British Writers In Support of Palestine

April 29, 2011

The Bookseller of Jerusalem

Filed under: Uncategorized — Naomi Foyle @ 12:50 pm
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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.


March 14, 2011

McEwan in Context

Thank you to BWISP member Eleanor Kilroy, for this incisive summary of the BWISP McEwan campaign. Her article for The Morning Star discusses the writer’s shameless acceptance of The Jerusalem Prize in relation to other, more principled artists who have, in contrast, decided to heed the Palestinian call to boycott the ethnocratic state of Israel.

Two weeks ago the celebrated British novelist Ian McEwan attended this year’s Jerusalem International Book Fair to receive the Jerusalem Prize, awarded biennially to writers whose work explores the theme of “individual freedom in society.”

The prize is funded by the Jerusalem Municipality, a key institution of the Israeli state and a major instrument in the illegal colonisation of occupied east Jerusalem.

McEwan decided to reject a public appeal made to him by British Writers In Support Of Palestine (BWISP) to respect the Palestinian civil society boycott call to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.

After making one official defence of his position, he ignored replies, including a letter from Israeli citizens who warned that by accepting the award he would be “legitimising the actions of Jerusalem’s racist Mayor Nir Barkat.”

BWISP, which endorses the 2004 call of the Palestinian Campaign For The Academic And Cultural Boycott Of Israel (PACBI), stayed on the case with McEwan.

They asked if he would have accepted a state-sponsored award from apartheid South Africa, reminding him that an anti-boycott bill that would severely penalise advocates of the boycott is currently one step away from being made law by the Israeli Knesset.

But despite the author’s stated commitment to “courtesy, dialogue and engagement,” he failed to respond.

For the Israelis McEwan’s presence at the award ceremony was crucial because, as an Israeli literary agent told Publishers Weekly, “It is more than a metaphor to say that the Jerusalem Book Fair is an essential, irreplaceable cultural and intellectual lifeline between Israel and the world and the world and Israel.”

Proponents of the Palestinian boycott call concur with the metaphor.

Official cultural events nourish an ailing apartheid and settler-colonial state and if Israel’s growing international isolation is a proportionate response to grave violations of international law, then it is morally reprehensible to give sustenance to this “lifeline.”

Much has been made in the mainstream media of Ian McEwan’s criticism of a selection of Israel’s illegal practices in his acceptance speech, but regardless of the author’s half-truths, the Book Fair is principally a photo opportunity for Israeli establishment figures and the artist’s presence as a guest of the Israeli state far outweighs the impact of his words.

In spring last year, the singer Elvis Costello announced he was pulling out of two concerts in Israel.

On his website, Costello wrote: “There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent. It is a matter of instinct and conscience.”

In acting on his conscience, he joined a growing list of artists who have decided to boycott Israel, including performers Gil Scott-Heron and the Pixies, British filmmaker Mike Leigh and writer John Berger.

Costello’s positive response to the boycott call is repeatedly and angrily brought up by Israel’s apologists and the state has since intensified its aggressive public relations campaign to brand Israel – against all available evidence – as an enlightened democracy.

The Israeli state and those opposed to a cultural boycott consistently seek to obfuscate the fact that the boycott does not prevent dialogue, engagement and the exchange of ideas and culture – PACBI guidelines clearly state that the boycott applies to institutions, not individuals and an artist can always deliver her or his message to the Israeli public outside any establishment venue.

The Palestinian-US author and journalist Ali Abunimah argues in a recent piece for Al-Jazeera that it is time for the unelected Palestinian Authority to have its “Mubarak moment.”

Given that the Arab revolutions were leaderless, the Palestinians should not worry about creating representative bodies. Instead they should focus on powerful, decentralised resistance, particularly boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

“The BDS campaign is powerful and growing because it is decentralised and those around the world working for the boycott of Israel – following the precedent of apartheid South Africa – are doing so independently.

There is no central body for Israel and its allies to sabotage and attack,” he says.

Last month founding PACBI member Omar Barghouti wrote a riposte to French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy’s attack on BDS, in which he reflects on the changing situation in the Arab world.

“With more of Israel’s friends in the region being dethroned,” he says, “it is becoming abundantly clear how much Israel and its Western partners have invested in safeguarding and buttressing the unelected, autocratic regimes in the Arab world, partially to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of Israel as the ‘villa in the midst of the jungle,’ the myth often repeated by Israel’s lobby groups.”

Yet it was this mythical villa with its “precious tradition of a democracy of ideas,” that McEwan praised in his Jerusalem acceptance speech.

Two years ago the Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan turned down the opportunity to be part of a retrospective co-organised as part of the international centenary celebration campaign of Tel Aviv.

Insisting that he and his Palestinian colleagues made art not thanks to Israel’s democracy, but in spite of it.

In so doing he avoided falling into the trap laid for artists and intellectuals. “From the very beginning I have carefully avoided being appropriated and manipulated into becoming the evidence of Israel’s liberal attitude, freedom of speech and tolerance, on behalf of the Israeli establishment,” he declared.

Sivan and many others are choosing instead to express non-violent opposition to the ongoing apartheid regime in Israel with this act of boycott. It’s a principled stance which other artists would be well advised to follow.

February 26, 2011

What Ian Did Next: McEwan in Jerusalem

By Naomi Foyle

No Atonement

It has been widely publicised that on Feb 18th Ian McEwan, in town to pick up his tainted Jerusalem Prize, attended a demonstration against the demolition of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.

On Feb 20th, McEwan’s next photo op found him at the International Conference Centre in West Jerusalem, shaking hands with Mayor Nir Barkat and President Shimon Peres, the authors of the very crimes he had been protesting against two days before. Here Minister of Sports and Culture Limor Livnat welcomed McEwan, and announced the launch of the People of the Book Translation Fund, which, in utter contempt for Arab-Israeli writers, will provide 500,000 NIS (about $150,000) toward translating into English over 10 Hebrew language books each year. Here, also, McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize with a speech he clearly hoped would exonerate him from the charge of profoundly betraying the Palestinian people, as well as his own apparent ideals.

Though not quite the incoherent ramblings of Muammar Gaddafi’s last stand, McEwan’s speech swung wildly in tone and content. He began by expressing craven gratitude to the state of Israel for hoisting his name up to ‘sit so awkwardly beside’ – oops! wrong quote! – I mean ‘stand alongside’ those of Isaiah Berlin and Simone de Beauvoir. [It is ‘the freedom of the individual’ that apparently sits awkwardly in Jerusalem…] McEwan next ‘reluctantly, sadly’ conceded that his critics (BWISP, though he could not bring himself to name us) were correct to insist he could not escape the politics of the prize; then, after retreating into a comforting fantasy of ‘the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel’, and treating his audience to a wholly Euro-centric view of the novel in Israel, he launched into a sustained and stinging criticism of Israeli and Palestinian ‘nihilism’. To strained silence, and a single ‘boo’, McEwan condemned Hamas rocket attacks, home demolitions, Operation Cast Lead, the siege of Gaza, and the racist Right of Return granted only to Jews, naming them all the opposite of ‘creativity’. He concluded by urging his hosts to end the ‘settlements and encroachments’; embrace a vision of Jerusalem as a twin capital; and in their urban planning and nation building ‘to aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel…’

Where to begin? BWISP has always taken a Zero Tolerance attitude to McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize. If he had stood up and endorsed the boycott of settlement goods, or called for diplomatic sanctions against the country until the siege of Gaza was ended, we would not have praised his speech, which was rendered meaningless by the context in which he made it. Nevertheless, in the spirit of ‘dialogue and engagement’ I will make a few personal comments on his words.

First, my own view of politics is miles from McEwan’s. To me it is self-evident that politics – like spirituality, emotion and creativity – extends into every aspect of human life. This is not a fact to be deplored or regretted, but a great challenge and opportunity to be embraced. And by that I do not mean I aspire to stand at a podium and tell war criminals to be poetic and imaginative and embrace diversity. For me, the way is the goal. If I want to live in a free and equal world, I must work with others as equals, in a deeply democratic manner. And when people are clearly oppressed, if I genuinely want to help their cause, I must work constructively through and against my own privileged preconceptions to stand and act in solidarity with them. I am as much a product of Western individualism as any middle-class white Euro-American writer – and I am also a feminist to the bone – but I believe that by opening myself up not only to the suffering and sumud (steadfastness) of the Palestinians, but also their deep insights into their own condition, I will grow as a person in ways that not only I, but also the world may need. For me (and for BWISP) to respond to the Palestinian call for boycott, to engage with PACBI – who have only ever communicated with me in a respectful, open and dynamic manner – is a way of actively dismantling the British and Western imperialism that has created the grotesque injustices the Palestinians have faced for 62 years. Naturally, paradoxes, mistakes and contradictions abound in life and in politics, but for me these could never extend to accepting money, hospitality or accolades from an apartheid state that rains terror and white phosphorus down on children in an open air prison, enacts laws that institutionalise racism, and builds a wall that not only steals a people’s land, but cruelly impedes the free passage of ambulances, pregnant women, students, teachers, day labourers, even truckloads of paper, chocolate and cement.

Perhaps Ian McEwan’s blinkered sense of politics explains his refusal to recognise the asymmetry of the Arab-Israeli conflict: for example, the fact that the rocket attacks, tragic as they are for all concerned, are clearly a reaction to the Occupation and not its cause. I cannot speak for other BWISP members on the issue of Hamas, but I myself made a commitment to BDS – and indeed co-founded BWISP – because it seems to me that if the international community does not actively embrace this non-violent method of resistance, we leave the Palestinians no choice but to resort to rockets and suicide attacks. As the Palestine Papers have demonstrated once and for all, ‘dialogue and engagement’ with the Israeli state only buys it time to consolidate its conquest of Palestine. Israel must discover that its belligerent expansionism comes at a cost. Governments are not yet willing to teach this lesson, so individuals and businesses must do so. The price BDS asks is absolutely not that of human life and limb, but will be taken, brick by brick, from Israel’s wall of ecomonic, cultural and academic wealth and prestige. Naturally political negotiations must continue, but they must include Hamas, with no preconditions. And they should be backed up by the S of BDS – political sanctions against Israel until it respects human rights and complies with international law.

McEwan’s inability to address Israeli violence, ethnic cleansing and apartheid as inherent aspects of the state’s colonialist goals, is an intellectual and moral failure that BWISP has tried to confront since our first letter to him. But oblivious to the political realities of the ‘facts on the ground’ he so deplores, he clings to the vacuous yet lethal belief that Israel ‘is a place of true democracy of opinion’. And in a final effort to have a ‘balanced’ trip to Jerusalem, he donated his $10,000 prize money to the Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace.

CfP, a group of ex-fighters on both sides of the conflict, professes entirely worthwhile goals: to end the occupation, to empower Palestinians and to educate in particular Israelis about the need to stop using violence in place of diplomatic negotiations. I was personally surprised that the group took McEwan’s money, as according to PACBI, two years ago, though an announced beneficiary of the Leonard Cohen concert in Tel Aviv fund, CfP ‘informed the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel in writing that they had decided not to participate in the concert and not to accept any funds from its proceeds’. But this organisation is relatively new, and expanding fast. And its logo, as a BWISP member pointed out to me, depicts two fighters each discarding an equal-sized weapon. Perhaps given its growing bi-national membership, CfP has been unable to sustain its initial support of the cultural boycott of Israel. I personally hope that internal debates may reawaken CfP’s members’ sense that their stated commitments to non-violence, and to working with other peace organisations, should extend to standing with the 170 Palestinian civil society groups that have endorsed the call to BDS. Otherwise, I fear that their position and reputation within the Palestinian Solidarity Movement may be terribly damaged – as indeed is already happening.

Reactions to McEwan’s speech came thick and fast. On Feb 22nd Mondoweiss published two posts, one a sharp retort by BWISP member Eleanor K, concluding that McEwan’s decision to stand with Barkat and Peres ‘underlined the poverty of his discourse’; and one by Marc Estrin, who ‘found the speech on the whole to be intellectually, and perhaps psychologically dishonest, calling up many frequent zionist tropes to mask and distort the reality on the ground.’

As BWISP joined forces with BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian Call to Boycott from Within to collectively compose our own response to the speech, on Feb 22 The Guardian published two short pro-McEwan letters. One kindly suggested that BWISP members now ‘eat their words’; the other was a single sentence declaring that ‘McEwan has shown that dialogue is more effective than boycotts’. This stunning refutation of BWISP’s position was pulled out of a vacuum of logic unencumbered by a single comparative example of a writer boycotting the prize; or indeed, a jot of evidence that McEwan’s speech had had, or would have, any effect whatsoever on the policies he denounced. It was especially disturbing to read this facile comment knowing that the false dichotomy of ‘dialogue vs boycott’ flies in the face of the actual dynamics of a debate in which Ian McEwan feels free to ignore his critics; BOYCOTT! members in Israel may soon face criminal charges for supporting BDS; and The Guardian‘s Harriet Sherwood – despite being sent press releases by BOYCOTT! – did not seek out BDS activists or Palestinian writers for her article of Feb 20, but lazily allowed McEwan to mis-define the movement for the paper’s readers.

On the evening of Feb 22nd, Ofer Neiman of BOYCOTT! and other Israeli activists confronted McEwan at a reading in Jerusalem, unfurling a large banner in the front row to remind the feted author that he was still ‘shaking hands with apartheid’. ‘Mr McEwan,’ Neiman reminded our Ian, ‘an apartheid system is not a democracy’. The writer, Mondoweiss reported on Feb 23rd, ‘did not seem very pleased’.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Ash of Jews Sans Frontieres weighed into the debate with two nicely contrasting posts. The first, Feb 23, was a spoof dialogue between McEwan and Peres at the ICC after award bash, ending with McEwan’s plaintive bleat ‘I feel dirty’, to which Peres responds, ‘You’ve got dip on your tie’. On Feb 24 the indefatigable Ash also contributed a superb analysis of McEwan’s ‘racist, white supremacist, misleading, confused, and Islamophobic’ speech, crediting the BDS movement for forcing the ‘imperial liberal’ to go much further in his criticisms of Israel than he clearly wanted or expected to.

Feb 25th, the BWISP and BOYCOTT! letter appeared in The Guardian Online. Unless McEwan responds, which given his less-than-chatty track record we do not expect, this letter and post will conclude our Jerusalem Prize 2011 campaign. Unlike campaigns to ask Gil Scott Heron and Elvis Costello not to gig in Israel, ours has not been an unqualified success. However, during the last month BWISP has consolidated its national profile, and achieved an international reach, with world-wide reports on McEwan in Jerusalem mentioning the pressure he has been under to reject the prize. This blog has more than tripled its hits, and we have attracted five new members. Most importantly, backed by the moral force of PACBI, and assisted by our gutsy Israeli friends in BOYCOTT!, we have de-normalised the Jerusalem Prize. No writer offered it in the future will be able to take it without giving serious thought to the issues we have raised. BWISP therefore dares to hope that our intense effort over the last month to lobby McEwan, and respond to his actions, has been a valuable contribution to raising the profile of the cultural and academic boycott in the UK.

Please note: The Guardian published our letter in full, with one crucial edit. Where we wrote ‘is rank hypocrisy’, they published ‘appears’. I therefore conclude this post with the original letter and its 35 signatories:

Dear Editor,

After rejecting the Palestinian call to boycott the state-sponsored Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan has massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group (Report, February 20). Should his detractors, as your correspondent David Halpin (Letters, February 22) suggests, now “eat their words”? We think not. Had McEwan refused the prize, protested in Jerusalem at his own expense, and attacked not Israel’s “nihilism” but its colonialist zeal, his own words of condemnation would have had integrity and bite.

As it is, McEwan has given Mayor Nir Barkat a golden platform for his outrageous views. Jerusalem is not a city where all may “express themselves in a free way”. Activists are arrested and deported, while racist internal laws allow the municipality to flout the Geneva convention by creating illegal settlements – a policy designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them is rank hypocrisy. Likewise, McEwan declares it is “urgent to keep talking” (Report, February 18), yet after his one official defence of his position (Letters, January 26), he has ignored all public and private requests to continue this debate. So much for courtesy, dialogue and engagement.

McEwan’s condescension reached its nadir, however, in Jerusalem, when he surmised that Palestinian writers – who were not sought out by western media – had refused to meet him because of outside “pressure”. By pandering to the state of Israel, Ian McEwan has alienated not only these principled individuals. We, British, Israeli and Palestinian members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, are appalled by his conduct.

Rowyda Amin

Prof Mona Baker

Oshra Bar

Ronnie Barkan

Ofra Ben-Artzi

Joseph Dana

Dr Naomi Foyle

Prof Rachel Giora

Ohal Grietzer

Connie Hackbarth

Iris Hefets

Shir Hever

Dr Ghada Karmi

Eleanor Kilroy

Zoe Lambert

Diane Langford

Eytan Lerner

China Miéville

Judith Kazantzis

Wendy Klein

Prof Nur Masalha

Dr Anat Matar

Dr James Miller

Dr Dorothy Naor

Ofer Neiman

Dr David Nir

Jonathan Pollak

Michael Rosen

Jonathan Rosenhead

Leehee Rothschild

Seni Seneviratne

Tom Vowler

Irving Weinman

Eliza Wyatt

Sergio Yahni

Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 5, 2011

To Ian McEwan … from India & Italy

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 12:22 am
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Two open letters published this week, urging Ian McEwan to reject the Jerusalem Prize:

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

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


Dear Ian McEwan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 02

Dear Mr. Ian McEwan,

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

You have told the Guardian: “I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signatures available here.

January 28, 2011

PACBI Statement on McEwan and the Jerusalem Prize

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 5:03 pm
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The following statement may also be read in situ on the PACBI website

McEwan and Israel’s Accolades: Privilege and Ethical Responsibility?

The recent announcement by the British writer Ian McEwan that he will accept the Jerusalem Prize on 20 February 2011 during the Jerusalem Book Fair has disappointed many of his admirers around the world. In response to calls to reject the prize and refrain from participating in the book fair, he has said, “I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.” [1]

McEwan is not the first writer to present this kind of defense for accepting the Jerusalem Prize. Susan Sontag, who was awarded the prize in 2001, said: “It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair.” [2]

McEwan and Sontag are both factually wrong. The book fair is sponsored by the Jerusalem Municipality, a key node in the official Israeli structure of colonialism and apartheid, and a leading violator of Palestinian rights. The Municipality has, since its inception, been a major instrument in the colonization of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem. It is particularly notable for its role in promoting and deepening one of the starkest cases of urban apartheid in the world. The municipality continues to be actively involved in the illegal gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians out of Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes and destruction of property, and the sustained suppression of development in the Palestinian neighborhoods as a matter of policy [3].

John Dugard, a leading international law expert and former UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, had this to say about the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem:

The similarities between the situation of East Jerusalemites and black South Africans [under apartheid] is very great in respect of their residency rights. We had the old Group Areas Act in South Africa. East Jerusalem has territorial classification that has the same sort of consequences as race classification had in South Africa in respect of who you can marry, where you can live, where you can go to school or hospital. [4]

Moreover, it should be noted that the book fair is an important date on the Israel-promotion calendar, an occasion when Israel’s misleading image as a patron of book publishing and the arts in general is highlighted. The fair offers visiting fellowships to young editors, agents and scouts from around the world, in an attempt to advance the carefully crafted image of Israel as a center of world-class writing. The Jerusalem Prize is central in this deceptive campaign of diverting attention away from Israel’s persistent crimes and violations of international law.

Prominent writers who accept to participate in official Israeli events and receive the state’s honors are, in fact, unwittingly lending their names to the state’s hasbara effort, which is part and parcel of the “Brand Israel” campaign. [5]

What is more disturbing than certain writers’ refusal to see the connection among the event, the prize, and the apartheid state is a certain pretentiousness that characterizes their responses to appeals to shun a prize or refuse to be part of the Israeli branding campaign. McEwan’s response to the appeals he has been receiving is a case in point:

As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir – I hope you will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as you do yourselves. Your ‘line’ is not the only one. Courtesy obliges you to respect my decision, as I would yours to stay away. [6]

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who shared the stage with the President of the Israeli state along with the mayor of Jerusalem in 2009 while accepting the Jerusalem Prize, said of his decision to accept the prize:

One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. … Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. [7]

Did conscientious novelists need to “touch” South African apartheid before taking a moral position against it? Aren’t writers, as humans first and foremost, obligated to act by and defend the same universal principles of rights and ethical responsibility? It is difficult indeed to accept that writers occupy a privileged place as truth-seekers rather than being ordinary world citizens with a moral responsibility to speak truth to power and injustice.

At a time when the Palestinian civil society-initiated, global BDS movement is growing, the appeal to McEwan is not to cross the Palestinian, international, and increasingly Israeli boycott “picket line.” It is not a question of whether a person has a concern for “freedom and human dignity.” The issue is about one’s readiness and moral courage to act on this “concern” by standing with, not against, a movement whose chief objectives are freedom, human dignity and justice.

Accepting an award funded by Israel, a state practicing military occupation, colonization and apartheid, and hand delivered by some of this state’s worst representatives, in total disregard to a people’s non-violent movement for justice, cannot but call into question one’s actual concern for this justice. This act clearly undermines our collective and sustained struggle as a civil movement striving to affect change.

To return to the Jerusalem Prize, how can the hypocrisy and utter cynicism of an apartheid state bestowing a ”freedom of the individual in society” award have escaped McEwan and Murakami? The open letter sent in 2009 to the Japanese prize-winner Murakami by the Palestine Forum Japan makes this point:

“What we are particularly concerned about is the purpose of the ‘Jerusalem Prize’, being to praise one’s contribution to ‘individuals’ freedom in society’. This concept is in total contradiction of Israel’s criminal acts such as massacre, collective punishment, blockade policy, construction of settlements and building of the ‘separation wall’ in East Jerusalem that are effectively eliminating Palestinians’ freedom. If you receive the ‘Jerusalem Prize’ it will contribute to a false image of Israel respecting ‘individuals’ freedom in society’ which will be portrayed and spread by the media. We fear that the unimaginable devastation of humanity which Israel has inflicted continuously and systematically upon Palestinians will be disregarded and Israel’s actions will be accepted.”[8]

Finally, McEwan might be considering accepting the prize while acknowledging or even denouncing the violation of Palestinian rights in his acceptance speech. If he chooses to do that, he will be following in the footsteps of Susan Sontag (2001), Arthur Miller (2003) and Haruki Murakami (2009) whose acceptance speeches were critical of Israel [9]. We believe that this is not a principled option. McEwan’s very presence at the ceremony and the acceptance of the prize are what matter and what will remain on the record.

In informing his decision, McEwan would do well to consider the comments of Mike Leigh, who cancelled a scheduled trip in October 2010 to lecture at the Jerusalem film school in Jerusalem, emphasizing in a media interview his support for the cultural boycott of Israel. Referring to the boycott opponent’s advice for him to go to Jerusalem and make his critical statement there, Leigh said: “in so far as anything achieves anything, more publicity has come out of what I have done than would have been the case had I simply not gone, or had I gone and merely made a few statements that no one was listening to inside Israel.”[10]

We ask that McEwan reconsider his position and heed the BDS call by rejecting the Jerusalem Prize.


[3] The policies of the Jerusalem Municipality are widely documented. For one example see:
[5] On the Brand Israel campaign, see:; and

Posted on 28-01-2011

January 20, 2011

The Jerusalem Book Fair & Prize: Both Eminently Boycottable

It was announced yesterday that British novelist Ian McEwan has been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded biennially at the Jerusalem Book Fair, to a writer whose work explores the theme of the ‘freedom of the individual in society’. The Book Fair is notable for its Fellowship scheme, in which selected ‘promising’ international editors and agents are treated as guests of the Fair, and offered tours of the city and environs. The Prize, which comes with a trip to Jerusalem and $10,000, has been awarded to authors including Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller and J.M. Coetzee. Five previous winners have gone on to be Nobel Laureates, giving the Prize a prestige beyond its relatively modest cash reward.

BWISP reacts with dismay to today’s further announcement that McEwan intends to accept the Prize. The writer stated in The Guardian:

“I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.

“I am not a supporter of the Israeli settler movement, nor of Hamas. I would align myself in the middle of a great many of my Israeli friends who despair that there will ever be peace while the settlements continue. I support the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s call for a freeze on the settlements. But I also have no time for Hamas lobbing missiles into Israel either.”

In a sign of how far the BDS movement has come, The Guardian solicted a response from Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who said: “We welcome Ian McEwan’s statement about his disapproval of the settlements but we would point out that accepting this prestigious prize is a way of giving support to the Israeli government, which is dedicated to pursuing illegal expulsion policies against the Palestinian people. His acceptance will be used as a public relations exercise by the Israeli government.”

BWISP would like to support Hunter’s statement with the following arguments in favour of boycotting both the Jerusalem Book Fair and Prize:

1) Israel has illegally occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. The Arab residents of what ought to be the capital of a Palestinian state are instead subjected to house demolition, routine humiliation at checkpoints, and arrest and/or expulsion for peacefully demonstrating against these soul-destroying injustices. Considering also the continuing illegal settlements in the West Bank; the siege of Gaza; the detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children; and the murder of nine humanitarian aid workers on the Mavi Marmara; the ‘Jerusalem Prize’, with its theme of ‘individual freedom in society’, is both a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state.

2) The Jerusalem Book Fair is not a civil society initiative. It is organised by the Municipality of Jerusalem (please see the email address of the Israeli contact on the official website ‘Contact Us’ page). The ‘Friends of Jerusalem Award’ – which recognizes publishing people who have devoted themselves in one way or another to the Book Fair – is presented in ‘the surprisingly intimate surroundings of the council chamber of Jerusalem’s City Hall’. And the Fair operates in tandem with the national government: in 2009 both the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and President Shimon Peres presented the Jerusalem Prize to Haruki Murakami.

In addition, Publishers Weekly reports that the major Israeli retailers represented are Steimatzky and Academon, the latter of which has bookshops on all Israel’s university campuses (all of which are subject to the Academic boycott). And the official site of the Fellowship Scheme provides links to the Israeli Tourist Board. At all levels, the Fair is inextricable from the State of Israel and its institutions.

3) Regardless of who organises or participates in it, the Jerusalem Book Fair’s basic premise is ‘business as usual’ in an Apartheid state and illegally Occupied Territories. According to a recent Fellow:

”Most evenings wound down in the wee hours at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, near the Old City. The last evening, the hotel’s bartender kept serving drinks and then played deejay. The group danced to Arabic music, to ABBA, to American pop. Said [one] literary editor, “The basement bar of the American Colony Hotel is now my favorite place in the world to do publishing deals.”

The Fellowship scheme itself excludes Arab editors and agents. In 2005 Publishers Weeklyconjectured that:
“Perhaps, if the hope of peace is realized, the fellows program could also include editors from Arabic countries.”

BWISP welcomes correction on this point, but to our knowledge the Book Fair gives absolutely no reason for excluding these literary professionals from the scheme.

In short, as an Israeli business venture that normalises and whitewashes the Occupation, uses the Occupied Territories as a commercial venue, and maintains an apartheid selection process for its Fellowship Scheme, the Book Fair is as legitimate a target for boycott as Carmel Agrexco, Caterpillar Inc, or any Israeli university.

4) The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a Palestinian and international civil society campaign. It is not organised by Hamas; rather it represents a non-violent alternative to rocket attacks.

5) Finally, the Book Fair treats the Arab-Israeli conflict as a clash of cultures, not a struggle to resist Occupation.

A 2005 Publishers Weekly article gives a flavour of the misleading impressions that Fellows receive from their hosts. One Fellow stated:

“Jerusalem is an awe-inspiring city to walk or drive around. It offers unique vantage points on the passions currently renting the fabric of modern life. As one of our guides put it, when you have a mosque built on top of a church which is built on top of a temple, you have a great visual of the exceptional vertical real estate battle inspiring the never-ending clashes of East and West in this city. And you understand why the problem is so difficult to solve.” Another Fellow was impressed by Jerusalem’s “sense of history, the sense of it being a debatable city in every way, with most cultures and religions laying claim to it at various times since its establishment.”

Similarly, on the official Fellowship website the traditional trip to the Dead Sea is described by a Fellow without even the words ‘West Bank’, and passing reference only to ‘Israeli history’; while another Fellow compares the Book Fair to one in Brazil with the comment: ‘Paraty’s past is in Colonial trade; Jerusalem’s history is Biblical of course’.

Some might argue that Palestinian authors are sometimes invited, and that in 2005 the Fair hosted panel discussions and poetry readings on the theme of ‘Bridging Two Culture’, an event entitled Voices from Two Sides of the Bridge, which took place at the at ‘the crossing point between North Israel and Jordan, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge’. But this no doubt well-intentioned effort to at least acknowledge decades of conflict, was essentially an extension of the Book Fair practice of normalising the Occupation, by presenting the Occupiers and the Occupied as equal parties to the conflict. It is to be noted that the boxed report on the 2005 event doesn’t mention the word ‘Occupation’, or quote more than one Palestinian.

To conclude:

In light of the points raised above, BWISP believes that writers, editors and agent of conscience should boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair and the Jerusalem Prize. We therefore respectfully ask Ian McEwan to reconsider his decision to accept this corrupt and cynical honour.

BWISP, however, is a loose affiliation of writers with common cause, but sometimes slightly different viewpoints. Some BWISP members feel that given McEwan’s express intention to accept the Prize, he should consider following in the footsteps of the 2001, 2003 and 2009 Prize recipients Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and Haruki Murakami by criticizing the Israeli government in his acceptance speech.

If Ian McEwan is truly opposed to the Israeli settlements and the obstacle to peace and justice they represent, his conscience should at least dictate that he likewise use his ‘individual freedom in society’ to explicitly criticise the ruthless, expansionist policies of the Israeli government in his acceptance speech. However, this would not erase the fact that by accepting the Prize, he would have decided to override the wishes of Palestinian civil society and lend his illustrious name to the illusion that Israel is a freedom-loving state. That would be a decision with which BWISP does not, and can never, agree.

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