[Boycott - Cultural]
Defying appeal from Gaza students, Atwood set to accept Israeli prize
Kristin Srzemski, The Electronic Intifada
8 May 2010
On Sunday, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood will accept the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University and her portion of the $1 million payout that goes with it. Meanwhile, a mere 40 miles away, students in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip will stilll be struggling to find the ways and means to continue their educations.
Atwood will be accepting her prize despite a worldwide call -- initiated by the Palestinian Students Campaign for a Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PSACBI) -- for her to turn down the award. The Canadian author, whose work often reflects issues of colonization, feminism, structures of political power and oppression, will be sharing the literary prize with Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose novels question the brutalities of colonial rule and post-colonial dispossession. Ghosh was also asked to turn down the prize, which he has declined to do.
Being an artist of conscience has been one of Atwood's hallmark characteristics throughout her career. She supported the South African anti-Apartheid movement and, according to filmmaker John Greyson, was the first public figure to speak out in support of gay rights after police arrested 300 men in Toronto in 1981. The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said named her as an "oppositional intellectual." That's why her acceptance of the Dan David Prize is fraught with ironies, not least of which is the requirement that she donate 10 percent of the prize money back to support graduate students at Tel Aviv University, while Gaza's students -- just a short drive away -- are enclosed in an open-air prison, unable to complete their studies.
Islamic University of Gaza,
targeted by Israeli precision bombing
"We have no fuel supply in Gaza for student transportation," Ayah Abubasheer of PSCABI wrote in an email on 21 April. "There are no basic supplies or stationery for students in Gaza. Basic materials such as pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers and so on are not available. And, books? There are no books, research resources or any of the like in Gaza. Israel bombed the Islamic University's labs and student residences during the [winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza]."
PSCABI is the student arm of the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel. Both groups belong to the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, started in Palestine in 2005. The group is comprised of students representing all Palestinian universities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and has alliances with Palestinian student groups at Israeli universities, Abubasheer said. This coalition of activists wrote an open letter to Atwood on 4 April, asking her to turn down the prize. The letter went "viral" and was soon posted on websites and blogs across the Internet. It also spawned other letters and action alerts, all with the aim of persuading Atwood to stand in solidarity with Gaza's students.
Atwood admitted via email she was aware of the open letter, but said she did not receive it personally. She did not respond to the students in Gaza, but she did reply to Antoine Raffoul, a Palestinian architect living in London who is the founder of the organization 1948: Lest We Forget.
Cultural boycotts equal censorship, Atwood said. In addition, the Dan David Prize is a cultural event, funded by an individual, she said. "To boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it -- a view I strongly reject."
Atwood also said via email that she is the international vice president of the literary organization PEN, which advocates for writers who are persecuted or imprisoned because of their work. As such, she is not allowed to participate in cultural boycotts, she said.
Dan David and Tel Aviv University
Dan David, 80, was born and raised in communist Romania. He joined the Zionist youth movement and helped organize aliyah or Zionist emigration to Israel, according to a 13 November 2007 article published by the Israeli daily Haaretz. David, who made his fortune in instant photo booths, used $100 million of his own money to found the Dan David Foundation, which administers the Dan David Prize. He also sits on the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University (TAU), which is at the center of Israel's military-industrial complex.
Today, some 64 research projects in defense or national security are being funded by Israeli and US defense agencies on the TAU campus. "TAU is playing a major role in enhancing Israel's security capabilities and military edge," reads the introduction to an article entitled "Lifting the Veil of Secrecy" in the Tel Aviv University Review, Winter 2008/09 issue.
"'People are just not aware of how important university research is in general, and how much TAU contributes to Israel's security in particular,' says TAU President Zvi Galil in the article.
One project currently underway explores how to turn birds into weapons because they are relatively "unobtrusive," especially when compared to the much larger unmanned drones, according to the article.
Antoine Raffoul said that the Dan David Prize cannot be divorced from Israel. "Its institutions, whether cultural, educational, industrial, scientific, judicial, agricultural or military, are part and parcel of the political institution of the state ... working hand in hand to enforce the policies of an illegal occupation of Palestinian land," he said.
TAU was built upon the remains of a Palestinian village depopulated and destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. "By accepting the prize at Tel Aviv University, you will be indirectly giving a slight and inadvertent nod to Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This university has refused to commemorate the destroyed Palestinian village on which it was built. That village is called Sheikh Muwanis, and it no longer exists as a result of Israel's confiscation. Its people have been expelled," the Gaza students wrote in their open letter.
Upholding the rights and voices of the persecuted
During an acceptance speech for the American PEN Literary Service Award in New York City in April, Atwood said oppressors share a commonality. "They wish to silence the human voice, or all human voices that do not sing their songs. They wish to indulge their sense of power, which is best done by grinding underfoot those who cannot retaliate."
Gaza's students are disappointed with Atwood's decision to accept the Dan David Prize, Abubasheer said. "We are deeply wounded by her decision. Students here have been asking about the sincerity of her novels and wonder whether she will reconsider her decision to stand on the wrong side of history"
In the end, for Atwood, at least, it comes down to whether or not a cultural boycott is equivalent to censorship. But as filmmaker Cathy Gulkin said in an article posted on the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel's website on 6 May, the two issues are distinct. Gulkin said that censorship is wielded by a force with the power to prevent a work from being presented, while a boycott asks artists to withdraw their work voluntarily. She participated in a boycott of the Tel Aviv International Film Festival last winter.
"Palestinian civil society has no power or will to silence or censor. They can only appeal to people of conscience ... to support them in their struggle to achieve their human rights," Gulkin wrote in her call to boycott last winter.
The Palestinian students and Raffoul point to a number of artists and authors, including Naomi Klein, Carlos Santana, Bono, Snoop Dog and Sting, who have heeded Palestinian civil society's call for the boycott of Israel.
Raffoul even pointed to actor Marlon Brando, who rejected his Academy Award in 1973 to protest the US government's treatment of Native Americans or the Beatles rejecting knighthoods in England.
"I sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls," Atwood wrote in her email to Raffoul.
"We are not asking for sympathy!" Abubasheer said. "We want solidarity. ... You are either with justice or with injustice. There is no neutral zone."
Abubasheer added: "Thus, we all have an individual moral responsibility to boycott. Boycott is inclusive and it brings people together, fighting for peace through justice and accountability, from the youngest to the oldest, from the four quarters of the world, anyone can boycott. After the wiping out of entire families in broad daylight, what else do some public intellectuals need to see in order to make a bold move?"
Raffoul contends that today no one -- especially important cultural figures such as Atwood -- can exist in a vacuum. "You can't hide behind the cloak of literature," he said. "We don't live in a shell anymore. You cannot claim to be a humanitarian in any state and then ... fly into a zone called Israel [that is] killing people and dehumanizing innocent people."
Atwood said she plans to "observe" what she sees in Palestine and then write about it. She suggested this reporter hold off on writing this article until then.
But Abubasheer would not be comforted by this promise. Quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she said: "If you choose to be neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
She added: "The position taken by Ms. Atwood ... is clear in the light of this statement."
Kristin Szremski is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years in newspapers. She began her career in Warsaw, Poland, working on an English-language newspaper with members of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) union. Her work has appeared nationally and internationally. Szremski is currently a freelance journalist living outside Chicago.
Dear Ms. Atwood, I regret to inform you that you have failed the lie detector test
10 May, 2010
By going to Israel to accept the Dan David Prize you have chosen to go over to the Dark Side. If you do make the trip, there is no turning back. Please consider well what people who have appreciated your literary work and heretofore took seriously your vaunted support for human rights have to say. I have copied below some of their comments from emails that have been circulating. First, here is an exchange of letters between Atwood and Antoine Raffoul:
Exchange of letters between Atwood and Antoine Raffoul
Dear Mr. Raffoul,
Since the Dan David Prize has been announced and I have accepted it. I have received several letters from different groups asking me to reverse my acceptance and boycott this event. I believe that Amitav Ghosh, with whom the prize is shared, has also begun to receive such letters. He and I have been chosen to receive the Dan David Prize for our literary work-work that is said to depict the twentieth century from the vantage point of our respective countries.
I sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls. Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering. The world wants to see fair play and humane behaviour, and it wants that more the longer the present situation continues and the worse the conditions become.
However, the Dan David Prize is a cultural event. It is not, as has been erroneously stated, an "Israeli" prize from the State of Israel, nor is it a prize "from Tel Aviv University," but one founded and funded by an individual, just as the Griffin Prizes in Canada are. To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent. And to boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it -- a view I strongly reject, just as I reject the view that any book written by a woman is produced by some homogeneous substance called "women." Books are written by individuals.
Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a cultural boycott. Even those strongly endorsing a financial boycott, such as www.artistespourlapaix.org, Artists For Peace, reject cultural boycotts, which theysee as a form of censorship. (See their December 22 posting.) Indeed, such boycotts serve no good purpose if one of the hopes for the future is that peace and normal exchanges will be restored. PEN International, an organization of which I am a Vice President, is in favour of continuing dialogue that crosses borders of all kinds. In this situation, threats to open discussion come from both sides of the wall: consider this report from IFEX:
I realize that I am caught in a propaganda war between two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict. I also realize that, no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree with my decision and attack me for it. That being the case, I have chosen to visit, to speak with a variety of people, and - as much as is possible -- to see for myself, as I have done in other times and other countries many times before. After that, I will write my own Open Letter - something that I would otherwise be unable to do.
Dear Ms Atwood,
I am truly grateful for your response to my email which urges you to renounce the Dan David Prize 2010. May I be allowed a response to your kind email in order that I may shed light on some key statements you made about the Dan David Prize.
First of all, the letters and emails you received from those urging you to reject the Prize, were not meant to put you in a situation where, as you said, you feel "caught in a propaganda war between two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict. I also realize that, no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree with my decision and attack me for it".
The nature of this world we live in is that we are not only private individuals living in a private shell, but also members of a world society built on the principles of human rights and the rule of international law.
Some of us attain positions of importance, like yourself, which reinforce and protect these principles for future generations. For that, the world should hopefully be a better place. So you should not be caught in the middle of a conflict, but rather, become a contributor to its resolution.
The Palestine/Israel conflict is a tragic one and we are all part of it, directly or indirectly. It is tragic because one nation, Israel, chooses to occupy and de-humanize millions of Palestinians living under the worst occupation in modern history. You eloquently wrote that you "sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls. Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering. The world wants to see fair play." I totally agree with you, but it is a fact that "the world" you speak about is precisely the world we all belong to as individuals, as groups and as rich and civilized societies. You and millions of others, would have an opinion to make about this world. We live on one planet and have witnessed, unfortunately, many wars in our lifetime and we
need to avoid similar ones in the future and to allow next generations to live in peace and harmony.
You go on to state that "the Dan David Prize is a cultural event. It is not, as has been erroneously stated, an "Israeli" prize from the State of Israel, nor is it a prize 'from Tel Aviv University,' but one founded and funded by an individual [Dan David]". It may not be a prize from the State of Israel itself, but nor is it a prize from an individual. This prize and the event are the brainchild of Dan David, founder of the Dan David Foundation which is an enterprise headquartered at Tel Aviv University and funded with a $100 million donation from him. Dan David himself holds the title of Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa from Tel Aviv University and is a member of the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University. The Dan David Prize is bestowed on its recipients in the presence of Israeli government officials (last year
it was Israeli President Shimon Peres when the Prize was awarded to Tony Blair - who left a shameful legacy in Iraq).
Dan David is not a simple individual but an important one for Israel. According to a detailed report in Haaretz newspaper in November 2007 (
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/923356.html), Dan David is portrayed as an important philanthropist, more for the State of Israel than for the world. He may not be a household name there but his presence is felt everywhere. According to the report, "David owns 90% of the world automatic photo booth, and all the booths in every mall in Israel". The Dan David Foundation is also engaged in myriad philanthropic projects in fields as varied as archaeology, medicine, and film.
Your portrayal of Dan David as "an individual" underestimates his real position and power. Despite his upbringing as a simple but smart child in Bucharest where he was born in 1920, Dan David, according to the report, "was active in various movements and became active in Zionism following his experiences in the Second World War". He has been expanding his activities and "donates more to charity in Israel than to business". The report continues, "[at]16 he joined a Zionist youth movement and helped organize aliyah from Romania [to Israel], where he continued to live". Later, after the Romanian authorities allowed him to leave, "he went to relatives in Paris and in August 1960 he, his mother and aunts sailed on the Theodor Herzl to Israel. They lived in Herzliya and later moved to Tel Aviv...[He] now insists that he is an Israeli".
One cannot but admire Dan David's business acumen and success. But he is certainly not 'anybody' or any 'individual'.
Finally, you argue that "to boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent. Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a cultural boycott". It so happens that the country in question here is the State of Israel which is conducting daily military activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa. Its institutions whether, cultural, educational, industrial, scientific, judicial, agricultural or military, are part and parcel of the political institution of the State and harbour activities in tune with the policies of the State, working hand in hand to enforce the policies of an illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
Thank God you are not 'any individual'. You are Margaret Atwood. You have an important voice in the literary world. You can have a stronger voice in the humanitarian one. We urge you to make a stand, by rejecting the Dan David Prize, or at the least in the body of your forthcoming Open Letter.
Coordinator, 1948: LEST WE FORGET (http://www.1948.org.uk)
"Ms. Atwood, I deplore your decision to accept a prize that should not be accepted by any humanitarian. I deplore that you did not heed the Gazan students' searing and articulate plea to you of more than a month ago. I deplore that you continued to throw justice and a right course of action to the winds in your rejection of Mr. Raffoul's reasoned appeal. I am particularly disturbed by your characterization of Zionist Israel's six-decade program of cleansing the Holy Land of the Palestinians in terms of "...two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict." Ms. Atwood: the Zionists controlling Israel are not desperate. They are criminally psychotic..."
"It is one thing to hold to noble beliefs, even very strong and passionate ones. It is quite another to translate one's beliefs into actions at those times when History offers one a chance to participate in an important way. It is only when we translate our beliefs into action that we can claim that our beliefs, however passionately we may hold them, are worthy of being considered convictions. Today people all over the world are reconsidering their opinions of you. The Internet is droning with sadness, and worse, with the bitterness of betrayal, this morning as people who long for an opportunity to 'make a difference' themselves have seen that someone they considered as one of their own, someone who has passionately implored us, in all the body of her work, to seek justice, has failed to answer History's call.. You had a chance to make a difference, Ms. Atwood. You had a chance to prove that your beliefs are deserving of being considered convictions. You had a chance to represent those who have been inspired by your work. But you chose not to answer this call. Some are very angry; others merely disillusioned, but rest assured that a large number of people all over this world who once admired you, and your work, now see you in a much different light."
"Writers who have access to publishing outlets should try to bring Atwood's betrayal into the public consciousness. It really is a striking story line. A writer who has built a career on appeals for human justice now goes to Tel Aviv to accept laurels, ignoring the monstrously inhuman injustice inflicted by that nation on innocent people?"
"While concerned citizens around the world are expressing their shock and dismay at your acceptance of this 'literary' award, I didn't expect anything else from you. Unlike those who buy your books and place you on a pedestal, I have never bought your books nor placed you anywhere. And whereas your fans will be shocked by this admission, I always trust my intuition. And I've been proven correct by none other than yourself. You, Ms. Atwood, do not have a moral or social conscience, and a moral and social conscience is much more important than any award. You cannot buy a moral and social conscience. You either have it or you don't. You clearly don't."
""Palestine is the ultimate lie-detector." No truer words were ever spoken. This will be a dark spot on Atwood's career that will remain long after she and we are gone."
(from a Canadian activist and associate editor of an alternate-press internet site):
"Despite everything she's written and received acclaim for, her acceptance of this 'award' will forever show her in the eyes of people who give a damn about what happens to all of humankind, as solely lacking a moral conscience. Her efforts to excuse accepting the award are worse than accepting it. There are certain things that one cannot justify. In her case, this is one of them, and no amount of blather from her will ever justify this action on her part. I'm sickened by her actions, but, then, I never was a fan which makes me a lot more intuitive than I thought. ... She's "supposed" to be a "social" activist? One could laugh in derision if one had a mind to. Courage is obviously one characteristic she doesn't have -- at least not when it comes to doing the right thing. Of course, I'm sure the money played a role as well -- doesn't it always in those circumstances? Presenting these "awards" is just another way of ensuring silence with respect to the terrorist state and its supporters elsewhere. Another Canadian "icon" -- gutless at best."
(from an Israeli Palestinian MD and author)
"Your attempts to beat some sense into Atwood's head is admirable. I am surprised that Amitav Ghosh, Atwood's partner in this case of moral bribery, seems to be getting off scot free. The man can be held accountable on grounds of defaulting on the legacy of Gandhi, if on no other ground. He doesn't even have the excuse of having grown up under the blinding glow of the West's partiality to Zionism. He should not be spared our anger and dismay. Let us copy him in our mail to Atwood. I know he was properly warned in advance of accepting his half million."
(from an activist and internet investigative journalist residing in New Mexico):
"Atwood's excuses are worse than the actual acceptance of the award. In particular, her vile remarks about the "inflexible positions" held by both sides. Indeed, the Palestinian people refuse to bend on their demand that they receive justice and that Israel abide by international law. How terrible of them to be so "inflexible." Likewise, the "propoganda war" she feels trapped within is a completely one sided war—62 years (plus) of lies and deceptions from the Zionists. Poor Ms. Atwood. How does she hold up under the pressure? It must be tough to be a multimillionaire celebrity faced with such gut wrenching decisions. Disgusting. She demonstrates not only her lack of compassion but also the depths of her ignorance. On a positive note, I sent out a notice recently about Gil Scott Heron having cancelled his upcoming concert in Tel Aviv. Good for him. Now if Joan Armatrading and Bob Dylan would demonstrate as much integrity. Bob Dylan, for effing sake!"
(from a Palestinian Christian residing in beleaguered East Jerusalem [1948 refugee from West Jerusalem]; retired YWCA executive and private-school principal);
"Thank you all for your input. We just felt the solidarity of writers through PALFEST which took place during this last week. Maybe they can help Ms Atwood see the light. Indeed how disappointing that a writer of her status cannot perceive the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor."
(from an activist and blogger residing in Mexico): [Editor's note: that would be me]
"I posted the EI article on my site the following day. I didn't post her specious, self-serving and enfuriating response. It's the So. African Jewish writers who fought apartheid like Nadine Gordimer who really get my goat - she trekked to Israel too. I don't even want to mention Leonard Cohen - I was one of many who wrote him with a plea not to give his concert, but I guess the tribal pull was too great. Well, these things take time. In a few years no one but zealots will go, if there's still an Israel then. Our job is to bring about Israel's demise as soon as possible, peacefully, before those psychopaths blow up the world."
(from an Irish activist and classical-music composer, which I feel compelled to quote in full):
"I realise that I am too late to contribute to the messages calling upon you not to accept the Dan David Prize. There is an ironic reason for this: I have admired your fiction, poetry and ethical stance for so long that it never entered my head that you could possibly perpetrate such a betrayal. Although I have long been convinced that the issue of Palestine is the ultimate lie-detector, with residual naivety I believed that your commitment to truth would have enabled you to see through the tissue of lies that the Zionists and their defenders have woven in order to obfuscate a simple issue of oppression and dispossession.
But perhaps even more disheartening is the tissue of disingenuous evasions that you yourself have woven in order to disguise the ethical irresponsibility of having accepted this award. You describe the idea of a cultural boycott as "a dangerous precendent" and as "a form of censorship", citing an organisation called Les artistes pour la paix which, on 22nd December 2009, expressed its support for the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions called for by Palestinian civil society, but made an exception for artists because the supposed "contribution of artists and intellectuals is essential to the dissemination of the message of Peace..."
I am myself a professional composer of classical music, and down the years have come to despair of the lazy and self-serving rationalisations artists dream up in order to exempt themselves from ordinary people's struggle for justice. In this context it should be stressed that being "for peace" in Israel/Palestine is inadequate if one is not simultaneously "for justice". Given that the Palestinian call for BDS does not make an exemption for artists and that there is a major Palestinian civil society organisation entirely dedicated to promoting the cultural boycott (www.pacbi.org), western artists adopting the contrary position must be aware that they are rejecting a call emanating from those whose oppression is maintained with the help of our own western governments - the Harper administration in Canada being an egregious example. Such artists must be prepared to face the suspicion that their own career interests have blinded them into sublimating the iniquity of their role when they thus deny the victim's will. This denial adds an unpalatable note of self-pity to your attempted appropriation for yourself of the role of victim ("no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree...") as you accept this lucrative Prize.
The shibboleth of "censorship" plays a sorry role in this charade. Censorship is indeed one of the central tactics of Zionism, both within the Israeli state and in the USA and many European countries where open support for the Palestinian cause and just criticism of Israel is all but excluded from the mainstream media and can constitute professional suicide in many walks of life. Do you believe that the cultural boycott which played a small but significant role in helping to end Apartheid in South Africa constituted "censorship" and therefore should not have been imposed? It is censorship of the most virulent type when the Israeli authorities prevent (as often happens) a Palestinian writer from travelling abroad to read his/her work, or when Israeli police intervene to shut down a Palestinian literary festival in East Jerusalem.
You might respond that "two wrongs don't make a right", but the truth is that culture is not a sacred realm floating far above the tribulations of the real world, and that artists in Israel and elsewhere are all too often complicit in the crimes of their governments - either by their silence, or by their willingness to allow their work and their presence to be appropriated by oppressive states. The Israeli foreign ministry has explicitly advocated employing culture as propaganda, a tactic that applies both to Israeli artists travelling abroad and to visiting artists, whose presence will inevitably be exploited as evidence of Israel's "normality" and "acceptability" - although in reality Israel is a racist, apartheid state that is both abnormal and unacceptable.
In asking writers and other artists not to accept invitations to Israel or awards from the Israeli establishment, PACBI and other defenders of Palestinian rights are asking such artists voluntarily to reject their own exploitation by the Israeli state. To lend oneself to such exploitation despite such a heartfelt plea, and to do so in the name of rejecting "censorship", is in my view to be guilty of self-seeking moral blindness.
Yours in sadness -
One last word. The cultural boycott of Israel is probably the most important aspect of the BDS campaign because it affects the perceptions and awareness of a great many people who otherwise are passive recipients of the ubiquitous propaganda spewed forth by the Zionist owned and/or controlled mainstream media and the bought and paid for politicians. But they are passionate about their artists, so when one of them declines an invitation to speak, receive an award or perform in Israel it gets their attention and adds significantly to the growing awareness of the nature of the the nature of the fascist State of Israel and the dangers it poses not only to the Palestinians but to all of humanity.
Ms. Atwood can be reached through her publisher via email (Vivienne@Curtisbrown.co.uk)
(Do send her a note and let her know how you feel)
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