(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, http://akhondofswat.blogspot.com.)

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.”