Nilanjana Roy, at Akhond of Swat, has done a pretty thorough round-up of the recent controversy surrounding Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood’s decision to accept a prestigious Israeli literary prize, and I won’t rehash it all here. Ghosh and Atwood were offered the Dan David Prize this spring, and were urged to refuse to accept it by pro-Palestinian groups, including a significant number of academics from the Indian left (based both in India and in western universities).
I just wanted to put in my own two-cents’ worth: I support the decision made by Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to accept the prize. In contrast to many of my colleagues who signed the recent open letter to Ghosh, I do not think there was anything to be gained by boycotting a cultural prize given by an institution outside of the Israeli government. Far better to stay, to continue to engage, and to dissent where necessary.
A viable argument against “cultural” boycotts is that they simply don’t do anything, though defenders of the practice might say that the symbolic value and media coverage is worth it. (Note that I’m not talking about economic boycotts, which may be more effective.) Ghosh himself points out that in writing In an Antique Land, he worked with Israeli as well as Arab academics to learn the written language (Judeo-Arabic) used by Abraham Ben-Yiju; a boycott would have made that project impossible. Similarly, this kind of cultural boycott would also lead us to be unable to engage with dissenting Israeli cultural expression, such as the recent film Waltz With Bashir.
But for me the most compelling argument against this way of reacting to Israeli cultural institutions is that, as bad as things are for the Palestinians, what the U.S. itself has engaged in over the past decade — especially the debacle of an unjustifiable and badly executed war in Iraq — is far worse. By any reasonable standard, if we’re boycotting Israel, we should be boycotting ourselves! (And similar kind of accusations could be made against India or Pakistan, for any number of reasons.) In short, this kind of thing doesn’t get us anywhere. Structurally, if we pay taxes and receive benefits from a government, we are all “complicit” in what that government does. Ghosh and Atwood expressed their dissenting views with the current situation in Israel in their acceptance speech on May 9. Here is an excerpt from the speech:
MARGARET: Propaganda deals in absolutes: in Yes and No. But 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.
AMITAV: 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.
Yes. Later they went on to acknowledge the untenable treatment of the Palestinians, and express support for the current round of talks led by George Mitchell. Isn’t it more effective to go to Tel Aviv and talk about the “unequal, unjust, and harsh and dangerous conditions of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories,” than it would be to stay home in Park Slope, and write articles denouncing Israel for Counterpunch?
Ghosh explains his attitude towards the disinvestment movement on Margaret Atwood’s blog in a longer statement, here. There is also a discussion of Ghosh’s approach at Kafila, here, with most voices coming out against Ghosh. And here is a little coverage of the acceptance speech in Tel Aviv from Rediff.