Amitav Ghosh’s Reply to Letter of May 7

May 14, 2010

Dear Signatories to the letter of May 7:

I am sorry I have been slow to respond to your letter expressing disappointment in my decision to to accept the Dan David prize. I will attempt to do so now.

You begin by describing my work as dwelling ‘consistently on histories of colonialism and displacement’. I am dismayed that my work should be reduced to this simple formula. My work is about people who find themselves in many different kinds of predicament, historical and contemporary, and anyone who is familiar with my books will know that my most important characters are never those who see things in black and white; nor do they resort to easy judgements. In my view all important ethical and political judgements are difficult; what is more they are always specific to the situation at hand. If this were not the case then every situation would be reducible to a few simple formulae and novelists and poets would be out of work.

I would like to mention here my book In An Antique Land which is partly about my time in Egypt, and partly about the life of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish trader who came to live in India in the 12th century. To write this book I had to learn an obscure and now extinct language called Judaeo-Arabic, which was the language of Ben Yiju’s correspondence: it is basically a variant of colloquial Arabic written in the Hebrew script. I could not have written this book without the help and support of both Arab and Israeli scholars, and it has always been a source of pride to me that this is one of the few works to be well received on both sides of the divide. At its heart this book is an attempt to inhabit the dangerous, mine-strewn space that links Jews and Arabs to each other and to India: I cannot and will not renounce this project.

I would like to pause here to say that I understand very well the wider context of your letter: many of you are engaged in a difficult struggle over the issue of divestment in Israel. I do not by any means oppose this effort. You are certainly right to point out that dissent on issues relating to the Middle East has been too easily suppressed in America. I know all too well that through the long dark night of the Bush years many dissenting voices were sidelined and marginalized: for many who felt disempowered at that time this movement has become a means of regaining a sense of relevance and citizenship.

Furthermore I feel that the disinvestment movement does indeed serve a purpose, even when it fails to achieve its immediate end. Having been engaged with Middle Eastern issues for thirty years I have come to be convinced that the answers to many of the region’s problems lie not there but in the United States: in this sense changing American minds must be a crucial component of any solution. At the very least, the disinvestment movement will serve the purpose of bringing these long-suppressed issues out into the open where they can be freely discussed – this is of no small significance whether or not the resolutions actually pass (I would like to add an important caveat to this but I will come to that later).

There is a great difference however in supporting a disinvestment motion and undertaking a gesture such as that which you enjoined upon me. A disinvestment motion has a specific significance and function; it can be imposed or witheld as circumstances demand, and in that sense it is an instrument of policy. What you – and many others who have written to me – were asking me to do was something else altogether: the gesture you were asking me to make was one that would have had the import of denying the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions and thus of Israel itself. As such it would have been completely contrary to my beliefs. Let me explain why.

Let us forget about history for a moment, because if it were possible to re-write history there would be much that we would want to change. Let us instead look at the Middle East today: Israel is country of seven million people; it is armed to the teeth and possesses nuclear weapons; many of its citizens have lived there for generations and have nowhere else to go; beyond a certain point, whether or not they have the support of America or anyone else, they will fight to the last. Let us look at these realities and ask ourselves: what is it that we really want for the people of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank? Do we want a bloodbath – an Armageddon of the kind that extremists on all sides (including some parts of the left) seem to be hoping for? Or do we want to prevail on all sides to reach some compromise that allows people to get on with their lives? Such a compromise would of course take the shape of a two-state solution in which Israel withdraws to some negotiated equivalent of its internationally recognized borders; where the dispossessed are paid compensation; the settlements are vacated; East Jerusalem is fully restored to the Palestinians; checkpoints are withdrawn; the siege of Gaza is lifted and both sides agree to a cessation of violence – and so on.

If it is Armageddon and an undoing of history that you want then clearly we have nothing to talk about. If it is the second option then I invite you to ask yourselves whether any compromise solution is possible without fully, completely and sincerely accepting the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

I had to ask myself these questions five years ago when I received a joint invitation from my Hebrew publishers and the literature department of Tel Aviv University. Then, as now, I was appalled by the violence unleashed on Palestinians by the Israeli security services (although I must add that I was also horrified by the wave of suicide bombings within Israel). I asked myself many of the questions that figure in your letter, and many others besides. For example: Could I allow my books to be sold to readers whom I would never agree to meet? If I did agree to meet my Israeli readers would it have to be outside an institutional context? And so on. It was in trying to think through these issues that I came to the realization that it is impossible to imagine a peaceful, non-catastrophic future for the Middle East without sincerely accepting the legitimacy of Israel; and if one accepts this then how can one deny the legitimacy of Israeli civil institutions, including universities? If one does deny this then what exactly has one accepted?

Of course an acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy does not imply an acceptance of all that it does (any more than in relation to India and the US): legitimacy, in this sense, is only a starting point, but an essential one.

I need hardly add that I am not alone in coming to these conclusions. India, for example, witheld full diplomatic recognition of Israel until 1992. Today most countries around the globe, including most Arab countries, have come to the conclusion that there can be no peaceful settlement in the Middle East without an acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy.

The issue then is not one of legitimacy but of changing and restraining Israeli actions and of producing a negotiated settlement. Divestment might well be an instrument that pushes Israel in that direction. But the gesture you wanted of me would have been aimed in a different direction: it would have been tantamount, as I have noted, to a denial of the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions, and thus also of the state itself. As I have said above, this would have been a direct contradiction of my beliefs.

Whether you yourselves accept the legitimacy of Israel I do not know, but I must say that the tenor and wording of your letter suggests that you do not. You point out for example that the President of Israel was meant to be present at the Dan David awards ceremony as though this were some sort of indictment of it. I am sure you know full well that in a parliamentary system the role of President is a symbolic one, embodying precisely the legitimacy of the state.

You try to make the case that the University of Tel Aviv is complicit with the state and that it accepts military funding etc. You do this knowing perfectly well that if this is true of Tel Aviv University, then it is also true of many Indian institutions (including certainly the Central Universities) and it is true of almost every university in America. Many of you seem to be from UC Berkeley: surely it is no secret to you that this institution’s existence is predicated on the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories? All of you are certainly aware that in America an enormous proportion of funding in the humanities comes from military sources; I am sure that many of you have accepted fellowships and funding that comes directly or indirectly from the US armed services. If you were to apply your canons of logic to yourselves would this not make many of you complicit in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (or for that matter in Kashmir and North-Eastern India)? Would it not then be incumbent upon you to resign your university jobs and fellowships – or at least to make gestures equivalent to that which you enjoined upon me?

I know you are all people of conscience and good intention so let me ask you this: what is the point of making generalizations that are so totalizing as to erase all possibility of nuance? Is teaching in a Californian university that is supported by weapons research really the same thing as torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Can’t you see that in this world sanity depends upon being able to perceive and make certain distinctions? If you cannot make these distinctions in relation to Israel how will you answer the people who say that all Palestinians are terrorists and all Gazans are suicide bombers?

Indeed, to me one of the most troubling aspects of your letter is precisely this insistence on seizing the rhetorical weapons of your adversaries. You say that the term ‘anti-semitism’ has been used repeatedly to stifle debate and close discussion. Of course this is true: I have seen this phrase being deployed against some of my own friends and the spectacle has disgusted me. But does this mean that you should similarly weaponize the term ‘apartheid’? Remember that apartheid was a system that identified itself by that name: this means that when used in other circumstances it is necessarily an analogy. A leftist friend of mine in Israel said to me recently that the cost of introducing this term into the debate is that it results in an argument over metaphors rather than substance. This plays right into the hands of those who defend the actions of the Israeli military, for it is in their interest to derail the argument. You say similarly that we should treat Israel as exceptional because of its own claims in this regard. But if you accept this premise then the debate will just go around and around on the matter of whether it is exceptionally malevolent or exceptionally deserving. It will be impossible to address the issues. And I need hardly point out that if you continue to uncritically accept the right-wing premises then you will quickly become a mirror-image of your adversary.

On the matter of cultural boycotts I have stated my views clearly and unequivocally. I do not believe in them and the single most important collective body of writers, PEN International, also opposes them. You say that in this instance ‘solidarity’ trumps all other considerations. This raises an important question: does my sympathy for someone else’s victimhood require me to subordinate my judgement to theirs, surrendering all my other beliefs and obligations? I cannot see that it does; in fact I cannot see how such a proposition could possibly be defended. Frankly my solidarity in this instance lies squarely with President Barack Obama, who represents, in my opinion, the single best hope for some kind of settlement in the Middle East.

You cite ‘a recent letter addressed to you (by) 50 prominent Indian intellectuals’. I will take this opportunity to address some issues raised by that letter: it may surprise you to learn that although the letter is formally addressed to me it was never actually sent either to my personal email address or to my website (as was yours). The first I learnt of it was when one of the signatories wrote to me to apologize for having signed it. Nor did any of the other forty-nine signatories, who describe themselves as my ‘friends and admirers’, write to me directly as did many of you. Evidently, despite its form of address the letter was actually intended only for public consumption.

Let me say that if the signatories of that letter had made this an occasion for a continuing public debate over India’s ties with Israel I would have welcomed it. But such was not their intention. So far as I know they have not petitioned the Lok Sabha on this matter, and nor has the issue been raised by the Party with which many of the signatories are affiliated. In other words, this prize is the sole focus of their concern – and that too only because I, a writer, have won it. Zubin Mehta and Prof. C.N.R. Rao, perhaps the most distinguished scientist working in India today, had also won it before me – but distinctions accorded to scientists and musicians are clearly not of equivalent interest (I might add here that the music school in Tel Aviv University carries Zubin Mehta’s name).

You will have seen that the signatories declared that they had no objection to my continuing to travel to Israel or to meet with Israeli friends. In other words their prescription was for me to make a grand public gesture, amounting to an attack on the legitimacy of Israeli civil institutions, while privately continuing to enjoy the benefits of that country’s existence. I don’t know if this accords with your notion of acceptable conduct: to me it smacks of the rankest hypocrisy. In this it is certainly an accurate reflection of a particular view of the world.

The circumstances of a writer and those of a community or campus activist are not the same. Activists focus quite appropriately on methods of collective action; this is perhaps their most effective tool in changing minds. Writers on the other hand work with words, which do not stop at borders: this imposes on them a certain obligation towards their readers. You have seen only one side of the correspondence around this issue – that which has been generated by people whose views you share. I on the other hand have received many letters also from the other side. I reproduce here excerpts from two of these letters (I have omitted names, addresses etc. for obvious reasons):

“I AM A OBSERVANT JEW WHO LIVES IN JERUSALEM. I AM ALSO SOMEONE WHO WORKS TIRELESSLY FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE AND AN END TO THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION OF PALESTINE. YOUR BOOK SHADOW LINES HELPED OPEN MY MIND TO THINKING ABOUT IDENTITY IN NEW AND COMPLEX WAYS. READING THAT BOOK (AND REREADING THAT BOOK) IS A TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE EVERY TIME.

I ALSO WANT TO LET YOU KNOW THAT THERE ARE LOTS OF JEWS LIKE ME.
PLEASE DO NOT GIVE INTO THE MODERNIST NARRATIVE THAT SUGGESTS THE WORLD IS SIMPLY TWO COMPETING SPORTS TEAMS. THE SITUATION HERE IS QUITE COMPLEX. I WANT TO ENCOURAGE YOU TO COME TO RECEIVE THE DAN DAVID AWARD BUT ALSO TO HEAR THE VOICES OF PEACE ACTIVISTS ACROSS ISRAEL AND PALESTINE.

IF YOU DO COME, MY WIFE AND I WOULD BE THRILLED TO HOST YOU FOR A
SHABBAT MEAL IN JERUSALEM, ONE OF THE MOST MAGICAL EXPERIENCES ONE CAN HAVE.
GOOD LUCK AND THANK YOU,”

“DEAR AMITAV GHOSH, I ASK MYSELF HOW I DARE TO WRITE YOU A PERSONAL LETTER? IN THIS SENSE, YOUR AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL BOOKS [PRAISE BE, SOME OF THEM ARE IN HEBREW] ARE NOT HELPFUL IN FINDING THE COURAGE TO WRITE. SO, TO BEEF UP THIS NEEDED COURAGE, I REMIND MYSELF THAT IN A WAY YOU ARE A FRIEND’S FRIEND. AGHA SHAHID WAS YOURS, WHILE HIS SWEET FATHER WAS MINE (“PROFESSOR? OH NO LEO, YOU CALL ME ASHRAF UNCLE”); AND OF THE 5 TIMES WE MET IN HIS SRINAGAR BEAUTIFUL PLACE, THE ONE
TIME HE SPOKE ABOUT HIS LATE WIFE AND SON, WAS THE MOST MOVING ONE. I MISS HIM A LOT. I WRITE TO THANK YOU FOR NOT GIVING IN TO THOSE WHO ASKED YOU NOT TO COME TO ISRAEL. IT WOULD BREAK MY HEART IF YOU DID….. FEW WORDS ON ME. MY NAME IS …, MODERN INDIA IS MY MOST INFLUENTIAL TEACHER, YOUR ESSAYS AND
BOOKS ARE A GIFT TO MY LIFE, I LIVE IN AN ECO-COMMUNITY IN THE GALILEE, AND WORK FOR … A FUND AND AN EMPOWERMENT CENTRE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS IN ISRAEL IT WAS A NICE ILLUSION THAT I CAN SIT AND WRITE SOMETHING SHORT AFTER ALL THE CONVERSATIONS WE HAD IN MY HEAD, BUT IT WAS A SWEET AND FRUITFUL ONE. PLEASE FEEL FREE NOT TO WRITE BACK.”

You speak of encouraging civil society. It is evident to me that the people who wrote me these letters are doing more for Palestine and Gaza than any activist in India or the United States. It would appear that my work has had some influence on them. Is it really possible then for me to say to them: ‘Sorry, various people have instructed me to boycott you so I need to fall in line?’

To me it is evident that Israel, like India and the United States, is riven with dissent and disagreement: there, as elsewhere, polls and election results do not always convey the whole story. While in Israel Margaret Atwood and I spoke about the situation in Palestine and Gaza on every possible occasion: we expressed our outrage at the use of excessive force in Gaza, at the blatant violations of human rights, at the expansion of settlements and so on. We were often cheered and applauded for saying these things and it became evident that most people in our audiences were substantially in agreement with us.

It is common knowledge that the range of debate on matters relating to the Middle East is far more wide-ranging in Israel than in the US – which brings me back to something I said before: that the solution to the problems of Israel, Palestine and Gaza lies in changing American minds. I would like to add that it lies also in changing minds within the American Jewish community, within Israel and within the West Bank and Gaza. The debates around the boycott and disinvestment movements may already have helped to change the minds of many young Americans, including some from the Jewish community. But if you want desirable outcomes rather than dramatic gestures then you will need to balance these movements with efforts to reach out to and engage liberal Israelis, of whom there are many. Otherwise you will run the risk of alienating indispensable allies. Similarly, it is not enough to simply declare solidarity with the people of Palestine: there too there are minds which do not necessarily want to work towards a compromise.

I know that there has been some speculation on whether my decision in regard to the Dan David Prize was influenced by the publishing industry, by the Indian government, or by others: please be assured that no one has attempted to put pressure on me and the decision was mine alone.

Let me conclude by saying that today, more than ever, it is starkly clear to me that the United States is the key player in Israel and Palestine. America is now at a crossroads in regard to these issues, with a President in power who is genuinely committed to advancing a credible peace process. Just as important is the fact that those American lobbying groups that have historically attempted to present the American Jewish community as a monolithic entity are no longer in the ascendant: the emergence of groups like the J StreetPAC (www.jstreetpac.org) is a sign of a very welcome change in this regard. These groups are also taking courageous positions within their own communities; they also deserve your support and solidarity.

It is not my place perhaps to advise you on your conduct and your views, but since you took the step of writing to me in this regard I feel I may be excused for reciprocating in kind. This, in any event, is all I have to say on this matter: I thank you for this providing me with this opportunity to address your concerns.

Sincerely,

Amitav Ghosh

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: