Margaret Atwood’s response re: Dan David Prize
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 conditions become.
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 events.
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 being’s feeling-thought.
Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a cultural boycott. Even those strongly endorsing a financial boycott, such as www.artistespourlapaix.org, Artists For Peace, reject cultural boycotts, which they see as a form of censorship. (See their December 22 posting, in their Israel-Palestine file.) Indeed, 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.
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.org.uk “International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and to promote understanding among all countries.” (See U.S. PEN’s recent New York Tariq Ramadan Cooper Union event, for which they were attacked by extremists from all sides.) Moderates who want to promote dialogue always get hammered twice as much, as they get stones thrown at them from several directions at once.
In this situation, threats to open discussion come from both sides of the wall: consider this report from IFEX: http://www.ifex.org/israel/2004/07/28/israel_palestine_journalists_pressured/
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.org/index.php, which brings together projects spanning Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
See also this 350.org photo:
See also this Barn Owl Israel/Jordan/Palestine story:
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?