British Writers In Support of Palestine

May 25, 2012

[Report] BWISP / GUPW / PACBI Panel Discussion, Ramallah May 21st 2012

Some writers, British or otherwise, try to give words to the voices they hear in other languages.  Here are the words of a Palestinian voice I’m hearing tonight.  Perhaps it’s the voice of several loved ones, but also the voice of many I don’t have the privilege of knowing. Listen to the words the voice is quietly saying:

“So we know, don’t we?  This is life and we live it, and we don’t repeat ourselves too much.  Naturally we argue sometimes.  Oddly enough we are among the world’s experts in making the best of it.  The lies still being told against us are more than sixty years old.  They wall us in ceaselessly.  Nevertheless, and despite some of what happens every minute of the day, we make the most of it.  But for this life of ours not to become the living death which it also is, we have to continue – nothing can stop us – to proclaim and insist to the world that what we are being forced to live is a monstrous injustice……. Isn’t this how it is?”

                                                                                        John Berger  / May 2012

[Naomi Foyle writes:] Capitalising on my visit to the West Bank to visit The Freedom Theatre, PACBI  arranged an opportunity for me to share news of BWISP activities with a Palestinian audience, and to learn more about their struggle against Israeli apartheid in a panel discussion with Murad al-Soudani, Secretary-General of the General Union of Palestinian Writers.

The event, held at the Al-Bireh Municipality Hall and chaired by Dr Samia Botmeh, was very well-attended, especially considering that Nakba Commemoration Day and Hunger Strike Solidarity demonstrations were still on-going.  Over fifty people were present, filling the hall, and many made contributions to the Q & A.  The key results were:

  • the creation of an event that broke the cultural siege on the West Bank – let us not forget that I had to hide my visit from Israeli officials or risk certain deportation;
  • an opportunity for political networking that clearly demonstrated the current mood of hope, determination and solidarity that characterises the whole BDS campaign;
  • the promise of greater strategic links in the future between BWISP and GUPW.

Murad al-Soudani began by declaring that Palestinian culture includes all Palestinians – refugees, the diaspora and those within the West Bank and the 1948 borders.  At the same time, he insisted that Palestinian culture is outward-looking and evolving, and seeks to take its rightful place in a context of international exchange.  He also framed the academic and cultural boycott as a key strategy in the struggle against the normalisation of Israeli apartheid.  This is significant for BWISP members, who may encounter criticisms that only ‘dialogue’ with Israel can bring lasting political change.  The message from Occupied Palestine is that our colleagues resoundingly reject any Zionist façade of state-sponsored cultural exchange, which only buys Israel time to consolidate its stranglehold on Palestinian lives and land.  al-Soudani also noted that the GUPW has recently passed a motion committing the union to the struggle for freedom for Palestine, something new in its history.  This mobilisation of union members is a significant step, as demonstrated by the recent strongly-worded GUPW statement rejecting Tracy Chevalier’s efforts to meet with Palestinian writers while she was violating the boycott.  The Union call was heeded, and no Palestinian writer agreed to meet with her.

I then gave a summary of BWISP campaigns, including: protesting Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize; organising the Southbank debate on cultural boycott; our recent efforts to dissuade Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier from attending the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Festival; and our members’ deep involvement in the on-going Globe Theatre/Boycott Habima campaign.  I noted the positive progression of these campaigns, each of which has provoked international debate in the mainstream media:

  • each has pushed the issue of cultural boycott deeper into mainstream British discourse, so that now with the Globe Theatre campaign it is no longer possible to brush off boycott arguments with platitudes about freedom of speech; instead, critics of the boycott are being forced to grapple with the real issue – the need to refuse complicity with apartheid and war crimes.
  • attempts by Zionists and boycott critics to ignore or misreport our campaigns in the media have increasingly exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘dialogue’ argument;
  • the pressure is clearly being felt, as indicated by Chevalier’s misguided attempt to reach out to Palestinians, and the Globe Theatre’s attempts to offer compromise solutions – which were similarly rejected.

I ended my talk with a personal message from John Berger to the audience, which was received with pleasure and gratitude.  With his kind permission, I have included it above.

Questioners opened up the discussion in a variety of ways.  One noted that international archaeologists have long been operating a silent boycott of Israel, and are emboldened by more vocal campaigns.   The role of religion in the conflict came under critical scrutiny: I discussed the need for UK activists to counter accusations of anti-Semitism by making a sharp distinction between Zionism and Judaism, and a questioner highlighted the role of Christian Zionism in cementing the Occupation – something I am aware of from my efforts to challenge Michael Gove’s bias in the application of the Education Act.  The importance of Palestinian culture as a sometimes overlooked weapon in the struggle was also discussed, with al-Soudani suggesting that for Palestinians to organise their own international literary festivals would not be a ‘reaction’ to Israeli events (ie, a ‘balancing’ effort) but a positive action in its own right.  I cited Ghada Karmi’s comment that of all her books, her memoir has made the most impact on international readers, and here humbly offer the opinion that fiction, poetry and memoir can help scale what Berger calls ‘the wall of lies’ about Palestine.

I was also asked what it took to change a writer’s mind about appearing in Israel, to which I replied I wish I knew!  But thinking about it later, I realised that the current policy of ‘name and shame’ is the most useful strategy we have.  Of course, this is initially intended to chastise writers for breaking an international picket line, and as such may be misinterpreted as a purely punitive measure.  But shame is such an uncomfortable negative emotion it may in the long run provoke a change of conscience.  Certainly when I have felt shame in my personal life I have altered my behaviour in order not to experience it again.  Some writers, like Ian McEwan and Tom Rob Smith, appear to be impervious to shame, but others, like Chevalier, may feel it at some level, and thus be prompted to question their own blind participation in Israeli propaganda events.  It is important to note that the door is open for such writers to communicate with Palestinians in the future – just not while they are actively violating the boycott.

In conclusion, BWISP members and all UK boycott activists will be honoured to know that questioner after questioner thanked us profusely for our efforts on their behalf.  One had clearly been unaware of the amount of BDS campaigning in the UK, so the event was a chance to demonstrate to him the strength of UK resistance; another remarked that he felt Palestine’s ‘South Africa moment’ was approaching – a truly hopeful statement, but one that felt not unreasonable given recent BDS successes, and the powerful sense of unity and indeed excitement in the room.

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May 16, 2012

Update on Mishkenot Campaign

For background to this update please see previous posts.

In recent developments, according to Haaretz, Tracy Chevalier’s misguided attempt to meet with Palestinian writers was rebuffed; while the festival organiser has radically misrepresented the BWISP campaign as an abusive attack. Readers of the original letter will know that it was very respectful, and indeed, praised both Chevalier and Tom Rob Smith for their humanitarian concerns. Subsequent posts have expressed our disappointment and frustration at the lack of response from the writers, but at no time have they been abusive.

From Haaretz:

Uri Dromi, the manager of Mishkenot Sha’ananim that hosts the festival said that “there is an increasing feeling of cultural siege and despite our success in attracting major writers, some of them, particularly from Britain, have come under huge pressure not to participate.” He said that he had tried to invite South African writer and Nobel Prize laureate J. M. Coetzee “but he told me that he would come when the peace process goes forward.”
Dromi said that two British writers at the festival, Tom Rob Smith and Tracy Chevalier had been subjected to a major dose of online pressure and abuse for travelling to Israel. Rob Smith, whose first novel, Child 44, was a publishing sensation, told Dromi that he was very surprised by the attacks on his Facebook page but came anyway. Chevalier, author of bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, who has been to Israel before, asked Dromi if he could organize a meeting between her and Palestinian readers. “I tried to set up something in Ramallah and when that didn’t work, I enquired at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem but neither place was interested in cooperating with us.”

Note:

Tom Rob Smith himself, in an op-ed for the ultra-right-wing journal Israel HaYom described the campaign as intense, but not aggressive. For an independent reaction to his article, and its false description of the boycott, please see Tali Shapiro’s article in Pulse Media.

May 13, 2012

GUPW Statement Condemning Mishkenot Sha’ananim Boycott Violaters

The General Union of Palestinian Writers | 10 May 2010

Boycott the boycott violators in the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem

[translation]

Despite the repeated boycott appeals to international writers participating in the International Writer’s Festival (Mishkenot Sha’ananim), to be held in Jerusalem between 13–18 May 2012, and despite the fact that a number of them have heeded these appeals, some continue to ignore the boycott calls and insist on participating in this festival. The festival is planned to coincide with the celebration of the settler-colonial state of Israel’s ‘independence day’, which coincides with the sixty-fourth commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe).
Not only are some of these writers – who crossed the Palestinian picket line – like the American writer Tracy Chevalier and the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, still participating in this shameful festival, they have also asked the director of the Festival, Uri Dromi, to arrange for them to meet with ‘local’ Palestinian writers in Ramallah, and to tour East Jerusalem to see the Palestinians. This Orientalist tendency to get acquainted with ‘the locals’ as objects of colonial voyeurism, and through colonial intermediaries, should be met on the Palestinian side with condemnation and boycott. The writers’ choice is between standing with the occupation or with freedom, as there is no middle ground between the two.  Exactly as no middle ground exists between a people that ‘lives in the homes of peace’ in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and another that has been expelled from it because it is not included in Isaiah’s Prophecies.
Holding the festival at this crucial time in one of the oldest settlement outposts in the heart of Jerusalem, which has been undergoing a process of Zionisation as part of an intensive plan to isolate it from the rest of Palestine, and as part of imposing an apartheid system on its Palestinian citizens, sends a clear message to the world that the ‘Israeli cultural establishment’ is an integral part of the ‘Israeli colonial establishment’: the first wages war on Palestinian memory, while the latter continues its war against Palestinian existence. In addition, holding the festival in Jerusalem under these circumstances sends a message that contradicts the propaganda promoted by the festival that claims its role is to ‘make Jerusalem a city of diversity, dialogue, and tolerance’.
Promoting Jerusalem as a legendary city that is quintessentially Jewish, extending from ‘The Tower of David’ to the ‘Judean Desert’, and the participation of top Zionist writers like Amos Oz, A. B. Yehushua, David Grossman, and Etgar Keret, along with Arab writers who don’t write in Arabic such as Sayed Kashua and Bouallam Sansal, turn this festival into a carnival of irony that should be boycotted for aesthetic, cultural, and political factors.
The General Union of Palestinian Writers, which is commemorating the Nakba with the rest of the Palestinian people, salutes international writers who are boycotting the Mishkenot Sha’ananim festival and condemns in the strongest terms the participation of writers whose names were announced by the festival organizers as participants. The Union calls on Palestinian intellectuals and cultural workers, writers, novelists, academics and journalists to boycott the festival and not to meet with its participants who are not welcome [among us] as they have shamed themselves.
The General Union of Palestinian Writers, as a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), takes this opportunity to call on free and conscientious writers of the world to respect the boycott criteria set by the BNC and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Taking a clear stand in support of the just Palestinian cause should be a top priority for engaged intellectuals all over the world. Anyone who does not know what freedom means to the Palestinians who lack it surely does not know yet the very meaning of freedom; and anyone whose conscience is not Palestinian, after today, it will never be.
Occupied Palestine, 10 May 2012.
 
The General Union of Palestinian Writers
http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1880

This statement was originally published in Arabic.  See:

http://www.pacbi.org/atemplate.php?id=338

Posted on 13-05-2012

Update on Mishkenot Sha’ananim Campaign

The Mishkenot Sha’ananim International Writers’ Festival begins today in Jerusalem.  While neither Tracy Chevalier nor Tom Rob Smith have engaged with BWISPs open letter requesting them not to attend, nevertheless there have been some significant developments:

Tom Rob Smith at first agreed to be facebook friends with BWISP members Eleanor Kilroy and  Naomi Foyle, and responded politely to Foyle’s private message by saying that he would think seriously about the issues and get back to her.  He also posted a reply to Kilroy on his wall, stating that his main reason for attending was to engage with his Israeli fans.  Kilroy and Ofer Neiman of Boycott from Within responded with pertinent arguments.  Three days later, Smith unfriended all of us and we have heard nothing from him since.  For a fuller account, read Eleanor Kilroy’s article here.

Eleanor Kilroy started posting links to the BWISP letter and other relevant sites on the Festival facebook page.  Seni Seneviratne and Naomi Foyle added comments, expressing our disappointment at the lack of engagement from the two writers.  So far the threads are still on the wall.(See the box on the right-hand side of the timeline – you may have to scroll down within the box to see the posts.)

Ynet then reported that Chevalier wanted to ‘meet Palestinian writers’, and had asked the Festival director to arrange such an opportunity in Ramallah.  The Ynet story mentioned our campaign in general terms, and also announced that Indian writer Vikas Swarup had cancelled his appearance at the festival, for ‘diplomatic’ reasons.  PACBI had asked Swarup not to attend.

PACBI and GUPW (General Union of Palestinian Writers) have issued an authoritative statementstatement requesting Palestinian writers to shun such an encounter with Chevalier and other festival attendees, which they frame as a voyeuristic Orientalist endeavor.

In the meantime, the Festival coincides with the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, and takes place as the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike reaches a highly critical stage.  Two Palestinians have currently refused food for 76 days – longer than any hunger striker has yet survived this form of extreme non-violent protest.  Many activists in Jerusalem are making the hunger strike their main focus, but a small group of us are hoping to stage some kind of protest at the festival.

Finally, Naomi Foyle is scheduled to report on BWISP activities at a PACBI/GUPW panel discussion in Ramallah on May 21st, and will blog on the event.

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