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Literary Dissent
  • Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh won't boycott an  Israeli award. Emotional distancing is the bane, and boon, of the intellectual community.

It is a bit incongruous to expect writers to spurn awards on political grounds when the business of publishing itself has become a political game. Several groups have appealed to authors Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh to reject the Dan David Prize jointly being given to them by Tel Aviv University on May 9.

Big mainstream publishing houses, especially if you are in the West, are into it for the money as are manufacturers of other products. That is the reason marketing takes precedence and often books are pre-publicised with an award angle in mind. The diaspora and other stories from the new exotica have become trendy partly because they went along with the fad, culling characters that would appeal to the western frame of mind that is forced to live among more than just motel owners and the corner store guys; the smells are now in the realm of overpriced acceptable cuisine in restaurants.

To expect that living in these countries you might not bump into the all-pervasive Israeli lobby in some form or the other is rather unusual. Must writers work within the circumference of political correctness? This question begs the larger query regarding how political the writing is as opposed to the writer.

Atwood and Ghosh are not mere pen-pushers and do express social concerns in their works, even if these may not be overtly activist. Given the creative nature of the chosen form – mostly fiction – the reality is simulated. Simulated reality is not a falsehood; it is recreated truth. Therefore, almost all literary works can be deemed to be political since they convey the cultural ethos of a given space and time. Such an ethos is constructed to be ruled by laws. Jurisprudence is embedded in the establishment from which social mores derive, either to belong or to disprove or merely disapprove.

Ghosh had earlier refused the Commonwealth Prize because he was against the colonial construct being retained. It suggests that he understands the need for dissent. However, this is curious, for the colonisation he was protesting against is of the past. It is much like saying the colonised societies ought not to use certain modes of dress or maintain heritage sites because they are relics of the rulers of the time. The language Ghosh writes in is the language of the masters of his ancestors. In a way, he empathises with it.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) group comprises Palestinian civil society. Their appeal to Ghosh does not seem to have worked for he stated that he objected to such embargoes in matters of culture and learning.

He got a response saying, “...why should cultural and learning institutions be exempt from boycotts if they are implicated in the atrocities as any other sector?...When you reject our call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, you undermine our struggle for freedom and ignore the voices of almost all prominent Palestinian artists, writers and other cultural workers and the many international intellectuals who have joined our boycott.”

Must he be concerned about getting an award at a university that has been built on the razed remains of a Palestinian village or that is state-funded or that President Shimon Peres will be attending the ceremony? It might be prudent to ask here whether accepting the award means accepting the principles of the state you are not a part of. And does non-acceptance denote empathy? There are two aspects here: endorsement and commitment. They are mutually exclusive. A stamp of approval or disapproval is a passive activity. It does not necessarily send out any important signals. The other is commitment to the cause, a long-standing understanding of it.

Apparently, Atwood wanted to know if there were practical suggestions to help solve the issue and, as stated at the website of The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), she asked for “practical immediate means to improve the lives of Palestinians; questions to ask moderate Israelis with power; warnings for the future if the status quo is maintained; what kind of cooperation on Climate Change in Palestine\Israel would Ayala advocate; things to tell the present government of Canada and helpful suggestions for Hamas. She also labelled herself a bad messenger for extremists”.

This is a classic cop-out in the mould of Dr. Fix-it. We are talking about a historically depraved occupation that has completely disregarded international pressure, has continually displaced the people whose lands they occupy, has denied them basic rights – human and for survival – stopped facilities from reaching them. The groups did provide her with a list, but is she in a position to do anything?

It is fallacious when cultural ambassadors begin to see themselves in the role of the establishment. The idea of protest is not to become patron saints of movements, but to shun the spoils of a system that is sponging on the soil and blood of others.

Israel is not even considered a coloniser; the lands it is sitting on are called ‘occupied territory’. And I am a bit confused about her being a bad messenger for extremists. Is she referring to the Palestinian Movement as extremist or the Israeli Establishment? If it is the latter, then she has conceded their status. So, if she is a bad messenger, how would it feel to be feted by such extremists? It isn’t as though Shimon Peres in literary mode will transform. Many dictators read fairytales and believe their lives are fairytales. Delusion is part of the coloniser credo.

Ghosh’s comment that the prize is not being given by the state of Israel is an assertion of his belief in such a ‘state’ as it exists. And a state that represses the people who own the land is unlikely to have independent organisations functioning within it. The Tel Aviv University would not exist without governmental support.

One of the problem areas of such a boycott is the emotional distancing that seems to be the bane, and boon, of the intellectual community. Pragmatism has replaced feeling, which is considered wimpy. Ironically, these same people will be proponents of peace, will fight the war against terror as an abstraction.

It must not surprise anyone that these two writers live in the West; one is a naturalised Westerner, the other an exile by choice. Atwood’s reluctance is of one who wishes to solve the problems in the manner the society to which she belongs to has trained her. Ghosh is indebted to the West and, while he chooses to write with such passion about other societies, he will not rub the neo-colonisers the wrong way.

If he refuses this prize then the edifice on which his oeuvre is built will develop deep cracks. Can he then accept an award from the US that is looking for war opportunities to give itself a continual semblance of the greatest superpower? Will he have to shun awards in India where different state governments have displayed crass disregard towards religious, regional and economic minority groups?

Given the attitude, one can assume that Israel is not likely to lose any cultural points. It is time for the boycott groups to re-examine their position regarding who they wish to involve as patrons of protest. Goods and awards can be banned but not mindsets that have become marketable.

(c) Farzana Versey

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This appeared in the May 7-9 issue of Counterpunch