Some readers may remember that a little over a month ago, I wrote an article on Palestinian students issuing a plea to novelist Margaret Atwood to join the cultural boycott of Israel and show solidarity with the Palestinians by rejecting the Dan David Prize from Tel Aviv University.
But I was disappointed to learn that Atwood had rejected calls to join the boycott, accepted the award alongside Amitav Ghosh, and has left me to conclude that her reputation as a left-wing novelist on the right side of social justice issues is just a hollow façade that she is unwilling to back up with action.
Like when Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami broke the boycott last year, I was eager to read the acceptance speech to see how they justified accepting a prize from an apartheid regime, but also like Murakami, Atwood and Ghosh responded with a vague analogy to writers and a perverse lie that they and Israel were the victims of censorship.
To portray the cultural boycott as censorship is inherently misleading, especially in regards to a state that has no limits to the support they receive from world powers and media giants. It also ignores the fact that the cultural boycott is chiefly about showing solidarity with Palestinians who are the real victims of censorship as a result of discriminatory apartheid laws, including the attempted shut down of last year’s Palestinian Festival of Literature among other things that affect the lives of all Palestinians, not just writers.
They also claimed that “It is a prize founded by a private individual, and administered by its own office located at Tel Aviv University. Despite what we have been told by its attackers, it is not one and the same as the State of Israel.”
I disagree with Atwood’s assertion that we should not be boycotting individuals, but even by her own logic, the Dan David Prize and Tel Aviv University are intimately tied up with the barbarous state of Israel and its heinous crimes.
Dan David was a committed Zionist, a member of the Zionist Youth Movement and organised emigration to Israel as part of pushing the Palestinians off their land. Also, Tel Aviv University is responsible for funding numerous defence and military projects that have been directly used to murder Palestinians.
Writers often hide messages beneath the murky depths of fiction, weaving themes and statements behind metaphors but a speech responding to such concrete political arguments really is not the time for such things – unless of course you want to dodge the issue.
The question really does come down to, are you willing to take a side and take a stand? Atwood and Ghosh do neither choosing remain at best ambivalent on a serious political question and at worst, assisting Israel in their PR campaign to use the arts and other social issues to co-opt socially conscious figures into providing cover for the state’s war crimes.
I don’t think there’s something inherent in writers that makes them more progressive, socially conscious or willing to take a stand. Atwood wondered why the writers receiving the Dan David Prize were singled out and not the other figures. It’s not because of this or because they’re easy targets.
In particular regards to Atwood, she is seen as a progressive figure in literature, was an outspoken critic of South African apartheid and at least I considered her to be someone who would back up words with actions, put aside a mere prize in order to stand by a principle.
She even said: “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.”
A Palestinian student replied: “We are not asking for sympathy! We want solidarity…You are either with justice or with injustice. There is no neutral zone.”
Her unwillingness to show that solidarity leaves her progressive words sitting now as a fraudulent and hollow shell.
As a political writer, I consider it incredibly important to actually stand up for what I believe in, to not just talk about it. This sometimes means sacrificing what is good for yourself, for the greater good, to be on the right side and to show solidarity with others in need of solidarity.
Atwood, was it that half a million dollars in prize money that made you accept the prize? Was it the fact that you don’t really support the Palestinians? Or was it because you were too cowed by the powers that be to stick your neck out and stand by the principles I thought you had?
Either way, shame Atwood, shame.
Second and third photos from PalestineThinkTank.com