speakers and asked them if they wished to respond to any points the others had made. Here Jonathan Freedland attempted to question the integrity of Omar Barghouti by suggesting that BDS did not have the support of the majority of Palestinians, a piece of misinformation Barghouti soundly refuted: over 170 civil groups support BDS, including trade unions, women’s groups, and writers’ and artists’ associations. Freedland and Carol Gould reiterated their belief that cultural boycott would only make Israelis ‘circle the wagons’, to which Barghouti stoutly responded that colonial power cannot be persuaded to surrender – never in history has this happened – but must be compelled.
Heawood then opened the floor to questions. Hands shot up all over the room, and sadly there was not enough time to hear from everyone. As was to be expected, most of the audience had tough questions or strong words for Jonathan Freedland and Carol Gould, countering these speakers’ arguments with observations including the fact that young Jewish activists in North America are increasingly and vocally pro-boycott; that Israeli apartheid extends to Jewish only roads and neighbourhoods; that the Jews of Berlin scuppered the Nazi threat to their shops by in turn boycotting German businesses (an action the Zionists of the time denounced); that over 7000 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since the beginning of the siege, a figure that dwarfs the number of victims of rocket attacks in that period; that it would be immoral to pander to the right-wing opinions and criminal activities of extremist settlers, but that if BDS did in the short-run make things worse for the Palestinians, it must be the Palestinians who should decide if they wanted to change tactics.
Pro-boycott sentiment so dominated this section of the event that Heawood made a special request for tough questions directed at Barghouti and Seneviratne. A supporter of the One State solution asked Barghouti to clarify his position on co-existence projects: he replied that in order to avoid being targets for boycott such groups must accept Palestinian national rights, and actively work in resistance to the occupation (whether by making art, or other means). Freedland declared that for PACBI to make such distinctions smacked of Maoist thought crime committees; another questioner told him that after working on co-existence projects she was now firmly in favour of boycott. Unfortunately there was not time to hear more from this questioner, but to his credit Freedland expressed genuine interest in what had made her change her mind. The issue of anti-Semitism cropped up again, with Carol Gould remarking on Gaddafi’s extreme anti-Semitism, until Omar Barghouti won a round of applause by demanding that the debate not be Judaized – the religion of the oppressors is irrelevant. And throughout the question period the issue of the definition of apartheid was constantly referred to, as Freedland and Gould attempted to portray the conflict as one of competing national interests, and Barghouti and members of the audience insisting that Israel was a settler-colonial state, run along lines that fit the UN definition of apartheid.
The Chair made sure as many people as possible had their say, then asked the speakers to sum up. Seneviratne addressed Freedland’s third point, explaining that in South Africa boycott had awoken many whites to the gravity of world opinion against apartheid. Freedland countered by stressing again his belief that Israel was not South Africa, and cultural boycott there would only make matters worse. He suggested that the ‘flytilla’ was a better tactic – overlooking the fact that this action is only open to people with money to spend on flying to Tel Aviv airport and being deported, and does not have the potential to become a mass movement, as the boycott so clearly is.
Freedland then concluded the event with a startling, and to my mind, extremely important admission. ‘Tonight,’ he said, leaning forward in an almost personal address to the audience, ‘has been hugely revealing. I thought my disagreement with the boycott movement was because I want to see the end of occupation and you want to see the end of occupation and it was an argument about tactics. What has come through loud and clear is your motivation is not actually just the end of occupation but it’s with Israel itself – you have a fundamental problem with it.’
It appeared that in light of this revelation Freedland was, as he spoke, re-aligning himself with the fears of his friends who view BDS as a sinister existential threat to Israel. Clearly we were supposed to feel ashamed of ourselves, but what I sensed in the room was a collective desire to shout back – ‘damn right!’ For me, though suppressed, that exchange between Freeland and the audience decisively shifted the grounds of debate on Israel in the UK.
Thanks to the Southbank’s initiative, and the speakers’ collective focus on the cultural boycott of Israel, a mainstream public debate in the UK openly questioned the repressive contradictions inherent in a state – one without a constitution or fixed borders – that describes itself, impossibly, as both Jewish and democratic. While Carol Gould’s obdurate insistence that anti-Semitism is at the root of all criticism of Israel is sadly representative of anti-boycott sentiment, at the same time it was blindingly obvious from the large number of self-identified Jewish anti-Zionists in the audience, that anti-Semitism has no place in this international mass movement. As the movement grows in size and confidence, we can now start to break the taboo that prohibits many from publically questioning Israel’s ‘right to exist’ in its current incarnation. For does not South Africa still exist? To increase support for the boycott and for a just peace in the Middle East, such discussions must build on the achievement and example of the Southbank debate and be well-structured, well-publicised, well-mannered and well-chaired.
Three days after the debate the Knesset shamefully passed its long-awaited anti-boycott bill, criminalising peaceful protest in Israel. Jonathan Freedland would no doubt argue that this proves his point. However, while such a draconian measure does demonstrate that BDS will inevitably result in a crack-down, it also shows up all the huge cracks in Israel’s ‘democratic’ façade. If the Palestinians are willing to endure the outraged response of the Israeli State to their non-violent resistance, then it is our moral obligation to support them until the whole world can see Israel for what it is – a rogue state that systemically crushes basic human liberties and is financially rewarded for its efforts by America. We in the UK must continue to honour the boycott in all its forms, and must agitate for more discussion and debate on the pressing issues it confronts us all with. I look forward to future high profile debates on cultural boycott and Israeli apartheid on television and the radio, in newspapers and at literary festivals. I hope for mixed audiences, and for basic human decency to prevail.
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  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.
 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.
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 email@example.com
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.
Israeli Occupation Forces Arrest Palestinian Writer Ahmad Qatamesh
PACBI Statement in support of Dr Qatamesh
In the early hours of dawn on Thursday, 21 April 2011, a large force of Israeli soldiers and intelligence officers raided the home of the prominent Palestinian writer and academic Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh  in
Al-Bireh and arrested him. An hour earlier, Qatamesh’s wife, 22-year-old daughter and two other female relatives, including a 14-year-old child, were taken hostage by Israeli troops in another
apartment to compel him to surrender himself. He was led to “Ofer” detention center in Beitunia.
Ahmad Qatamesh was born in 1950 in a cave in Bethlehem to a refugee family expelled during the Nakba from the village of Al-Malihah, near Jerusalem. Qatamesh earned his diploma in Arabic literature from the UNRWA-run Teacher Training Center in Ramallah. In 1992, he was arrested by a massive Israeli force in the presence of his then 3-year-old daughter. Accusing him of being a particularly “dangerous” national leader, the Israeli Shabak tortured and ill-treated him for a hundred days, an experience that he articulately exposed in his well-read prison notes titled I Shall not Wear Your Tarboush (fez). After the Shabak failed to produce incriminating evidence, however, an Israeli military court issued an “administrative detention” order against him, in accordance with an emergency law that allows Israel to detain for renewable terms anyone under its
jurisdiction without charges, trial or access to the charges against him/her. This unjust procedure was repeatedly condemned as a violation of internationally accepted standards of justice by leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
Qatamesh’s detention was renewed continuously for almost six years, making him the longest serving administrative detainee ever. In
April 1998, after a persistent public pressure campaign by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights activists and organizations, Qatamesh was finally released.
Ahmad Qatamesh earned his master’s degree and later his PhD in political science from a Dutch university through distance learning, as he was under a travel ban by the Israeli occupation. He then became a thesis supervisor for several Palestinian graduate students of the same university. He authored several books on diverse literary, political and philosophical topics, and he was a sought-after speaker in local universities and research centers. In 2010, he taught a course in the
School of Humanities at Al-Quds University.
Qatamesh’s wife, Suha Barghouti, who is a board member of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Organization and of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, as well as a Steering Committee member of the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), considered his arrest “an attempt to silence his critical voice and prevent his compelling vision for emancipation and self determination from spreading further in the Palestinian public.” She called on human rights organizations to pressure the Israeli authorities for his immediate release and held those authorities fully responsible for his safety and well-being. His daughter, Haneen, who is on a short break from her studies at the American
University of Cairo, commented on her traumatizing experience of being held hostage by Israeli soldiers saying: “They tried to intimidate me by exploiting my deep agony over the idea of being denied my father again, but I firmly confronted them and reminded them of the fate of all colonial powers on our land. In response, their commander shouted that I was as ‘obstinate’ as my father.”
Gerarda Ventura, Vice President of the Euromed Platform of NGOs, expressed deep solidarity of European civil society with Palestinians like Ahmad Qatamesh, whom she called “one of the most sensitive and intellectual people I have ever met,” in their civil struggle for “freedom, justice and peace.” The Addameer-appointed lawyer who visited Qatamesh the day after his arrest stated that he was not
interrogated and that he was informed instead that he would get an administrative detention order. This indicates that the Shabak, again, lack any evidence to build a case against him and proves that
he was arrested indeed for his writings and peaceful activism and not any “security” reasons as was claimed by the Israeli authorities.
Praising Ahmad Qatamesh as “an excellent writer, principled researcher and devoted human rights advocate … struggling for freedom and respect of fundamental rights,” Palestinian Legislative Council
member Dr. Mustafa Barghouti condemned his arrest by Israel as “a shameless attempt at muzzling him in an unjustifiable attack on his freedom of expression.”
Ahmad Qatamesh’s family has appealed to international agencies and human rights organizations to work for releasing him and all the other Palestinian prisoners of conscience. They also called for ending the draconian policy of administrative detention, which is based on emergency regulations from the era of the British Mandate, as a blatant violation of freedoms and human rights, in particular the right to a fair and just due process.
PACBI has asked readers of this blog to contact their MPs, and/or other political representatives asking them to pressure Israel to release Ahmad Qatamesh and end the policy of administrative detention.
1 Also spelled “Katamesh” and “Qatamish.”
Readers of this blog will remember that delegates to the Jerusalem Book Fair often meet informally at East Jerusalem’s landmark 19th-century hotel the American Colony. For 16 years the hotel has been home to a renowned bookshop run by Palestinian Munther Fahmi. Now, as Jonathan Cook explains, thanks to Israel’s racist residency laws and demographic goals, Israeli officials have told Munther Fahmi that he is no longer welcome in either Israel or Jerusalem. BWISP members have added their names to the call to Israel to reconsider this particular decision. The on-going international BDS campaign is the best hope of changing the oppressive political context in which it was made.
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.
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.
By Naomi Foyle
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:
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.
Prof Mona Baker
Dr Naomi Foyle
Prof Rachel Giora
Dr Ghada Karmi
Prof Nur Masalha
Dr Anat Matar
Dr James Miller
Dr Dorothy Naor
Dr David Nir