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PACBI | 28 January 2011

McEwan and Israelís Accolades: Privilege and Ethical Responsibility?

The recent announcement by the British writer Ian McEwan that he will accept the Jerusalem Prize on 20 February 2011 during the Jerusalem Book Fair has disappointed many of his admirers around the world. In response to calls to reject the prize and refrain from participating in the book fair, he has said, "I think one should always make a distinction between a civil society and its government. It is the Jerusalem book fair, not the Israeli foreign ministry, which is making the award. I would urge people to make the distinction – it is about literature.” [1]

McEwan is not the first writer to present this kind of defense for accepting the Jerusalem Prize. Susan Sontag, who was awarded the prize in 2001, said: “It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair.” [2]

McEwan and Sontag are both factually wrong. The book fair is sponsored by the Jerusalem Municipality, a key node in the official Israeli structure of colonialism and apartheid, and a leading violator of Palestinian rights. The Municipality has, since its inception, been a major instrument in the colonization of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem. It is particularly notable for its role in promoting and deepening one of the starkest cases of urban apartheid in the world. The municipality continues to be actively involved in the illegal gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians out of Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes and destruction of property, and the sustained suppression of development in the Palestinian neighborhoods as a matter of policy [3].

John Dugard, a leading international law expert and former UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, had this to say about the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem:

The similarities between the situation of East Jerusalemites and black South Africans [under apartheid] is very great in respect of their residency rights. We had the old Group Areas Act in South Africa. East Jerusalem has territorial classification that has the same sort of consequences as race classification had in South Africa in respect of who you can marry, where you can live, where you can go to school or hospital. [4]

Moreover, it should be noted that the book fair is an important date on the Israel-promotion calendar, an occasion when Israel’s misleading image as a patron of book publishing and the arts in general is highlighted. The fair offers visiting fellowships to young editors, agents and scouts from around the world, in an attempt to advance the carefully crafted image of Israel as a center of world-class writing. The Jerusalem Prize is central in this deceptive campaign of diverting attention away from Israel’s persistent crimes and violations of international law.

Prominent writers who accept to participate in official Israeli events and receive the state’s honors are, in fact, unwittingly lending their names to the state’s hasbara effort, which is part and parcel of the “Brand Israel” campaign. [5]

What is more disturbing than certain writers’ refusal to see the connection among the event, the prize, and the apartheid state is a certain pretentiousness that characterizes their responses to appeals to shun a prize or refuse to be part of the Israeli branding campaign. McEwan’s response to the appeals he has been receiving is a case in point:

As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir – I hope you will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as you do yourselves. Your 'line' is not the only one. Courtesy obliges you to respect my decision, as I would yours to stay away. [6]

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who shared the stage with the President of the Israeli state along with the mayor of Jerusalem in 2009 while accepting the Jerusalem Prize, said of his decision to accept the prize:

One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. … Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands. [7]

Did conscientious novelists need to “touch” South African apartheid before taking a moral position against it? Aren’t writers, as humans first and foremost, obligated to act by and defend the same universal principles of rights and ethical responsibility? It is difficult indeed to accept that writers occupy a privileged place as truth-seekers rather than being ordinary world citizens with a moral responsibility to speak truth to power and injustice.

At a time when the Palestinian civil society-initiated, global BDS movement is growing, the appeal to McEwan is not to cross the Palestinian, international, and increasingly Israeli boycott “picket line.” It is not a question of whether a person has a concern for “freedom and human dignity.” The issue is about one’s readiness and moral courage to act on this “concern” by standing with, not against, a movement whose chief objectives are freedom, human dignity and justice.

Accepting an award funded by Israel, a state practicing military occupation, colonization and apartheid, and hand delivered by some of this state’s worst representatives, in total disregard to a people’s non-violent movement for justice, cannot but call into question one’s actual concern for this justice. This act clearly undermines our collective and sustained struggle as a civil movement striving to affect change.

To return to the Jerusalem Prize, how can the hypocrisy and utter cynicism of an apartheid state bestowing a ''freedom of the individual in society” award have escaped McEwan and Murakami? The open letter sent in 2009 to the Japanese prize-winner Murakami by the Palestine Forum Japan makes this point:

“What we are particularly concerned about is the purpose of the 'Jerusalem Prize’, being to praise one's contribution to 'individuals' freedom in society’. This concept is in total contradiction of Israel's criminal acts such as massacre, collective punishment, blockade policy, construction of settlements and building of the 'separation wall' in East Jerusalem that are effectively eliminating Palestinians' freedom. If you receive the 'Jerusalem Prize’ it will contribute to a false image of Israel respecting 'individuals' freedom in society’ which will be portrayed and spread by the media. We fear that the unimaginable devastation of humanity which Israel has inflicted continuously and systematically upon Palestinians will be disregarded and Israel's actions will be accepted.”[8]

Finally, McEwan might be considering accepting the prize while acknowledging or even denouncing the violation of Palestinian rights in his acceptance speech. If he chooses to do that, he will be following in the footsteps of Susan Sontag (2001), Arthur Miller (2003) and Haruki Murakami (2009) whose acceptance speeches were critical of Israel [9]. We believe that this is not a principled option. McEwan’s very presence at the ceremony and the acceptance of the prize are what matter and what will remain on the record.

In informing his decision, McEwan would do well to consider the comments of Mike Leigh, who cancelled a scheduled trip in October 2010 to lecture at the Jerusalem film school in Jerusalem, emphasizing in a media interview his support for the cultural boycott of Israel. Referring to the boycott opponent’s advice for him to go to Jerusalem and make his critical statement there, Leigh said: “in so far as anything achieves anything, more publicity has come out of what I have done than would have been the case had I simply not gone, or had I gone and merely made a few statements that no one was listening to inside Israel.”[10]

We ask that McEwan reconsider his position and heed the BDS call by rejecting the Jerusalem Prize.

Notes:

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/19/ian-mcewan-accept-jerusalem-prize
[2] http://www.thenation.com/article/courage-and-resistance
[3] The policies of the Jerusalem Municipality are widely documented. For one example see: www.alhaq.org/pdfs/Report%20-%20The%20Jerusalem%20Trap.pdf
[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/feb/06/southafrica.israel
[5] On the Brand Israel campaign, see:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/world/middleeast/19israel.html; and http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/about-face-1.170267?trailingPath=2.169%2C2.225%2C2.239%2c
[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/25/ian-mcewan-defends-jerusalem-prize
[7] http://korjpcoll.springnote.com/pages/5600927/attachments/3229773
[8] http://palestine-forum.org/doc/2009/0129-e.html
[9] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1323032.stm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/jul/06/usa.israel
http://korjpcoll.springnote.com/pages/5600927/attachments/3229773
[10] http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/40043/zionism-to-hell-all-says-%EF%AC%81lm-director

Posted on 28-01-2011


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