Open Letter to Margaret Atwood: Reject Tel Aviv University Prize

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Some say Palestine is the ultimate test of honesty: An open letter written in response to the news that the novelist and poet Margaret Atwood had chosen to accept the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University in Israel on Monday 10th of May. Originally published in Salem-News.com on the 9th of May 2010.

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 precedent” 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 (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 -Raymond Deane raymonddeane.com Dublin, 9th May 2010

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