It’s healthy that a major literary figure is made to consider his involvement in an Israeli event. Visiting the Zionist state isn’t simply just another place; it’s a nation that is institutionally desperate not to talk about its occupation:
Ian McEwan has replied to pro-Palestinian writers who have accused him of accepting the “corrupt and cynical” Jerusalem prize for literature by insisting on his right to engage in dialogue with Israelis across the region’s political divide.
The novelist has said he will accept the prize – awarded to authors for their exploration of individual freedom in society – at next month’s Jerusalem book fair, as it is a literary, and not a political award and has said that he opposes both illegal Israeli settlements and Hamas terrorism.
In a letter to the Guardian on Monday, 20 signatories from a group called British Writers in Support of Palestine, including the novelist and critic John Berger and poets Naomi Foyle and Judith Kazantzis, urged him to boycott the award as they see it as “a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state”, adding: “McEwan believes that the Jerusalem book fair which awards the prize represents a blameless civil society. In fact [it] is organised by the … municipality, a key institution of the Israeli state and a major instrument in the illegal colonisation of East Jerusalem”.
In his response, published in tomorrow’s paper, McEwan, author of books including Atonement and Enduring Love, says: “You and I disagree on what one should do. I’m for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.
“There are ways in which art can have a longer reach than politics and for me the emblem in this respect is Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra [a collection of musicians from across the Middle East] – surely a beam of hope in a dark landscape, though denigrated by the Israeli religious right and Hamas. If your organisation is against this particular project, then clearly we have nothing more to say to each other.”
He added: “As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir – I hope you will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as you do yourselves. Your ‘line’ is not the only one. Courtesy obliges you to respect my decision, as I would yours to stay away.”