Novelists Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh accepted a prize at Tel Aviv University lately and issued a statement rejecting the calls on them not to do so, including from Palestinian students. At Pulse, Robin Yassin-Kassab goes after them. Ouch.
Not only did Atwood and Ghosh choose to accept the cash, they used the occasion to launch a diatribe against the BDS strategy. I didn’t want to publicise their screed by linking to it, but I will, because it makes our argument for us… Ghosh and Atwood imply that the boycott is self-righteous and propagandistic. On the other hand,
"the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates. … Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings. … Worldwide, novel-writing is under constant pressure, both from political groups who want to co-opt it, and from powerful governments who’d like to silence it. Around the world, novelists have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line. But they continue to write stories.”
The tone of wounded nobility intensifies:
"Writers have no armies. They have no militant wings. The list of persecuted writers is long, ancient, and international. We feel we must defend the diminishing open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible.”
…On the surface, to someone with little experience of life and of the abuses of language, the freedom rhetoric sounds admirable. But the assumptions on which the rhetoric rests are thoroughly dishonest. Who in Palestinian civil society or the international BDS movement is calling for an attack on ‘polyphony’ or pluralism? Surely the battle against Zionism and for civil rights is a battle on behalf of pluralism, for a plural Palestine-Israel built on equality. Does acting against the seige, the ethnic cleansing, the apartheid mean not seeing things through the eyes of those you disagree with? Atwood opposed South African apartheid – did this result in an inability and unwillingness to understand the fears and hopes of white South Africans? Would a boycott of Nazi Germany have signalled an unreasoning, narrow-minded hatred of Germans?
Or is it that certain racisms, certain colonial-settler projects, are more acceptable than others?
Appallingly, our two heroes associate themselves with writers who have been shot, imprisoned and exiled. In the context, this is analogous to Nixon identifying with a napalm victim. Have Ghosh-Atwood not heard of the millions of Palestinians in exile, in refugee camps, among them many writers?