On Sunday, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood will accept the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University and her portion of the $1 million payout that goes with it. Meanwhile, a mere 40 miles away, students in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip will still be struggling to find the ways and means to continue their educations.
Atwood will be accepting her prize despite a worldwide call — initiated by the Palestinian Students Campaign for a Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PSACBI) — for her to turn down the award. The Canadian author, whose work often reflects issues of colonization, feminism, structures of political power and oppression, will be sharing the literary prize with Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose novels question the brutalities of colonial rule and post-colonial dispossession. Ghosh was also asked to turn down the prize, which he has declined to do.
Being an artist of conscience has been one of Atwood’s hallmark characteristics throughout her career. She supported the South African anti-Apartheid movement and, according to filmmaker John Greyson, was the first public figure to speak out in support of gay rights after police arrested 300 men in Toronto in 1981. The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said named her as an “oppositional intellectual.” That’s why her acceptance of the Dan David Prize is fraught with ironies, not least of which is the requirement that she donate 10 percent of the prize money back to support graduate students at Tel Aviv University, while Gaza’s students — just a short drive away — are enclosed in an open-air prison, unable to complete their studies.
“We have no fuel supply in Gaza for student transportation,” Ayah Abubasheer of PSCABI wrote in an email on 21 April. “There are no basic supplies or stationery for students in Gaza. Basic materials such as pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers and so on are not available. And, books? There are no books, research resources or any of the like in Gaza. Israel bombed the Islamic University’s labs and student residences during the [winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza].”
PSCABI is the student arm of the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel. Both groups belong to the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, started in Palestine in 2005. The group is comprised of students representing all Palestinian universities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and has alliances with Palestinian student groups at Israeli universities, Abubasheer said. This coalition of activists wrote an open letter to Atwood on 4 April, asking her to turn down the prize. The letter went “viral” and was soon posted on websites and blogs across the Internet. It also spawned other letters and action alerts, all with the aim of persuading Atwood to stand in solidarity with Gaza’s students.
Atwood admitted via email she was aware of the open letter, but said she did not receive it personally. She did not respond to the students in Gaza, but she did reply to Antoine Raffoul, a Palestinian architect living in London who is the founder of the organization 1948: Lest We Forget.
Cultural boycotts equal censorship, Atwood said. In addition, the Dan David Prize is a cultural event, funded by an individual, she said. “To boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it — a view I strongly reject.”
Atwood also said via email that she is the international vice president of the literary organization PEN, which advocates for writers who are persecuted or imprisoned because of their work. As such, she is not allowed to participate in cultural boycotts, she said.
Dan David and Tel Aviv University
Dan David, 80, was born and raised in communist Romania. He joined the Zionist youth movement and helped organize aliyah or Zionist emigration to Israel, according to a 13 November 2007 article published by the Israeli daily Haaretz. David, who made his fortune in instant photo booths, used $100 million of his own money to found the Dan David Foundation, which administers the Dan David Prize. He also sits on the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University (TAU), which is at the center of Israel’s military-industrial complex.
Today, some 64 research projects in defense or national security are being funded by Israeli and US defense agencies on the TAU campus. “TAU is playing a major role in enhancing Israel’s security capabilities and military edge,” reads the introduction to an article entitled “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy” in the Tel Aviv University Review, Winter 2008/09 issue.
“‘People are just not aware of how important university research is in general, and how much TAU contributes to Israel’s security in particular,’ says TAU President Zvi Galil in the article.
One project currently underway explores how to turn birds into weapons because they are relatively “unobtrusive,” especially when compared to the much larger unmanned drones, according to the article.
Antoine Raffoul said that the Dan David Prize cannot be divorced from Israel. “Its institutions, whether cultural, educational, industrial, scientific, judicial, agricultural or military, are part and parcel of the political institution of the state … working hand in hand to enforce the policies of an illegal occupation of Palestinian land,” he said.
TAU was built upon the remains of a Palestinian village depopulated and destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. “By accepting the prize at Tel Aviv University, you will be indirectly giving a slight and inadvertent nod to Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This university has refused to commemorate the destroyed Palestinian village on which it was built. That village is called Sheikh Muwanis, and it no longer exists as a result of Israel’s confiscation. Its people have been expelled,” the Gaza students wrote in their open letter.
Upholding the rights and voices of the persecuted
During an acceptance speech for the American PEN Literary Service Award in New York City in April, Atwood said oppressors share a commonality. “They wish to silence the human voice, or all human voices that do not sing their songs. They wish to indulge their sense of power, which is best done by grinding underfoot those who cannot retaliate.”
Gaza’s students are disappointed with Atwood’s decision to accept the Dan David Prize, Abubasheer said. “We are deeply wounded by her decision. Students here have been asking about the sincerity of her novels and wonder whether she will reconsider her decision to stand on the wrong side of history”
In the end, for Atwood, at least, it comes down to whether or not a cultural boycott is equivalent to censorship. But as filmmaker Cathy Gulkin said in an article posted on the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s website on 6 May, the two issues are distinct. Gulkin said that censorship is wielded by a force with the power to prevent a work from being presented, while a boycott asks artists to withdraw their work voluntarily. She participated in a boycott of the Tel Aviv International Film Festival last winter.
“Palestinian civil society has no power or will to silence or censor. They can only appeal to people of conscience … to support them in their struggle to achieve their human rights,” Gulkin wrote in her call to boycott last winter.
The Palestinian students and Raffoul point to a number of artists and authors, including Naomi Klein, Carlos Santana, Bono, Snoop Dog and Sting, who have heeded Palestinian civil society’s call for the boycott of Israel.
Raffoul even pointed to actor Marlon Brando, who rejected his Academy Award in 1973 to protest the US government’s treatment of Native Americans or the Beatles rejecting knighthoods in England.
“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,” Atwood wrote in her email to Raffoul.
“We are not asking for sympathy!” Abubasheer said. “We want solidarity. … You are either with justice or with injustice. There is no neutral zone.”
Abubasheer added: “Thus, we all have an individual moral responsibility to boycott. Boycott is inclusive and it brings people together, fighting for peace through justice and accountability, from the youngest to the oldest, from the four quarters of the world, anyone can boycott. After the wiping out of entire families in broad daylight, what else do some public intellectuals need to see in order to make a bold move?”
Raffoul contends that today no one — especially important cultural figures such as Atwood — can exist in a vacuum. “You can’t hide behind the cloak of literature,” he said. “We don’t live in a shell anymore. You cannot claim to be a humanitarian in any state and then … fly into a zone called Israel [that is] killing people and dehumanizing innocent people.”
Atwood said she plans to “observe” what she sees in Palestine and then write about it. She suggested this reporter hold off on writing this article until then.
But Abubasheer would not be comforted by this promise. Quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she said: “If you choose to be neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
She added: “The position taken by Ms. Atwood … is clear in the light of this statement.”
Kristin Szremski is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years in newspapers. She began her career in Warsaw, Poland, working on an English-language newspaper with members of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) union. Her work has appeared nationally and internationally. Szremski is currently a freelance journalist living outside Chicago.