May 18, 2010
A letter to Amitav Ghosh re the Dan David Prize
Response from Amitav Ghosh, May 19, 2010
On the response
A few points can and should be made in response to the response. Let me begin by echoing what a historian colleague - and Canuck, I should note - said upon reading it: Amitav-da's reasoning is stronger than Atwood's bizarre and self-pitying reaction to the criticism she has faced. (I presume she is aware, by now, that she has not been singled out for criticism.)
The lack of a clear horizon that might guide a boycott is perhaps undeniable. But it is not the case that the South African boycott had cut-and-dried targets that were always obvious. Also, there is in the Israeli case quite a bit of shared ground when it comes to a serious definition of "success": the end of settlement expansion, two sovereign states based roughly on the 1967 borders, an agreement on sharing the city of Jerusalem. Beyond that the consensus is weaker and disagreement is rife - within Gush Shalom, within J-Street, among critics of Israeli policy in general, or even among proponentsboycott - about just what should be boycotted and what the eventual political arrangement might be. Some of us would like to see a binational state, others would be satisfied with a limited Palestinian sovereignty, some are more prepared than others to "give away" Jerusalem or the right of return. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing conversation, there is negotiation, there are experiments and false starts: in other words, there is a serious and valuable process of fumbling, in which we, as I said, do what we can to articulate and implement some programs. Most of us have no "map" for a boycott of Israel, only a series of more or less ad hoc responses. The elusiveness of a clear horizon, however, only makes it important that we try to create one; it cannot be an excuse for inaction or complicity. And it is vitally important that writers and intellectuals play a role in the imagining of that horizon, and not leave it to the politicians. It is utterly inadequate to leave the issue in the hands of Barack Obama, who, for all his good intentions, is a captive of numerous handicaps and expediencies and whose political limits are already glaringly evident. It is startlingly akin to the expectation that Ramsay MacDonald would decolonize the British Empire. of a
The "we don't do cultural boycotts" position rests on the assumption that culture exists in a morally autonomous zone uncontaminated by the governmental and corporate worlds. The reality, of course, is that culture draws upon the state and the private sector for funding, facilities and protection, and in return delivers profit and prestige. That, after all, is why Shimon Peres will present the Dan David prize. The involvement of the President of Israel in the award ceremony cannot be dismissed easily; the President, as Amitav-da points out, is a ceremonial emblem of the Israeli state, although Shimon Peres is hardly a political innocent. He cannot wash his hands of the behavior of the state: in any case, in that moment when he presents the award, he is the state. But rejecting a ceremony over which he presides is not a nuance-free act; it does not automatically imply a rejection of the legitimacy of Israel as a nation-state. After the Amritsar massacre of 1919, Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the King, not to the Prime Minister. By doing so, he did not reject the legitimacy of Britain as a state or its right to exist, but the legitimacy of the British state in a particular political mode (empire) over which the King presided. The notion that Israeli civil society automatically warrants an exemption from a boycott is not entirely sustainable, because in a democracy, the lines between state, civil society and individual citizen are necessarily blurred. It is important that we examine critically the particular institutions and cultural links with which we might engage.
Amitav-da raises the issue of whether boycotting Israeli civil society would also obligate one to boycott its Indian counterpart. This problem should reasonably be extended to American civil society in the aftermath of Iraq and in the light - or shadow - of the "War on Terror." There are, of course, several ways to approach the issue, beginning with practicality: short of emigration, it is impractical to boycott the country one lives in. Second, when one is a citizen of the state in question, then one has direct means of influencing policy: voting, lobbying, political organizing, donating, activism,street demonstrations. General or broadly-aimed boycotts become less necessary under such circumstances. Third, the situation in Israel-Palestine is arguably different from those of India or the United States, because of the explicit element of racially based disenfranchisement and dispossession. (One may point to Sudan, but I doubt that Amitav-da would travel to Sudan to accept a literary award.) Fourth, if a non-Indian writer or academic genuinely believes that the political conduct of the Indian state is comparable to that of Israel, then he or she arguably has a duty to boycott Indian civil society institutions unless the institution has taken a position opposing the actions of the government. I do not boycott Indian universities generally, but I do boycott Gujarat, including Gujarati civil society, and will continue to do so as long as Narendra Modi keeps getting re-elected in that state. I would make an exception for institutions or individuals openly opposed to the Modi government. I no longer travel to Arizona for pleasure, but I wiould not refuse to attend a conference at the University of AZ (unless Jan Brewer was chairing the panel), because the malevolence of that situation is not sufficiently diffuse or pervasive. It may be that ultimately it boils down to such assessments and to one's own ideological and ethical priorities. But in the case of Israel, as in the case of India or the US, it is certainly possible to boycott and patronize selectively.