British Writers In Support of Palestine

September 11, 2014

Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival

BWISP is getting excited! Sept 18-20 is the second Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival, organised by Haringey Justice for Palestine. A free weekend of literature, politics, music and Palestinian food, held at the West Green Learning Centre, the festival features an international cast including Ghada Karmi, Selma Dabbagh, Baroness Jenny Tonge, Ruqayyah Kareem, Brian Whitaker, Dervla Murphy, Sarah Irving, Naomi Foyle and Sarah Schulman. Guests will be exploring a wide range topics including Biography, Fiction, Poetry, Travel, Middle Eastern SF, LGBT in the Occupied Territories, and – you can’t discuss Palestine in the UK without it – the Balfour Declaration. The full programme is below, or here on the HJfP website. Directions here – if you’re in London, hope to see you there!

Tottenham Palestine Literature FestivalTottenham Palestine Literature Festival

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November 12, 2011

Norman Finkelstein: Playing Jenga with the Struggle?

On Friday Nov 11 2011, at UCL, world-renowned scholar and activist for Palestinian rights Prof Norman Finkelstein appeared in conversation with Prof Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), discussing the proposition:

The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Prof Finkelstein also gave a public lecture in the evening, which unfortunately I could not attend.  Following is my report on the afternoon conversation, which turned into a debate. A detailed account, and video, of the discussion can be seen here  My own intention is summarise the main disagreement between the speakers, and give my reaction to it.

Jonathan Rosenhead opened with a clear historical overview of boycott as a strategy, and ended by saying that in the case of Palestine, it should continue until the Palestinians ask us to stop supporting it – that is, until the system of oppression they suffer under has ended.  Norman Finkelstein responded by arguing forcefully that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign should work toward goals based in International Law, not some vague, impossible to define, outcome; and that we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the Palestinians’ lead, as previously this would have obliged us to support suicide bombing.  He said much else, including giving a review of the state of International Law on Palestine, and the helpful advice to cite this more in our literature, but I want to focus on this essential point of discord.

Frankly I was very surprised to hear Prof Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS.   I, and others, spoke from the floor, reminding both speakers that the demands of the BDS movement, as stated by PACBI, are clearly based on International Law:

[that] Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.

Prof Finkelstein responded by saying that while the first three demands are sound in law, the last, the demand for Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid, is not, because Israeli apartheid hasn’t been recognised by the UN or other bodies of International Law.  He claimed that without this legal underpinning, the goal of ending apartheid in Israel is counter-productive – that it ‘turns people off’; that BDS will never become a mass movement if we try to get people to sign up to tampering with the state of Israel itself.

I also tried to discuss this with him afterwards.  I asked him why,  if the situation in Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid,  we shouldn’t work toward getting iron-clad legal recognition of this fact.  But Prof Finkelstein rejected this approach, saying ‘ that would take 100 years’.

Underlying Prof Finkelstein’s hostility to this key plank of the BDS movement appears to be the fear that the demand to end Israeli apartheid is a disguised call to ‘end the state of Israel’, rather than ending the way the state is currently organised, which is how all the people I know interpret the demand.  After all, South Africa still exists as a state.   Personally, I think Prof Finkelstein is sadly out of touch with the robust health and rapid growth of the BDS movement.

Far from being a threat to building a mass movement, the demand to end Israeli apartheid is one that everyone can understand – every ordinary person on the streets of the UK knows what South Africa was like; all they need is some basic education about Palestine to see that apartheid is operating there as well.  Especially considering that the South Africans themselves are taking such leadership in BDS, and separate campaigns to End Israeli Apartheid are evident all over the internet, it’s a nonsense to say that the demand is unrealistic.  On the legal front,  the very recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine Capetown Session has recommended (among other pertinent goals):

The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, and to convene a special session to consider the question of apartheid against the Palestinian people.  In this connection the Committee should compile a list of individuals, organisations, banks, companies, corporations, charities, and any other private or public bodies which assist Israel’s apartheid regime with a view to taking appropriate measures.

In my view, the current BDS strategy is right on target, and I wish Prof Finkelstein would put his considerable legal chops in the service of the goals of the Russell Tribunal.

I also wish to respond to his second criticism of the BDS movement – that it takes its leadership from the Palestinians.  To deal first with his counter-example – in my view, the BDS movement is not at all comparable to the suicide bombing campaigns, which made no formal call for international support, and were never, to my knowledge, endorsed by any UK solidarity group.   Rather, solidarity works to provide and support democratic alternatives to such desperate, tragic, violent and, indeed, as Prof Rosenhead stated, politically counter-productive measures.  The Palestinians themselves have turned en masse away from suicide bombing as a strategy – as comedian and ‘extreme rambler’ Mark Thomas recently recounted in his recent Walking the Wall tour, countless Palestinians get through holes in the wall daily, not to bomb civilians, but in order to work illegally in Israel.   Instead, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly endorsed BDS, and taking our leadership from them is an essential part of the moral legitimacy of the campaign.

First, if BDS was just a matter of personal conscience, then indeed I would be a hypocrite for spending so much time promoting the boycott of Israel and not other countries with terrible human rights records.  Second, as I have stated before, it is not up to us in the West to dictate to the Palestinians how they should run their campaigns.   Instead, we can choose which campaigns we want to support, and then do so wholeheartedly, and in a spirit of solidarity, dialogue and willingness to learn.   I don’t believe in capital punishment for any crime, and would never endorse any kind of violence that was not clearly in self-defense, in the strictest sense of the term.  But as I have argued before on this blog, Palestinian violence must be seen in the context of 62 years of oppression, and ending that systematic injustice, in a way that is 100% consistent with the principle of Palestinian self-determination, is the only way to end that violence.

By criticizing this key demand of the BDS movement, and dismissing the paramount importance of the need to work in solidarity with the Palestinians, Prof Finkelstein is playing Jenga with the Palestinian struggle – poking and pulling away the foundational planks of its existence.   We don’t need that at this time.  We need an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation between the legal, civil disobedience, and BDS strategies. I thank Prof Finkelstein for his very useful summary of the legal position of the Palestinian cause and Prof Rosenhead for his profound commitment to the principle of solidarity, and I place these thoughts on record in hope that they may contribute to a spirit of unity in the popular movement for Palestinian human rights.

Note: Jenga is a game played with wooden blocks, which players take turns to remove from a tower and balance on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure that eventually collapses.  The word is derived from the Swahili term for ‘to build’. 

April 17, 2011

Invite to the Catastrophe Club

You are warmly invited to join the next Catastrophe Club – an excellent documentary from Connie Field (‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Rivetter’) and a discussion about the ethics of Cultural Boycott with Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine.
Please do circulate to interested parties

Invite to April Catastrophe Club

December 24, 2010

Thinking of Bethlehem …

The best of this bright season to all our readers from everyone at BWISP. We are thinking especially of the people of Bethlehem at this time, and highlighted their plight to the people of Brighton on Dec 10th as part of the city’s annual Beach Hut Advent Calendar event.

We decorated the hut with an olive tree, a dove, Christmas lights, candles, cushions, and symbols of the three Abrahamic religions. We brought PSC leaflets and magazines, and photos from Active Stills and Against the Wall by William Parry, who lit up London with his recent images of Bethlehem this week. The local BBC covered our event, though naturally they airbrushed all references to Palestine … But the many passers by engaged deeply with what we had to say, and in particular with the writing of Mahmoud Darwish, whose ‘State of Siege’ we read from at the end. BWISP poets Naomi Foyle and Judith Kazantzis also read from their own work about Palestine. Here, with all our hopes for peace and justice in the Holy Land, is Judith’s poem for your seasonal reflections:

The Magi return
for Palestine 2010

In Bethlehem was born a slaughtered babe
his breast’s a wound.
See the war horse saddled with crimes.

In Palestine was born a babe,
a dozen, a hundred,
the mothers do a body count –

Of all the children born that day
we cared for only one.
The library in the palace of our brains

said, he’s the only one,
and we misread, and to redress,
we must come back again.

*
In Bethlehem and round about
each village and every farm
every mill and bakery,
every cobbler tapping leather,
every wheel the wheelwright worked,
under the table they hid their infants,
behind the chair,
in every house in Palestine
a babe was born,
wrapped and buried,
a dozen, a thousand,
you couldn’t keep count.
That winter, what did we know?
And so we come again.

As to that year, we left quietly,
steered by our learned star
trying to avoid all other sights,
the incandescent phosphorus stars
that rained all strange night on house and barn,
We left quietly once and long ago.

*

Ride here again, wrench the eye
in the new cruelty of the stars
to the flash, the uproar of breaking houses
down the alleys of the souk
down the souk of the mind.

*
Ride back and still we see thee lie,
O little town of Bethlehem,
children running from the sword the gun
a bitter night for what was festival.
In the library of the night,
O walled up Bethlehem,
we’ve read of a infant constellation,
a second coming in your silent sky.

Wise or not, knowing only truth,
this time we mean to witness a birth
when all your children shall dream
in the freedom of all the stars that are,
the safe shepherds of their dreaming.
And this is why we come again, we stay.
This time we will not go away.

Judith Kazantzis

June 13, 2010

BWISP Letter to The Independent on Sunday, June 6 2010

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

Dear Editor

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

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

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

Yours,

BWISP (British Writers In Support of Palestine)

Prof Mona Baker (scholar)

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

Lauren Booth (writer and journalist)

Prof Marilyn Booth (scholar, literary translator)

Kevin Cadwallender (poet)

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell (writer)

John Chalcraft (scholar)

Leena Dhingra (novelist)

Jenny Diski (novelist, essayist, travel writer)

Dr Hugh Dunkerley (poet and scholar)

Prof Rasheed El-Enany (scholar)

Prof Hoda Elsadda (scholar)

Alison Fell (novelist, poet)

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

Prof Patrick Ffrench (scholar, writer)

Maureen Freely (novelist, translator, academic)

Prof Ian Gregson (poet, literary critic)

Prof Peter Hallward (scholar)

Rumy Hasan (scholar)

Mischa Hiller (novelist)

Aamer Hussein (writer)

Ewa Jasiewicz (writer and journalist)

Fred Johnstone (poet, novelist and translator)

Dr Ghada Karmi (writer and scholar)

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

Mimi Khalvati (poet)

Eleanor Kilroy (journalist)

Wendy Klein (poet)

Stephen Knight (poet and critic)

Zoë Lambert (writer and scholar)

Diane Langford (novelist)

Tom Leonard (poet and critic)

Dr Les Levidow (scholar)

Alistair Ligertwood (scholar, literary translator)

Catherine Lupton (writer)

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

Mike Marqusee (writer)

Prof Nur Masalha (scholar)

China Miéville (novelist)

James Miller (novelist)

Alan Morrison (poet and editor)

Dr Dalia Mostafa (scholar)

Ali Nasralla (scholar)

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

Julia O’Faolain (novelist)

Jeremy Page (poet, editor, critic)

Thomas Pakenham (historian)

Dr Ian Patterson (poet and scholar)

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead (scholar)

Dr Khadiga Safwat (writer and scholar)

Prof Myriam Salama-Carr (scholar, translator)

Dr Duncan Salkeld (literary scholar)

Seni Seneviratne (poet)

Kamila Shamsie (novelist)

John Siddique (poet and writer)

Mark Slater (scholar, critic and writer)

Catherine Smith (poet and writer)

Dr Derek Summerfield (writer, scholar)

David Swann (poet and writer)

Tom Vowler (writer)

Kate Webb (writer, critic)

Irving Weinman (novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Hilary Wise (scholar and writer)

Eliza Wyatt (playwright)

Evie Wyld (novelist)

Robin Yassin-Kassab (novelist)

(66 signatories)

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