Novelist Margaret Atwood’s decision to travel to Tel Aviv to share a literary prize worth a million dollars has ignited a controversy in which the septuagenarian author and vice-president of the literary human rights organization PEN International has come under fire by Palestinian rights activists. Ms Atwood’s acceptance of the Dan David Prize, whose previous laureates include Al Gore and Tony Blair, is viewed by Ms Atwood’s critics as a betrayal to the ideals she supposedly represents, and an unwitting endorsement of Israel’s race exclusive policies.
The Canadian author’s insistence that refusing the blood-spattered trophy would be tantamount to “censorship” rings as false as her commitments to justice as an anti-apartheid activist, and as a writer who has made tyranny and oppression recurring themes in her novels, elevating her from fiction writer to public intellectual. “False” because “justice for some” is hardly an ethical stance with any merit, and certainly not one that will maintain her status as an “oppositional intellectual”. Sadly, this “intellectual” has made no effort to research the subject of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its unyielding, systematic oppression of the Palestinian people (as many Jewish and Israeli scholars and activists themselves have bravely condemned). Otherwise, she would use the occasion of the invitation to denounce an increasingly murderous regime and call upon its people to support sanctions, boycotts and divestments until their government accepted the rule of International law and reversed its policy of displacement and expulsion of Arab people from their ancestral lands. Instead the once outspoken author has chosen to put monetary interests ahead of the principled moral stances she has taken in the past, in order to lay claim to a tainted prize given each year to fame-hungry “artists” looking to boost sagging sales of their product while making all the appropriate noises to the press about free speech.
Ms Atwood’s blandly centrist posturing is symptomatic of a malady particular to the cosseted and fossilized members of a wealthy nation’s cultural elite, for whom “free speech” is a largely unexamined term that by default, advocates the right of establishment opinion makers laboring for the warlord and robber baron class to set the agenda of public discourse. Thus the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate behind South Park and its wealthy creators are portrayed as underdog champions of free speech, bravely confronting an encroaching Islamic Goliath, just as the Canadian author’s flaccid, self-serving justifications for fence-sitting is spun into a battle against “censorship”. It’s hard to pinpoint Ms Atwood’s definition of the word “censorship” unless it means, “Can I just enjoy my windfall without having to listen to a howling mob of Debby Downers”?
On the surface, Ms Atwood’s Tel Aviv itinerary seems a worthy endeavor undertaken by an energetic senior citizen who has put aside her basket of knitting to embark on a fact finding mission devoted to sniffing out the roots of a decades-long conflict, while indulging her recent interest in issues related to water scarcity. How she will gather facts on the ground from a plush Tel Aviv hotel suite surrounded by her sycophantic handlers remains to be seen. Her new friends in Tel Aviv will likely remind her that “Jews made the desert bloom”, omitting the part about how Israel diverts water supplies from the Palestinians to nourish the soil beneath its illegal settlements. Unlike Ms Atwood, I am no poet. However, I can’t help but indulge the thought that so much spilled blood must have had a hand in making Israel’s ill-gained desert outposts a shimmering oasis of well-watered lawns, swimming pools and flower beds on one side, and a parched, barren human cattle pen on the other.
Last year Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami defended his decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize in a rambling, incoherent public statement to his detractors that ultimately demonstrated his worthiness to be be recipient to this dubious honor. As this year’s winner of the Dan David Prize, Ms Atwood is Israel’s most recent stooge-laureate of a cynically motivated, prize-giving institution that lures artists from overseas to be unwitting apologists for its government’s long standing system of ethnic cleansing. Sadly, Ms Atwood has fallen into the same trap, and like her Japanese prize-coveting counterpart, has released a factually deficient statement accusing her critics of being intolerant, politically motivated advocates of censorship, while she, the feisty Grande Dame of capital ‘L’ literature rises above her host nation’s open-air prisons where the view on the ground reveals deficiencies on both sides of the conflict. Something tells me the feminist author would take a less even-handed approach to the subject of domestic violence.
It’s from this lofty perch that Ms Atwood declares herself an ‘artist’ (emphasis on the last syllable) and more importantly, an “individual”. Unlike her more earthbound detractors, this ethereal entity insists, by virtue of her divinely held privileges, that she is a “neutral observer”, and as such, more intellectually equipped to grasp the situation on the ground, while hovering celestially above the rest of humanity. She might want to consider the possibility that those pretty cloud-like bursts of white phosphorous dumped on civilians fleeing from relentless ground and air assaults are anything but neutral – as are the well-heeled and carefully vetted representatives of Tel Aviv’s cultural elite with whom she will have lively discussions over tea and crumpets about scarce water resources, global warming and the burdens of being the Mid-East’s only “democracy” (sic). Throw in a Palestinian bird enthusiast and score valuable PR points for demonstrating your nation’s “diversity”. (“See? We don’t discriminate against our non-Jewish (non) citizens. We grant special privileges to a handful of them, allow them access to water, even sparing them the cattle prods when they wander without permits into our cocktail parties”.) While ‘bird enthusiasm’ is a noble and worthy career choice, you have to wonder why Palestinians engaged in fields closer to Atwood’s own were not on the guest list. Maybe it’s because (as the Open Letter from Gaza students states):
In the Gaza concentration camp, students who have been awarded scholarships to universities abroad are prevented every year from pursuing their hard-earned opportunity for academic achievement. Within the Gaza Strip, those seeking an education are limited by increasing poverty rates and a scarcity of fuel for transportation, both of which are direct results of Israel’s medieval siege. What is Tel Aviv University’s position vis-a-vis this form of illegal collective punishment, described by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as a “prelude to genocide?” Not a single word of condemnation has been heard from any Israeli academic institution!
Ms Atwood, whose scholarly credentials on the subject of conflict in the Middle East has so far been limited to glancing at the op-ed columns in her daily newspaper, repeats the same half-truths, obfuscations and outright lies that are routinely and mechanically recited in the establishment media – namely, that the crisis currently playing out in the Middle East is the result of two warring powers of roughly equal stature, stubbornly rejecting compromise.
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 conditions become.
According to this cursory, lackluster analysis, the people imprisoned within the occupied territories have had a hand in creating the intolerable conditions they live under despite the fact their free and fair elections have been overturned by Israeli authorities, their leaders routinely imprisoned or targeted for assassination, or installed as paid stooges to carry out Israel’s security operations. By Ms Atwood’s lazy reckoning, the Palestinians themselves are somehow complicit in their own misery. Never mind that one side has no military, no air defenses, only limited and largely illusory political autonomy, and whose already scant institutions and infrastructure lie in a still smoldering pile of rubble. Meanwhile this deliberately starved population only survives on the meager, “diet”-inducing rations their Israeli occupiers call “humanitarian assistance”. Inflexible indeed. Israel’s long standing commitment to derailing every attempt to negotiate a peace settlement by refusing to halt or dismantle settlements is yet another inconvenient fact Ms Atwood prefers to overlook in a statement that reads more like a hastily signed condolence card than confirmation of a principled, well-reasoned stance.
Ms Atwood’s powers of keen and relentlessly fine-tuned observations – the hallmark of her deservedly lauded fiction – are nowhere in evidence outside the rarefied air of her novel writing efforts. When it comes to facts (Israel is guilty of war crimes and is in violation of countless UN resolutions, not to mention its Apartheid style of governance that grants democracy for a few and apartheid for the many) the Canadian novelist has a tin ear, playing mostly deaf to the chorus of condemnation that has dogged her since accepting the prize. Antoine Raffoul, a London based architect and founder of ’1948: Lest We Forget’ – a Palestinian rights organization publicly addressed her (and co-laureate Amitov Ghosh) in an open letter, politely pleading the case that their presence in Tel Aviv was in opposition to the values that the two authors presumably uphold as human rights advocates.
“We writers belong to a space one can call ‘Republic of writers’ and do not do cultural boycotts,” Atwood sniffed in response, conveniently overlooking her support of sanctions and cultural boycotts of Apartheid-era South Africa.
More recently, the author pulled out of the fledgling Emirates Airline international festival of literature to protest the organizers’ decision to withdraw their invitation to an author whose book was considered too controversial. Curiously, the free speech advocate couldn’t spare a similar show of solidarity with the blacklisted Palestinian writers she is unlikely to meet in Israel.
According to Atwood, “writers” are members of that elite, oft-awarded coterie of establishment liberals who lend their support to fashionable causes while attending cocktail receptions in their honor; a term that in other words doesn’t apply to rabble like Mr Raffoul, or the group of Palestinian students whose passionately articulated open letter to the author was greeted with a dismissive acknowledgment of having received it. Not surprisingly, The Republic of Writers, like its warm ally Israel, doesn’t grant citizenship to its Palestinian members, or anyone outside the highly fortified, well-appointed compound where Queen Margaret reigns as self-crowned head of state.
The prickly monarch goes on to dismiss criticism of her decision to accept half of a million dollar prize from a foundation run by a photo booth tycoon with ties to Zionist organizations. Dan David, the billionaire philanthropist for whom the prize is named, was overruled by his foundation’s board of trustees when early on in his philanthropic career he nominated Muslim-bashing Italian xenophobe Oriana Fallaci a prize for journalism. Clearly, the choice of Margaret Atwood as blood money beneficiary for her “moderate” (but no less ideological) brand of selective advocacy for human rights is meant to thwart unwanted scrutiny on this generous endowment at the hands of a right wing entrepreneur who conceals his zealotry behind a blandly institutional cloak of high culture. Mr David’s critics allege the tycoon is aiding and abetting his government’s propaganda efforts by dipping into his own personal slush fund to launch a charm offensive aimed at silencing Israel’s critics.
Ms Atwood’s disingenuous claims that the prize is “is a cultural event” and 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” proves she is either woefully unskilled at using a search engine, or that she has deliberately overlooked her billionaire benefactor’s unsavory, or at least questionable business and political ties in order to claim a cash prize. With its lucrative ties to the Israeli defense industry, Tel Aviv University is hardly a benign institution, nor one that is unaffiliated with Mr David’s philanthropic enterprises. Laureates are required to donate ten percent of their prize money to the university. Ms Atwood and her co-laureate Amitov Ghosh, whether they realize it or not, are not only aiding Israel’s propaganda efforts, but helping to directly fund its war machine.
It’s probably too late to hope that Ms Atwood’s atrophied powers of reasoning and compassion will compel her to recognize the ironies inherent in her host nation’s insistence that “Never Again” means business-as-usual when applying Nazi methodology to rid one’s country of a despised ethnic group. Based on her own reasoning, Ms Atwood might consider attending the next conference Iranian president Ahmadinejad hosts, where invited dignitaries debate the existence of the Holocaust. After all, how is this Iranian led peanut gallery aimed at burnishing its president’s standing among anti-US allies any different from the political stage craft Israel is orchestrating to shore up international support for its own beleaguered leadership? By her own admission, there is no topic off-limits to “dialogues across borders”, so why draw the line at holocaust denial? Or for that matter, Dubai book festivals?
Jennifer Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. This piece was contributed to PULSE by the author.