The BS column: The high cost of neutrality

(Published in the Business Standard, May 18, 2010; image from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza)

Highway 443 connects Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and remains one of the most visible symbols of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is, in effect and even after recent rulings, a segregated highway, inaccessible to Palestinians without work permits and accessible in highly limited ways to Palestinians who possess work permits. For those who’ve driven down Highway 443, there is an understanding that you are on one side of the road or the other—there is no middle ground.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has no room for middle ground, either, and in recent years, more and more observers, including UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard, have begun calling Israel an apartheid state. This is, roughly, the background to the running controversy over the Dan David Prize, administered by an Israeli philanthropic foundation and awarded to Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh last week. It’s also significant that Israel denied Noam Chomsky a visa two days ago—the writer and intellectual was scheduled to speak at a Palestinian university, and said that in his opinion, Israel was becoming a “Stalinist” regime.

As a loose coalition of intellectuals, academics and activists banded together to ask—and sometimes, rudely demand—that Atwood and Ghosh refuse the prize, the arguments on both sides were impassioned. In different ways, Atwood and Ghosh are politically astute writers: Atwood’s work has taken on gender inequities and the complex machinations of climate change, Ghosh’s writings have explored fractures in history, the legacies of colonialism, and the hidden forms of oppression. Neither of them is unaware of the situation in the world’s most bitter blood feud. (The debate is too complex to be summarized: I have some links up on my blog,

The question of whether these two writers, both respected and admired, were within their rights to accept the Dan David Prize is easily answered: yes. Prize boycotts by writers have ranged from the lofty—Sartre turned down the Nobel on the grounds that writers should belong to no institutions whatsoever—to the political, as with Ghosh’s withdrawal of The Glass Palace from contention for the Commonwealth Prize, because of his personal disagreement with the term “commonwealth literature”.

Atwood and Ghosh have both made the argument that they personally don’t believe in cultural boycotts. “Writers have no armies,” they said in a shared speech of acceptance, explaining why they refuse to join the campaign of cultural isolation against Israel. They believe that it is perhaps even more important now to come to Israel, and to keep space open for literary discourse. This is in keeping with PEN International’s refusal to endorse cultural boycotts—and Atwood is a leading, and active, member of PEN.

But there is a larger question here, and that question is hard to duck. The Dan David Prize is not a specifically literary prize—it rewards achievement across many fields, and carries a $1 million purse (shared in their field between both writers). Previous recipients have included Zubin Mehta, Al Gore and Peter Brooke, but in its decade-long history, the prize has rewarded achievement rather than creating it. It doesn’t add to the literary haloes around Atwood and Ghosh; they would not have suffered by turning it down.

Many observers, not all of them hysterical or inflamed by unthinking zeal, believe that Israel has reached a critical point in its history. If its current policies are not technically apartheid, they come so close it’s hard to tell the difference.

You may or may not endorse this view of Israel, but it seems clear that the last ten years have changed the shape of the conflict radically. It’s at the turning point of history that writers, specifically, are called upon to make a choice, to take a stand. Atwood and Ghosh had an opportunity here to look more deeply at the Israel-Palestine question. By not giving in to what Ghosh called the “campaign of admonition”, they have upheld a principle that is dear to both writers—the idea that it’s unfair to penalize ordinary citizens, or even large foundations, for the crimes their state may commit in their names.

There was another principle involved, though, and this was the basic principle of taking a stand against a regime that, according to unbiased observers, is effectively practicing apartheid. It’s ridiculous to argue that by accepting the Dan David Prize, Atwood and Ghosh have endorsed all of the policies of the Israeli state. But they have missed the chance to stand up and be counted; and I think while they have the moral right to opt out, history might make both writers wish that they had acted differently on this occasion.

Joe Sacco, chronicler of the conflict in graphic novels from Palestine (2001) to Footnotes in Gaza (2010) would say there’s time to change your mind and take positions, as long as the violence continues. As every apparently neutral observer knows and as Sacco writes, “Peace won’t pay the rent.”


  1. I'm a bit unconvinced about the "other principle": of taking the stand against a regime. In what way would a rejection of a civilian award take a stand against a regime? And if that is so, then in Bush's time ALL awards in US should have been boycotted by all writers, no? The bottom line: the onus is on those demanding/suggesting a boycott to show how a rejection of a civilian award takes a stand against the regime, beyond tokenism.

  2. "the basic principle of taking a stand against a regime that, according to unbiased observers, is effectively practicing apartheid"One might argue, of course, that the appropriate way for a writer to take a stand against an oppressive regime would be to speak out / write against it. Refusing / accepting a prize is largely irrelevant. If you refuse to accept the prize but don't say anything else against the current regime, then you aren't taking much of a stand; and if you do clearly and vocally protest the current regime's policies then whether you reject or accept the prize hardly matters.

  3. I like what Elvis Costello had to say today–he's just cancelled his Israel concerts. what he's said, I think you'll find the best defence of making this particular gesture, whether it's turning down a prize, or cancelling a concert:"Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent."I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security."I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation."It is a matter of instinct and conscience."

  4. "It is a matter of instinct and conscience"More like a matter of calculating cost of lost ticket sales from canceling the concert vs. cost of lost album sales from being seen to support Israel. He practically says as much. In any case, it's not much of a defence. The idea that participating in a concert in a country makes you somehow complicit in the political decisions of that country is not just ludicrous, it's also precisely the kind of guilt by association logic that one is supposed to be protesting against. If it's valid for people to associate Costello with the Israeli regime, then why is it not valid to associate innocent Palestinian civilians with Palestinian terrorists? If guilt by association is valid, there is no reason to protest Israel's policies. Finally, I'm not sure clubbing Costello with Atwood makes all that much sense. Singers are not writers. I'm prepared to believe that nothing Costello could sing would resonate more (even if he did write a political song who would take him seriously?), but it's hard to imagine that Atwood couldn't write an opinion piece that had way more impact than just refusing a prize.

  5. Falstaff, the interpretation that Costello calculated album sales lost versus ticket sales lost is yours, and is not supported by anything he's actually said on his blog. ( stance he's taking is absolutely the same stance that writers, artists and musicians took with regard to South Africa in the apartheid days. It's not complicity so much as registering one's protest–however small or large that protest might be. Costello–and a growing band of performers–are not arguing for the use of cultural boycotts in general, or as a protest against the historical formation of Israel. Here's Cathy Gulkin on the specific need, at this point of time, for a cultural boycott of Israel: may not agree–many don't–but she and others make a valid point.

  6. It IS a matter of instinct and conscience. And neither is deterministic. So while I agree with people who would boycott, and their reasons, I hate it when that instinct and conscience of one is made binding on the other, as if it's logical imperative.I'm not saying that you are. Those who are condemning Ghosh and Atwood definitely are. What I find problematic is the implicit judgement where you say that "history might make both writers wish that they had acted differently on this occasion". Why not trust that they have acted with instinct and conscience too?cheers,asuph

  7. From Shruti via email:Nilanjana,I didn't know how to send you an email on your blog, so I'm posting this here.An article that seemed very interesting– on changing notions of Zionism within young jewish Americans, liberal, and the scarily increasing aggression within Isreal itself. You might like reading this.Shruti

  8. Nilanjana: Sorry to be pedantic, but actually, the 'calculation' interpretation is supported by what he says in the extract you quote:"I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security."In what way is the fact that some of Costello's fans are opposed to the Israeli regime relevant to his decision to cancel the concert except in so far as not doing so might cost him his fanbase? If it really were a matter of instinct and conscience then what people attending the concert thought wouldn't be relevant would it – neither instinct nor conscience is driven by other people. The fact that Costello brings up the concert-goers as a factor in his decision logically implies that it is not entirely a matter of instinct and conscience. QED. Actually, if you think about it, that quote makes no sense whatsoever. Are we to assume that if everyone attending the concert was a rabid supporter of the current regime Costello would not have canceled the concert? Or that his purpose in canceling the concert is to punish the people who are against the current regime by depriving them of a concert experience they value? And surely the fact that there is a healthy opposition to the current regime within Israel (as evidenced by the presence of people who disagree with that regime in the audience at an Elvis Costello concert) makes gestures of protest against the regime less, not more, important. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that artists shouldn't boycott oppressive regimes. I'm saying that a) meaningful protest requires more than just not showing up for a concert / award ceremony and b) that the Costello example you've picked is a bad one, since the man's arguments are both inchoate and suspect.

  9. Falstaff,I'm sorry, but I can't support your reading of Costello's words. It seems very clear to me that he's indicating his awareness that there are many Israelis who do not support or endorse their government's policies, and that by refusing to play in Israel, he does not mean to imply that all Israelis are automatically complicit in their state's doings. I have a feeling we're not at all on the same page, since Costello's explanation was very simple and clear. He was also an obvious example to pick, since his announcement that he was withdrawing from his concert commitments came in the same week as the Dan David Prize was awarded, and personally, I found his arguments neither inchoate nor suspect.

  10. Nilanjana: Sigh. You're right, we're not on the same page. I see I'm going to have to do this in bite-size chunks. 1. Costello says: "I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security." in explanation of his decision.2. If these people did not exist, would Costello make the same decision?If Yes: Then, saying this by way of explanation makes no sense.If No: Then the decision is not driven by instinct and conscience, because neither logically depend on the presence or absence of these people. What part of that do you disagree with? Either way, it's a poorly thought out argument, far from being the "best defense of making this particular gesture" that you claimed it was. No one's suggesting that Costello is accusing the Israeli people of anything. I'm just trying to understand the chain of reasoning that leads from "many Israelis do not support or endorse their government's policies" to "I should cancel my concert". The only logical chain I see is: Many Israelis dislike policies -> If I do the concert they will see me as supporting their government's policies => I will lose sales => I should not do the concert. If you have an alternate chain, let's hear it. Don't tell me that you think it's a sensible / clear argument – I already know YOU think that. I'm trying to understand why you do.

  11. The larger point, of course, is whether we can really accept at face value the claims of a pop-star (no doubt filtered through his PR firm) as to his true motivations. Is my interpretation of Costello's motives definitive? No. But it is a plausible interpretation that is entirely consistent with (I would argue more consistent with) his discussion of the factors driving him to make his decision, and therefore one a critical mind must consider. Does the extract you quote above really sound like the cry of a man stricken by conscience? Or does it sound like the babble of a man desperately trying to avoid a PR nightmare? To me, the fact that that quote above deals entirely with other people suggests the latter.

  12. Falstaff, this is all imputation on your part–and repeating a logical fallacy several times does not make it true. Costello says, in order: 1) There are times when just agreeing to play in a troubled area is a political act and may be taken as a sign that you don't sympathise with those who are suffering in that country/ area.2) He understands that many people in Israel who may also have been there at the concert are not supporters of their government's actions, and does not wish to penalise them (this is a justification of a cultural boycott, rather than a calculation of ticket sales)3) and he feels that after talking to the Israeli media and understanding the situation better, he needs to make his gesture anyway.Falstaff, I've stated my case as clearly as possible in the column, and clarified what I've thought necessary. Please feel free to continue to share your views that Costello did this out of cynicism rather than as an act of conscience, but I don't think that you've proved your twisted interpretation of his words in any way. His post, believe it or not, does actually speak for itself, and having made my case as well, I'm not going to spend more time on this.

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