I am late with this but wanted to say something about Ian McEwan’s Jerusalem Prize award. Shortly after his Israel honour was announced, the Guardian published two open letters of clichéd and sanctimonious condemnation from a group calling itself ‘BWISP’ – British Writers In Support of Palestine. It sounds like the kind of comedy political acronym a novelist or sitcom writer would dream up on a slow day.
In its letters BWISP compared the multicultural democracy to apartheid South Africa and recommended that Ian McEwan not accept the prize. In a further Guardian piece McEwan responded to the letters, and in his Jerusalem speech the novelist agreed with BWISP that he ‘couldn’t escape the politics of my decision’.
He went on to deal with the politics:
Hamas whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories. When the distinguished judges of this prize commend me for my ‘love of people and concern for their right to self-realisation’, they seem to be demanding that I mention, and I must oblige, the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called ‘facts on the ground’ are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation.
Not good enough. The Guardian then published a third BWISP letter complaining that McEwan had ‘massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group.’ So what, exactly, is the problem? ‘To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them appears rank hypocrisy… We, British, Israeli and Palestinian members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, are appalled by his conduct.’ Harrrumph!
I did get involved in something of a heated Facebook debate with a signatory to this letter. Before relations completely broke down this signatory told me that McEwan had ‘expressed a desire for dialogue and to meet with us to discuss the prize further’. And yet the third letter says that the novelist ‘has ignored all public and private requests to continue this debate. So much for courtesy, dialogue and engagement.’ Many people in McEwan’s position would have told the signatories, clearly and concisely, exactly what they could do with their boycotts, divestments and sanctions. McEwan has engaged. Short of pissing on the Star of David, there is nothing more he can do to satisfy his critics.
You could ask whether Israel is really like apartheid SA, or if sanctions could really help the Palestinians when they proved disastrous in places like Iraq, and when blockades of food and supplies are so much of Gaza’s problem in the first place. Like Umberto Eco, you could challenge the racist equation of every last Israeli citizen with the Israeli government, no matter what they think of its crimes.
But instead you find yourself wondering: who the fuck do these people think they are? The Jerusalem Prize was accepted by Simone de Beauvoir, Nadine Gordimer, Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller. Who are they though compared with the literary powerhouse that is, er, Tom Vowler? What is their humanity and moral judgement compared to his?
It’s been pointed out that the liberal-creative obsession with Israel looks parochial and absurd against the backdrop of dictatorship after dictatorship being overthrown by democratic and secular Arab citizens, few of whom were shouting Free Palestine slogans. As the novelist Linda Grant pointed out: ‘Was told the root cause of all problems in Arab world was Israel/Palestine conflict. Turns out it was poverty, inequality and dictatorship.’ The absurdity and parochialism is exemplified by the BWISP group of untalented and ignored writers, who think they have the authority to tell talented and established writers who they may and may not talk to.
I would recommend, again, reading McEwan’s speech in full:
There are some similarities between a novel and a city. A novel, of course, is not merely a book, a physical object of pages and covers, but a particular kind of mental space, a place of exploration, of investigation into human nature. Likewise, a city is not only an agglomeration of buildings and streets. It is also a mental space, a field of dreams and contention. Within both entities, people, individuals, imaginary or real, struggle for their ‘right to self-realisation’. Let me repeat — the novel as a literary form was born out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, Israeli or Palestinian, or from any other background, whose mind the novel cannot lovingly reconstruct.