The British novelist, Ian McEwan, who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, is to be given the Jerusalem prize at the Jerusalem Book Fair. Israel's prestigious literary prize is awarded biennially to a writer whose works have dealt with themes of ‘individual freedom in society’. British Writers In Support of Palestine (BWISP) is joining other Palestinian solidarity groups urging the British writer to heed the Palestinian civil society call to culturally boycott Israel, pointing out that the Jerusalem Book Fair is “an Israeli business venture that normalises and whitewashes the Occupation, and uses the Occupied Territories as a commercial venue” making it a legitimate a target for boycott.
In a March 2010 blog post on McEwan, the journalist Nick Cohen says that McEwan shares the view of the British left that it has collapsed ‘in liberal principles’, by which one can read: too much criticism of Israel and not enough of political Islamists. According to the post, in McEwan's 2010 novel, Solar, the author narrates an allegedly anti-Semitic incident: a female Israeli academic is received with hostility by ‘a postmodern crowd’ gathered to hear a talk on evolution and gender by the novel’s protagonist, Michael Beard, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Tellingly, the sympathetic character is introduced first as ‘a Jew’ and only then as an Israeli. It is McEwan who makes the obvious link with the Palestinians, whilst yet suggesting it is an absurd jump to make: “she was a Jew, an Israeli and, by association, an oppressor of the Palestinians. Perhaps she was a Zionist, perhaps she had served in the army.” Perhaps she is, very likely she did. The contempt with which the author views such an ‘association’ is itself ridiculous. The alternative narrative behind the birth of the State of Israel, vaunted homeland of the Jewish people, and all the privileges enjoyed by the Jewish citizens of this “only democracy in the Middle East” is, of course, the dispossession of the Palestinians. The anger felt by those aware of the outrage done to the memory of the nakba – its continued suppression, the public denial, the indifference – is justifiably immense. This being a fictional account, it suits the author to interpret Palestinian solidarity with indiscriminate hostility towards Jewish and Israeli individuals. In doing so, he can implicitly dismiss its validity in relation to Israeli cultural and academic institutions – all of which have been proven to be complicit in the Occupation. With a final flourish, McEwan denounces the bigotry of the audience: “This was a postmodern crowd with well-developed antennae for the unacceptable line.”
Ian McEwan’s own antennae is evidently ‘undeveloped’ in regards to the Israeli military occupation. Defending his acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize to the British newspaper, The Guardian, he paints a picture of symmetric warfare between illegal Israeli settlers and Hamas rocket-launchers: “"I am not a supporter of the Israeli settler movement, nor of Hamas. I would align myself in the middle of a great many of my Israeli friends who despair that there will ever be peace while the settlements continue. I support the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's call for a freeze on the settlements. But I also have no time for Hamas lobbing missiles into Israel either." The ‘middle’ is despairing – alongside reasonable Israeli friends – at settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territory, whilst being comfortable with accepting ‘a highly distinguished award’ at a book fair in a city, the east of which has been illegally annexed by the Israeli State (not by some lone religious nutters). McEwan also told the Guardian: "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.” To make a well-worn point, in an apartheid state, civil society institutions – even for the arts – are gravely compromised by their government funding and links. And why does it not concern him that Israel is presently at war with the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem – routinely expelling them and demolishing their homes to make way for Jewish citizens? Perhaps Ian McEwan aligns himself more closely with the Israeli government, which, in violation of International Humanitarian Law, believes in collective punishment of the Palestinian people besieged in Gaza, and elsewhere. In 2008, he publically defended his friend the British novelist Martin Amis who said "the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order".
It is clear that what commentators such as Nick Cohen, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis fear (the latter is also on record for defending Israel with this old canard: “Amis attempted to rally with a quick point about Israel being surrounded by hostile countries”) is that the liberal, or ‘the postmodern’ crowd is increasingly convinced of the non-violent path of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This might be terribly inconvenient for literary luminaries like McEwan, but it is a matter of great urgency for the Palestinians who have entered their fifth decade under Israeli military occupation.