Margaret Atwood and Her Prize
Margaret Atwood defends her acceptance of the Dan David Prize (in Israel) here:
and her text is given at the end of this page.
Here's my response to her response...
First, as a philosopher I must applaud Ms. Atwood's facility with fine distinctions. Heaven forfend that someone should describe the Dan David Prize as "from Tel Aviv University" when it is merely "endowed by the Dan David Foundation and headquartered at Tel Aviv University." (http://www.dandavid
She's not so great on consistency, though. First she says that she's been asked to "boycott this event", then that it would set a very dangerous precedent to "boycott an individual". [my italics] Well, no matter. Is the very dangerous precedent to "boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in"? That's unlikely. No one is suggesting, for instance, that we boycott Israeli Arabs, or Uri Avnery. The idea is to boycott a country because it kills and starves innocent people - not so dangerous a precedent, perhaps.
Well, again, no matter. "Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a cultural boycott." Why? Partly because some people have seen it "as a form of censorship". A couple of things. First, it's an odd form of censorship, given no one is being prevented from publishing or saying anything. Second, censorship may be the lesser evil compared to, oh, wimping out while Israel kills and starves innocent people.
But "such boycotts serve no good purpose if one of the hopes for the future is that peace and normal exchanges and even something resembling normal living conditions will be restored." I don't get this. It seems to say, if we stop normal exchanges now, we can't hope to have them later. Why? Is this what happened when there was a boycott against South Africa? How does not having an exchange now make future exchanges impossible or even more difficult?
We hear that PEN is "in favour of continuing dialogue that crosses all borders of all kinds." Well good for PEN. There's been an awful lot of dialogue in the 62 years since 1948, not to mention the 93 years since the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Oddly enough, Israel still starves and kills innocent Palestinians. It does so to maintain racially Jewish sovereignty over Palestine, despite a lot of dialogue about that. Good thing, then, that a cultural boycott will not prevent Israelis from stating whatever they like - though perhaps not wherever they like - and others from responding. That's dialogue, I think.
Admittedly it's tragic that Ms Atwood is "caught in a propaganda war between two desperate sides". I wonder who the war is between, because Israel manifests a vanishingly small measure of desperation. It's precisely because Israel is so obviously not desperate that it is disingenuous to hide behind even-handed platitudes like: "Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering." No, not everyone-in-
The Palestinians have given up most of Palestine to accept a two-state solution in which they will be left with a mere remnant of their own country. They have, at various times, renounced violence, only to find that this simply encouraged Israel to encroach even further on the Palestinians' bantustans. Israeli flexibility consists of moving its de facto annexations ever further across the 1967 Green Line. Moreover, the Palestinians are not simply fighting for land, much as they need it. They are fighting the abhorrent arrangement in which Jews, racially defined, hold the power of life and death over all others who live in the area under Israeli control. In this matter, Israel has never budged an inch.
In any case, by the end of Ms. Atwood's letter, we venture in to the land of "oh please". We are told that "If I can go to the Occupied Territories, I will. After that, I will write my own “Open Letter” – something that I would otherwise be unable to do. Groups opposing my going to Israel, and to the region, should bear that in mind." Actually, people have managed to go to the Occupied Territories and write open letters without accepting prizes from Tel Aviv (oops).
Not to worry. Ms. Atwood promises to alert us to the dangers of climate change in the region. I admit that her closing paragraphs render me speechless. I would have preferred to be told: "It's a million dollar prize! Are you out of your mind?"
Since I accepted the Dan David Prize and it has
been announced, I have received several letters from different groups
asking me to reverse my acceptance and boycott this event. For some
reason, Amitav Ghosh of India, with whom the prize is shared, does not
appear to be a target of this campaign. He and I have been chosen to
receive the Dan David Prize for our literary work—work that is said to
depict the twentieth century. In my case, women and the environment
also feature. Here is the citation:
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. Everyone in the world
hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible
positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work
out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering.
The world wants to see fair play and humane behaviour, and it wants
that more the longer the present situation continues and the worse the
As soon as I said that, in an earlier letter, I got
yelled at for saying there were two sides, but actually there are (or
possibly more than two). See:
I certainly have no power to influence these
However, the Dan David Prize is a cultural item It
is not, as has been erroneously stated, an “Israeli” prize from the
State of Israel, nor is it a prize “from Tel Aviv University,” but one
founded and funded by an individual and his foundation, just as the
Griffin Prizes in Canada are. To boycott an individual simply because
of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent.
And 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,
just as I reject the view that any book written by a woman is produced
by some homogeneous substance called “women.” Books are written by
individuals. Novels are the closest we can come to experiencing human
lives in particular places as they unfold in time and space, and lyric
poems are the closest we can come to co-experiencing another human
Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a
cultural boycott. Even those strongly endorsing a financial boycott,
such as www.artistespourlap
PEN International, an organization of which I am a
Vice President, is in favour of continuing dialogue that crosses
borders of all kinds. www.internationalpen.
In this situation, threats to open discussion come
from both sides of the wall: consider this report from IFEX: http://www.ifex.
I realize that I am caught in a propaganda war
between two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict. I also
realize that, no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree
with my decision and attack me for it. That being the case, I have
chosen to visit, to speak with a variety of people, and – as much as is
possible -- to see for myself, as I have done in other times and other
countries many times before, including several behind the Iron Curtain
and Iran and Afghanistan.
If I can go to the Occupied Territories, I will.
After that, I will write my own “Open Letter” – something that I would
otherwise be unable to do. Groups opposing my going to Israel, and to
the region, should bear that in mind.
In that letter, I am very likely to call attention
to a hard truth about the whole region: it is extremely vulnerable to
climate change. The Dead Sea is evaporating rapidly, and heat is
increasing. Unless some immediate and shared thought and work is done
soon, there will not be a Middle East to dispute about, because no one
can live there anyway. See the exemplary work being done by Friends of
the Earth Middle East, http://www.foeme.
See also this 350.org photo:
See also this Barn Owl Israel/Jordan/
These initiatives are examples of how people can
live together and work together for desirable common ends. And how –
increasingly, around the world – we will have to. Nature recognizes no
national borders, and does not negotiate. If the world were a
basketball, the biosphere would be a coat of varnish. Our ability to
remain alive depends on that thin skin. At my age, I am devoting much
of my increasingly limited energies to the cause of bio-viability – the
ability of life to continue living on this planet.
Finally, I believe that those behind the choice for
the Dan David Prize acted awarely, and that they fully intend to hear
something about colonialism, unequal power, and in my case the
subjugation of women and the perils facing us because of environmental
degradation. Otherwise, why would they have invited me?