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‘An acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy does not imply an acceptance of all that it does’: Amitav Ghosh

May 17, 2010

Given the long discussion on an earlier post on this subject, I think it is important to post here Amitav Ghosh’s long, persuasive response to the campaign that requested him not to accept the Dan David Prize. I’m taking the liberty of copying this response from here.

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 TOTHINKING 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

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Sabur permalink
    May 17, 2010 10:21 AM

    Three things of significance immediately stand out in this letter.

    1. Amitav Ghosh appears to have no problem with the ongoing existence of settler-colonial regimes in today’s world, despite the worldwide change in attitudes that accompanied decolonisation. Otherwise he would stop and question the “legitimacy” of a state that accords citizenship to any Jew in the world as a matter of right and without regard to their connection with the country, while keeping indigenous non-Jews in various forms of dispossession (second-class citizenship, military occupation, exile). Questioning the legitimacy of this discriminatory regime is not a demand for Armageddon or bloodshed; it is simply to support equality.

    2. Amitav Ghosh “clearly and unequivocally” opposes cultural boycotts. He does not offer any exceptions or limitations to this principle. So would Ghosh have accepted a similar prize under apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany (to take everyone’s standby examples of “evil”)? If he wouldn’t, then he needs to lay down some distinctions of his own.

    3. Amitav Ghosh rails against “empty gestures” but derives satisfaction from the fact that certain Israelis “cheered and applauded” his critiques of that country’s policies. It is indeed not hard to find Israelis who disagree with one aspect or another of the state’s actions. But it highly unlikely that Ghosh’s interlocutors at the Dan David Prize have done anything of significance to oppose the state’s fundamental inequality. This mutually congratulatory ritual — in which the writer is applauded for the mere act of critique, while the audience enjoys the feeling of being open-minded enough to receive such critiques —
    is an excellent example of an empty gesture. It is far emptier than refusing to accept the Dan David Prize would have been.

  2. Shruti permalink
    May 17, 2010 12:56 PM

    He explains why the idea of a general boycott is repulsive to him and there is some merit in that, and as Chomsky has said on this recently, if anyone, it’s the US and its state-funded universities that would be better to boycott like MIT—since that is an honest stand, as Ghosh explains his reasons for not making a gesture that’s a gesture alone, and I’m not personally sure at this stage whether hypothetically someone like him ought to accept such a prize or not (since its out of the range of the ‘real’ now) I am troubled by some of his arguments he makes in justification of his decision, which seem frankly specious:

    1.He rightly criticizes intellectuals in state-funded universities in India and elsewhere of not recognizing their complicity and not taking real stands like resigning their jobs and fellowships etc, while asking him to make such a gesture of dissociation from an Isreal state-funded university sponsoring the prize. But this isn’t so simplistic and is actually quite problematic—one, what he asks for are extremely difficult choices indeed—we are surrounded by an entirely capitalist world and system, you can barely have any kind of a job or own a car without automatically supporting in a sense capitalist enterprises next to none of whom are responsible, ethical and non-oppressive and/or are connected to the state; or with the state itself which in places like India has demonstrated its repressive anti-people positions.
    They are very difficult choices to ask anyone to make, because the fact is one cannot live in any urban space without almost automatically being complicit with capitalist and state systems[I now pay my electricity bill to Reliance instead of the state and I have no say in the bloody matter because the Delhi electricity board handed itself over—a tiny example]; and most honest people try and find things to do that are ‘least harmful’ and try and live by doing right by themselves and what they can influence, question what appears wrong and so on, doing what they can to live right. This itself is near utopic because human beings are essentially anarchic and very few people manage to live that away, but there are a few and hats doffed to them. A lot of such folk help keep the others going. The alternative is to go and live on a farm somewhere and grow trees and food which lots of us want, but you need to own land, have money, sell your produce to the market at govt rates, ….. there isn’t any easy way out of the urban-capitalist-state mindspace. Plus the state isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the idea of a govt– it is meant to protect afterall and could be benign. The point is ‘leaving’ everything in some all or nothing knee-jerk manner is not what any sensible person can or ought to do, people instead choose to fight from their positions..
    Being as near impossible a choice as this is, asking it of anyone itself is problematic, even ridiculous: not resigning their state-funded university jobs/fellowships etc does not take away from the ethical positions several people are negotiating, and from their right to demand what to them is an ethical stance from someone like Ghosh in this case. It’s a little like that statement Ramachandra Guha made asking the ‘cambridge educated’ JNU professor why she didn’t refuse a Nescafe on a flight if she felt that way about MNCs coming into campus? The sort of nonsense that makes anyone go duh?, because what sort of response is that? Anyway..that’s another thread.
    2. He constantly harps on the need to recognize Israel’s legitimacy in order to talk to Israel for any actual possibility of peace in the area. Seems sensible, but the legitimacy in this case cannot be equated to other repressive states like India or US that he mentions, because oppressive as they are and the difference he seeks between the state and universities/cultural spaces is obviously true; the fact is Israel’s legitimacy is by necessity problematic because it hasn’t just been repressive, its entire history has been of reneging on past agreements on geographical borders. Israel is not just ‘repressive like other states but also a democracy’ but what it has and continues to actively do is violate those boundaries, occupy territories forcibly, continues to make incursions into Gaza, and so… I think a lay person like me thinks these are not the same legitimacies that allow you to ‘talk to’ Israel like you can to another state. Israel has to be actively questioned, stopped and made accountable for these violations into Gaza and of previous agreements, of expanding illegal settlements, of the killings.. because that’s the crux of the matter, it’s not ‘another repressive thing’ it does like other states. Its entire premise was on land, and it has continued to abuse its hold over it, and it is Israel’s record and continuing violations that demand such extreme measures as sanctions because nothing else seems to be working.

    And, he speaks of the Israelis who’ve been living there for decades who have nowhere else to go. Has he heard that the Palestinians have absolutely nowhere else to go either, and hence the fight??
    3. I am particularly irked by his repeated calls for the ‘solution lies in changing American minds’ bit. Why? America has been Israel’s special buddy, protected its interests and yes is still powerful enough to force Israel to bend. But how many more decades are Palestinians and the region to wait for Amrika to today become benign and ‘talk to Israel’? It’s almost laughable going by US’s track record, although I understand Ghosh’s faith in an apparently genuinely interested Obama. Regardless, it is the world community, its citizens, and other states, which are to equally force Israel to mend its ways; I am offended by this world revolves around US sort of notion somehow that is still propagated. The US will do what suits its interests, and it is downright insulting to ask people like Palestinians to have faith in the US or to wait until the great American public can grow wise horns. Going by how incredibly intellectually stunted the average American is, Palestinians and their future generations can grow a forest of moss on their graves by the time that happens.

    My apologies for such a long long post, and further if it rambles. I’ve written so much that I think I ought to stop now.J

  3. johng permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:46 PM

    Has Ghosh had any feedback from Palestinian civil society?

  4. johng permalink
    May 17, 2010 4:13 PM

    Interesting interview with Chomsky where it turns out that one reason given for forbidding him to speak at Beir Zeit university was that he was not also speaking at an Israeli university. This is the kind of repression that the talk of balence and complexity that Ghosh is colluding with here exudes. It is forbidden to show solidarity with Palestinians in any way not approved of by the Israeli state, and unless you show solidarity with the Israeli state Palestinians are not allowed to listen to you. The actually existing cultural boycott of Palestinians (on every level) remains unchallenged.

  5. Bhochka permalink
    May 17, 2010 6:04 PM

    Despite the surface sympathy for Palestinians, Ghosh’s arguments – wilfully or unwittingly – feed into a discourse where Israel’s an embattled country surrounded by hostile enemies that threaten it with imminent extinction. This discourse is absolutely dominant in the way the ‘international community’ handles the question of Israel/Palestine: thus the entirely specious point about ‘recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’. The recognition of legitimacy only makes sense as a political argument when a dominant power recognizes the right to exist of a weaker one. This is manifestly not the case with Israel.

    And what does such ‘legitimacy’ mean, in any case? Does it mean recognition of Israel’s permanently expanding boundaries and its seizure of over 80 per cent of Palestinian agricultural land? This is not a polemical question. If ‘recognition’ means recognition of Israel’s 1967 boundaries – themselves premised upon massive violence and dispossession – the Israeli state (and all the political parties, from left to right, that vy for its control) will have none of it. How is it possible for people who are being dispossessed – and humiliated – on a daily basis to recognize the ‘legitimacy’ of a state that openly declares that its survival is based upon the right to expand? The ‘compromise’ that Ghosh endorses, based on the evacuation of settlements, the removal of checkpoints, etc, misses out the bloated pachyderm in the room – the ‘apartheid wall’ (as it is called by both Palestinian and Israeli anti-occupation activists) that seals Palestinians off from most of their agricultural land. In what absurd, looking-glass world can a ‘compromise’ be reached that accepts the existence of this wall? And tearing down the wall is something the Israeli state can only see as a threat to their existence and ‘legitimacy’ – so does recognition also mean acceptance of the wall?

    I’m not suggesting that Ghosh is some sort of apologist for Israeli colonialism, and I have no doubt that he genuinely seeks a peaceful, negotiated compromise. The trouble is that within the current terms of both discourse and material reality, even a literary-political imagination as fertile as his can offer nothing except a tepid (and frankly laughable) belief in the wisdom of Obama’s intermediation. The ‘compromise’ he is able to imagine is, his own intentions notwithstanding, always-already anchored in a context where a substantial measure of Palestinian dispossession is justified without question. Talk of ‘balance’ and ‘complexity’, unexceptionable in themselves, in the Israel/Palestine conflict invariably silently privilege the colonizer over the colonized. Of course there are no easy answers and the political solution to this impasse is going to be relentlessly complicated – however, Ghosh massively exaggerates, in my view, the moral complexity of the dilemma.

    Such investment in ‘moral complexity’, I think, invariably refers back to the Holocaust – the birth of Israel in the aftermath of the horror of the Final Solution. This is something that needs to be brutally excised from discussions of the Israel/Palestine situation. Fears of a ‘second Holocaust’ dangerously misjudge the real political stakes – including the emergence of new anti-semitisms – in the Middle East, and the forms they’re likely to take. Such fears are actively ‘weaponized’ (to use Ghosh’s own, very fetching, phrase) against Palestinians. If there is an active threat to the many forms of Jewish identity in the world, it comes predominantly from a Zionism that insists on equating all Jewish identity with support for the Israeli state, that brands the Star of David upon the uniforms of IDF soldiers, that refuses any distance between the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Zionist’, and hounds and mocks non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews wherever they are.

    As to the boycott, johng and Shruti are right. There IS a global cultural boycott of Palestinians that’s backed up – as in the Chomsky case – by the Israeli military’s control over who gets to visit the Occupied Territories. And Ghosh’s arguments against boycotts lead inevitably to infinite regress – if Israel then why not the US, why not India, why not China, etc, etc, etc. This completely ignores the desperate political deadlock out of which the idea of a boycott was born – a situation of rapidly expanding settler colonialism on the one hand, and a matrix of ‘international community’ rhetoric and practice that legitimates this, and systematically squeezes dry alternative political strategies of solidarity with the Palestinians, on the other. This need not automatically lead one to endorse the politics of a targeted boycott (though I find it absurd to imagine that the arguments that held in the case of South Africa do not hold in this case, independently of the nomenclature of ‘apartheid’). However, it does mean that we need to recognize that the call for a boycott is NOT premised upon an argument about the ‘uniqueness’ of the Israel/Palestine situation. If comparable campaigns existed against other states practising racist or exclusionary policies, where other avenues of meaningful solidarity politics were foreclosed, then a boycott call would hold in such cases as well. The point is that there is no active global boycott campaign against, say, the Indian state’s policies in the North-East or in the forests of central India (and also that there arguably exist considerably larger democratic spaces of opposition within India than in Israel, though they may be narrowing). There is, however, such a campaign against Israel, one based not on moral absolutism but upon an absolute political deadlock. Ghosh and Atwood’s decision, as writers, to abstain from solidarity with such a campaign is a decision they have a right to make – and there’s no reason to stop admiring their fiction on the basis of this. It is the elevation of this decision to a political principle – an Olympian perspective of ‘reason, balance and nuance’ that magically transcends the misguided bigotry and ‘extremism’ of people actually caught up in this conflict – that is disturbing.

    Ghosh is right that many, many Israelis oppose their state’s policies – and such opposition ranges from a fuzzy-left Zionism that’s worthy in its intentions but crippled by the contradiction of its commitments, to much more analytically consistent and politically principled movements that oppose the occupation in all its forms. It was Israeli academics and activists committed to the latter forms of activism who originally made the plea for a boycott, because everything else had failed. Ghosh seems to read off such appeals as ‘extremist’ positions that ‘seek a bloodbath’. This is deeply objectionable – far more so than his decision to accept the Dan David award in the first place.

  6. May 18, 2010 7:36 AM

    Just linking to a post that says everything I might have thought to say: http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/ghoshwood-and-the-dan-david-prize/

    • Bhochka permalink
      May 18, 2010 2:34 PM

      Space Bar: thanks. That’s a brilliant post you linked to, and it completely sums up the real stakes of this debate. There were two bits I found particularly sharp:

      ‘After all, some novelists somewhere have been censored and attacked for their writings, and since Atwood and Ghosh are novelists, they are being censored and attacked for their writings. Yet how can you play the censored victim when the suffering you’ve endured has been respectful and peaceful criticism in print?’
      and
      ‘…the personal consequences of their actions will consist of nothing more dire than the fact that people in the world, like me for instance, will have a lower opinion of them, and will say so in print. Their reputation as radical postcolonial activists will suffer. Cry me a river.’

      This hits the nail on the head – what makes Ghosh and Wood’s position so problematic is the elision of an ongoing debate over a specific and limited political tactic (the boycott call) by transcendental homilies about the freedom of the writer – as though that is being threatened, in a material or symbolic sense, by the BDS campaign. As though every writer is a Mandelstam or an Akhmatova. As though censoring the art of the novel for the sake of political dogma is what this debate is really about.

  7. johng permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:43 PM

    I’m pleased to see that one of the hero’s of my misspent youth, takes a far more sophisticated view that either ghosh or atwood. The legacy of punk rock is more sensitive and sophisticated then the legacy of literature on this issue it seems:
    http://www.elviscostello.com/news/it-is-after-cosiderable-contemplation/44

  8. johng permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:55 PM

    then again he always did keep an eye on the detectives:

  9. May 18, 2010 9:18 PM

    Bhochka, space bar, thanks for bringing me into this conversation.

    This, from Bhochka seems to me to be the most gaping hole in Ghosh’s rhetorical justification:

    “Ghosh’s arguments against boycotts lead inevitably to infinite regress – if Israel then why not the US, why not India, why not China, etc, etc, etc. This completely ignores the desperate political deadlock out of which the idea of a boycott was born – a situation of rapidly expanding settler colonialism on the one hand, and a matrix of ‘international community’ rhetoric and practice that legitimates this, and systematically squeezes dry alternative political strategies of solidarity with the Palestinians, on the other. [The boycott is] based not on moral absolutism but upon an absolute political deadlock. Ghosh and Atwood’s decision, as writers, to abstain from solidarity with such a campaign is a decision they have a right to make – and there’s no reason to stop admiring their fiction on the basis of this. It is the elevation of this decision to a political principle – an Olympian perspective of ‘reason, balance and nuance’ that magically transcends the misguided bigotry and ‘extremism’ of people actually caught up in this conflict – that is disturbing.”

    Yes. Because the status quo is of rapidly expanding settlements and the slow but inexorable effort to choke the life out of the occupied territories, the luxury of hoping for change in the future while doing nothing now is little more than an abdication of the ethical charge they so proudly claim for themselves. Which is the most damning thing: they prefer to concern themselves with something that *might* happen in the future (whatever wildly exaggerated consequences to Israeli society a boycott might have) instead of the thing that is happening right now (and shows every indication of continuing to its ethno-cidal conclusion). It shows, among other things, their disinclination to put their money where their mouth is.

    And, finally, “money” really is the flip-side to this coin, and the fact that they say nothing at all about is telling in its own way. After all, they are being paid very, very well to say the things they’re saying; choosing to stand against the boycott, after all, has a dividend of a half-million dollars for each of them. In such a context, they can no longer be considered to be acting and speaking for themselves. They are now paid lobbyists for the Israeli state: the argument for accepting that prize money is exactly the same argument used to justify any kind of international condemnation of Israel’s actions.

  10. May 18, 2010 9:20 PM

    Rather, “They are now paid lobbyists for the Israeli state: the argument for accepting that prize money is exactly the same argument used to delegitimize any kind of international condemnation of Israel’s actions.

  11. Shruti permalink
    May 20, 2010 1:13 PM

    Wanted to share an article on the changing opinions of Zionism and Israel policy in young jewish Americans and the increasing hardline stance within Israel.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/

  12. debo permalink
    July 6, 2010 2:53 PM

    Thanks for posting this response by Ghosh. All i have to say is that it is the most complex and well-composed piece of sophistry i’ve encountered in a long time.

    He really is a good writer, and makes a great argument, but i’m very glad to see that many of the readers of kafila are way too smart and well-informed to buy it.

  13. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    August 10, 2012 12:19 PM

    Apropos the campaign to boycott Israel, see INCACBI’s rejoinder to Madhuri Sondhi’s article in the Sunday Guardian:
    Israel a Violator of UN Resolutions, Must be Isolated
    ICACBI is Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which I support.

Trackbacks

  1. Boycotts, writers, politics « Smoke Screen
  2. Week Resadieu « zunguzungu
  3. Amitav Ghosh and Israel « 1947/1948
  4. Three poems by Meir Wieseltier « Kafila

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