Authors Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh are well known for works centered around oppression and colonialism with an anti-war stance. Tel-Aviv University is one of the prime targets of the academic boycott, for its support and part in Israel’s violent occupation over the Palestinian people. The Dan David Prize is one of those high-profile awards (very similar to the Oscar or the Nobel) which makes celebrities out of artists, academics and and scientists, and kicks perceptions and economies out of whack, for the sake of prestige, in the name bettering the world, under a very capitalist premise. But most importantly, the Dan David Prize is co-sponsored by the Tel-Aviv University (which is of course funded by the government, as it should be) and the ceremony is attended by the president of Israel.
The First BDS Direct Action in Israel
Atwood and Ghosh accepted the prize and its one million dollars, in all its bloody glory, even though they were beseeched, time and time and time again, not to support apartheid. On May 11th they spoke at a symposium, following their acceptance of the prize and we, Israeli activists of BDS, were there to make sure our stance is clear:
As we reached the speaking hall, security was extremely tight and our initial action didn’t stand a chance, and as you can see, was immediately foiled. We had a plan B, however, to ask a question in the questions-and-answers part of the program, but were disappointed to learn that there won’t be one. Quickly improvising, we took our camera and I introduced myself as an independent journalist. As seen in the video, even though Ghosh wanted to talk with us, the university wasn’t interested in free speech.
But unlike what Ghosh believes, it’s not only the institution that doesn’t agree with his anti-colonial views, it’s also his readers. As we tried to hand out flyers of the letters written to Ghosh and Atwood by Gazan students and other academics and groups, the majority of them were angrily given back to us. No one wants to know about dead Palestinians, especially not in what was ironically characterized by one of the angry students as the “stronghold of the left”.
On Ethical Dilemmas
The BDS movement has acquired a very careful nature. Each event, company and product are widely debated, before a very thoughtful letter is constructed by large number of people. Amitav Ghosh struck me as a thoughtful person, though the last question in the interview revealed he’s not well informed about the terms of the boycott and advocates an on-the-fence point of view, that’s driven by his lack of information. I’d like to address his answers to our interview in more detail, as the creation of a body of knowledge is imperative to furthering the cause.
I feel that my sense of solidarity has to be also with my readers. And I do believe that my readers are the people in Israel who would be completely opposed to the things that I oppose…Opposed to the occupation, opposed to the sorts of the terrible violence that we’ve seen in Gaza…
I’ve talked about this above, but I’d like to stress some facts: The people in Israel who are completely opposed to the occupation, opposed to the sorts of the terrible violence that we’ve seen in Gaza, are the BDS movement in Israel. Cast Lead (a.k.a “The Gaza Massacre”) was widely supported from right to left in Israel (excluding the so-called “extreme left”), and quite frankly, the voices of the self-proclaimed leftists of Israel run between nationalistic and patriotic. The differences- as you can guess- are nuanced.
… for me to say that I will not speak to these readers. That I will not speak to this section of the population… I feel that these are the people that I would want to keep my lines of communication open.
Once again, the mistake of understanding BDS as severance of ties, rears it’s ugly head. When asked not to accept the prize/preform in Israel/do a book tour, there are communicative alternatives, that can be easily met, just shoot an email to the Global BDS Movement and ask. In Ghosh and Atwood’s case, they could have declined the one million and written/shot a video/organized a press conference and communicated their message. They could have answered letters of their Israeli readers, instead of wasting their time making unethical excuses to the BDS movement. They could have come here to alternative venues and spoken out against apartheid, as Naomi Klein did. And if all that wouldn’t have felt like communication, the two authors could have written a book.
As for the boycott… I think a boycott makes sense in as much as it applies… to, for example, produce from the settlements. I think, if there was a possibility that there would be an economic boycott- that again- might be a useful weapon. But it seems to me that when the boycott becomes primarily cultural, because that is what it is at the moment… It seems to be the economic relations with India and Israel are growing by leaps and bounds… [snickering me: “Well of course. There’s the arms industry.”].. There’s the arms industry, the security industry, agriculture… So, those are growing by leaps and bounds. So if that is the issue, then what should happen, is that within India, a campaign should be mounted to, as it were, to de-recognize Israel. Or to sever diplomatic relations. I don’t think such a motion would pass, but if people feel strongly about it, that is what needs to be discussed. But to say that we will continue the security relationships, while severing the cultural relationships, seems to me to… Just coming at it from the wrong end.
There are two points here:
1. Ghosh doesn’t seem to distinguish between government action and popular action. While it would be powerful to sever arms industry and “security” ties, this isn’t something the people of India can do directly- they can only demand it of their government. An academic, or cultural boycott is in the hands of the people: I, as a Ghosh reader, can ask him not to come to my colonialist entity of a state, and he, as a writer of conscious can say “I respect your request.” I’d also like to stress that economic pressure is building, as the movement targets big business, such as Ahava and Lev Levaiev (not only settlement related, but highly responsible for the whitewashing of Israel’s war crimes). The BDS movement is comprehensive, hence Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Some of the actions are more visible than others- obviously the ones including celebrities take the lead.
2. Another point that is missed is the fact that Ghosh is actually not part of the cultural category of the boycott, but part of the academic one. We, the Israeli BDS activists, aren’t boycotting Ghosh, but asking him to boycott a university.
At this point Ghosh begins to address ethical issues in a philosophical manner. I think all of us can relate to these types of “wrong vs. right” questions, but in my view, the relativism Ghosh applies here, is immoral and in practice, endangering people’s lives:
I think sanity in the modern world depends on being able to make minor distinctions… Suppose my own country, India, is embroiled in some terrible conflicts, you know, really destructive conflicts. Just as- in their own way- destructive as the conflicts in Israel. Now, what is my duty in relation to my own country? That is what this issue raises to me, most of all. What is my own duty to my own country? And if I ask myself that… I’m still being given prizes by foundations. I’m constantly going to talk to universities. Everything that you said about this university here, applies to other universities in India just as much. I’m constantly being invited to American universities. My daughter studies in an American university. To my mind, the responsibility of American universities is much greater than the responsibility even of these universities. It’s clear and straightforward that so much of the problem in Israel actually comes from America. So just in a sense of a basic ethical sense, it seems to me that… Where do I point my finger first?
I understand Ghosh’s confusion and frustration. I myself can’t begin to battle all the wrongs I see. As a fellow concerned citizen I can only suggest making the connections. Oppression is oppression is oppression, right?
The boycott movement doesn’t hide the connection between Israel and the US. On the contrary, it makes it a point to make the connections clear. BDS is not a strategy, it’s a tactic. Of course the USA is responsible for everything that goes on here, but then, so is the EU governments and the UN assembly. At such a low point in world history (which has been going on for far too long), in which power structures reign supreme, we can only crash the parent-teacher meeting and ask that Daddy USA take responsibility for its bully of a child. In such relations the parent can only be reprimanded, while the child will be punished. (Let’s hope a more egalitarian system evolves out of such dramatic revolutions.)
As for the question of “what is my duty in relation to my own country?”, ignoring the national-centered character of this question, I suggest Ghosh apply his own suggestion of mounting a civil campaign to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, if that’s what it takes.
This prize actually comes from a foundation, which is set up by a man which has nothing to do with armaments.
As I stated before, but I’d like to mention again, because both Atwood and Ghosh have convinced themselves that the prize-money is clean: The prize is endorsed partially by the Tel-Aviv University.
And back to more philosophical questions:
What is our relationship to learning? Are we saying that learning and literature, that they are always and in every circumstance complicit only with horror and violence? Or is there an aspect of learning and literature that can also be redemptive?
We can only ask that Ghosh not twist our words and confuse the different issues. His literature is indeed redemptive, but his actions, in complete contradiction, are not only complicit with horror and violence, but he profits off of it.
When coming here I got a lot of letters, pointing out the things that you’re pointing to. But I also got letters from my readers here. One reader from Jerusalem said “Your book, Shadow Lines… I’m an observant jew and I read it years and years ago. It completely made me rethink my life, my commitments. And I now go to demonstrate every week in East Jerusalem.” What do I say to that reader? That I wont speak to him? You’re not worthy to be spoken to?
Once again, it’s all flattened to two shades: black and white. I myself have been “converted” by the influence of writers. I believe that communication is still possible in this case, not to mention the communication of the very important message that this revered author has a clear and consistent stance on occupation and oppression. Here’s a possibility:
Dear Reformed Observant Jew,
I’m touched and proud that my work would inspire compassion and responsibility within you. I’d like to keep inspiring your social consciousness and as such, I can’t consistently accept a prize from a university complicit in war crimes, in order to delight and entertain my readers for a short hour, while people are dying. One has to come at the expense of the other, and unfortunately, in light of the grimness of the situation, I have no alternative, but to listen to my conscious and choose the helpless over my privileged readers, at this time. I hope you understand and join me in solidarity with the Palestinians under occupation of 63 years and constant colonization by your government.
Yours in humble respect,
To a university professor, to a university student, maybe their view of the world is that you make one big gesture and that served your purpose. To me, it isn’t that. I’m a writer, I’m a novelist, I’m committed to nuance. I cannot let somebody else use my name and refuse my voice. And my voice is a voice with which I speak with nuance. I try to make those discriminations of who I speak to and who I don’t.
Being a popular movement, we can’t and aren’t interested in forcing anyone to bend to our notions. We can only ask for their voice to join the collective roar for justice. I hope very much that university professors and student are also committed to nuance, I believe the BDS movement is, and I hope I’ve managed to represent it well.
Margaret was able to go. She met with a Palestinian writer and he said to her, the boycott is one of those many things, in which Palestinians do not speak with one voice. Palestinians, like Israelis, Like Indians are divided people. People have different ideas and opinions.
This may be a good time to mention that Margaret Atwood was sitting next to Ghosh the whole time and it didn’t occur to her, amidst book signing, to intervene, even when her name was brought up. I don’t know the name of the writer she had spoken to, or the context in which these words, or words similar to this, were said, so I can’t comment. I will say this: There are 106 Palestinian unions, associations and campaigns signed on to the call for boycott. Among them Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees; Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions; Palestinian NGO Network, West Bank; Teachers‘ Federation; Palestinian Writers‘ Federation; Palestinian League of Artists; Palestinian Journalists‘ Federation; General Union of Palestinian Women; Palestinian Lawyers‘ Association; and tens of other Palestinian federations, associations, and civil society organizations, but Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh conveniently align with the one Palestinian that told them otherwise.
With every time that I take upon myself the challenge of thinking about BDS, I come to a clearer conclusion that there should be no negotiation with oppression. I speak only for myself and not for the BDS movement when I say that if I’m to be ousted as a radical, for believing that true equality comes first, and that this equality includes the right to life and dignity; Then I’m a proud radical. We can’t afford to stand on the sidelines, watch people burn, and say “there are two sides to every story.” People shouldn’t burn. That’s the premise. We all must stand up and say “no”. If we accept one act of violence, we’re on the slippery slope to accepting money stained with blood. It’s our moral duty to disrupt the immoral order.