Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, activist and general rabble-rouser, has been awarded the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. As an outspoken advocate on everything from censorship to poverty to women’s equality to gay rights to arts funding, many human rights activists around the world are hoping Ms. Atwood will join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign and decline the award.
John Greyson, the academic, teacher, superb political filmmaker and committed activist who recently led the campaign to boycott the Toronto Film Festival in reaction to its uncritical spotlight on Tel Aviv, has drafted and distributed the excellent letter to Ms. Atwood below.
Below Greyson’s letter is another letter from students of Gaza. For those wishing to support the students of Gaza on this issue, they are asking that you send a letter to Ms. Atwood as well (address below). As an artist who has stood up for so many, it would be surprising to not see this renowned word-artist stand up—by either boycotting or using the award as a platform for redress—for the oppressed people of Palestine. Considering the prize clocks in at a cool one million dollars, she will likely accept it. But to accept it uncritically would be a little like uncritically accepting a literature prize in 1970 in Hanoi, given out by Washington.
April 5, 2010
c/o McClelland & Stewart
75 Sherbourne St., 5th Floor
Back in 1981, I remember vividly that when the Toronto police raided several bathhouses and arrested 300 men, you agreed to speak out at a hastily arranged benefit — the first public figure to do so. Your courage meant a great deal to our gay community then, and your words were typically memorable: “Why on earth would the police object to cleanliness?”
I understand you’re going to Israel in May, to accept the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. Will you find words for the Gaza students who wrote to you yesterday, 44 miles down the coast, asking you to refuse the prize? Will you mention the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the larger occupation, whose check points and security wall have reduced the region to an apartheid state? Will you mention the two unarmed teenagers Mohammed Qadas, 16, and Asaud Qadus, 19, who were shot by Israeli army snipers last week? His aunt says that Mohammed had gone out to buy ice-cream. Why on earth would the army object to ice-cream?
I write today as a fan, someone whose life was changed on reading A Handmaid’s Tale, someone who still treasures my rare edition of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. For decades, you’ve been an extraordinary role model for so many of us, embracing the role of artist as a figure of conscience. You’ve consistently spoken out against a host of injustices, even as you engaged with the complexities of each issue. In May, will you decline this prize, in recognition of the growing boycott movement which is trying to contribute to peace in the region? Will you at least speak out against the war crimes committed a year ago? Will you perhaps donate a portion to a writers group in Gaza? Will you at the very least acknowledge the complexities that this award, and this conflict, represent? Or will you remain silent, making us wonder: why on earth would Margaret Atwood of all people object to complexity?
Associate Professor (York), filmmaker
An Open Letter to Margaret Atwood from Gaza: Don’t Stand on the Wrong Side of History
Dear Ms. Atwood,
We are students from Gaza representing more than 10 academic institutions therein. Our grandparents are refugees who were expelled from their homes in the 1948 Nakba. They still have their keys locked up in their closets and will pass them on to their children, our parents. Many of us have lost our fathers, some of us have lost our mothers, and some of us lost both in the last Israeli aggression against civilians in Gaza. Others still lost a body part from the flesh-burning white phosphorous that Israel used, and are now permanently physically challenged. Most of us lost our homes, and are now living in tents, as Israel refuses to allow basic construction materials into Gaza. And most of all, we are all still living in what has come to be a festering sore on humanity’s conscience—the brutal, hermetic, medieval siege that Israel is perpetrating against us, the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.
Many of us have encountered your writing during our university studies. Although your books are not available in Gaza—because Israel does not allow books, paper, and other stationary in—we are familiar with your leftist, feminist, overtly political writing. And most of all, we are aware of your strong stance against apartheid. You admirably supported sanctions against apartheid South Africa and called for resistance against all forms of oppression.
Now, we have heard that you are to receive a prize this spring at Tel Aviv University. We, the students of besieged Gaza, urge you not to go. As our professors, teachers and anti-apartheid comrades used to tell us, there was no negotiation with the brutal racist regime of South Africa. Nor was there much communication. Just one word: BOYCOTT. You must be aware that Israel was a sister state to the apartheid regime before 1994. Many South African anti-apartheid heroes, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have described Israel’s oppression as apartheid. Some describe Israeli settler-colonialism and occupation as surpassing apartheid’s evil. F-16s, F-15s, F-35s, Apache helicopters, Merkava tanks, and white phosphorous were not used against black townships.
Ms. Atwood, in the Gaza concentration camp, students who have been awarded scholarships to universities abroad are prevented, every year, from pursuing their hard-earned opportunity for academic achievement. Within the Gaza Strip, those seeking an education are limited by increasing poverty rates and a scarcity of fuel for transportation, both of which are direct results of Israel’s medieval siege. What is TAU’s position vis-à-vis this form of illegal collective punishment, described by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights in the OccupiedTerritories, as a “prelude to genocide?” Not a single word of condemnation has been heard from any Israeli academic institution!
Participating in normal relations with Tel Aviv University is giving tacit approval to its racially exclusive policy towards Palestinian citizens ofIsrael. We
are certain you would hate to support an institution that upholds so faithfully the apartheid system of its state.
Tel Aviv University has a long and well-documented history of collaboration with the Israeli military and intelligence services. This is particularly shameful after Israel’s bloody military assault against the occupied Gaza Strip, which, according to leading international and local human rights organizations, left over 1,440 Palestinians dead and 5380 injured. We are certain you would hate to support an institution that supports a military apparatus that murdered over 430 children.
By accepting the prize at Tel Aviv University, you will be indirectly giving a slight and inadvertent nod to Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This university has refused to commemorate the destroyed Palestinian village on which it was built. That village is called Sheikh Muwanis, and it no longer exists as a result of Israel’s confiscation. Its people have been expelled.
Let us remember the words of Archbishop Desmund Tutu: “if you choose to be neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” As such, we call upon you to say no to neutrality, no to being on the fence, no to normalization with apartheid Israel, not after the blood of more than 400 children has been spilt! No to occupation, repression, settler colonialism, settlement expansion, home demolition, land expropriation and the system of discrimination against the indigenous population of Palestine, and no to the formation of Bantustans in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip!
Just as every citizen knew that s/he had a moral responsibility to boycott apartheid in South Africa after the Sharpeville massacre, Gaza 2009 was the world’s wake-up call. All of Israel’s academic institutions are state-run and state-funded. To partake of any of their prizes or to accept any of their blandishments is to uphold their heinous political actions. Israel has continually violated international law in defiance of the world. It is illegally occupying Palestinian land. It continues its aggression against the Palestinian people. Israel denies Palestinians all of the democratic liberties it so proudly, fictitiously flaunts. Israel is an apartheid regime that denies Palestinian refugees their right of return as sanctioned by UN resolution 194.
Attending the symposium would violate the unanimously endorsed Palestinian civil society call for Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This call is also directed towards international activists, artists, and academics of conscience, such as you. We are certain that you would love to be a part of the noble struggle against the apartheid, colonization and occupation that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for the past 61 years, a struggle that is ongoing.
Ms. Atwood, we consider you to be what the late Edward Said called an “oppositional intellectual.” As such, and given our veneration of your work, we would be both emotionally and psychologically wounded to see you attend the symposium. You are a great woman of words, of that we have no doubt. But we think you would agree, too, that actions speak louder than words. We all await your decision.
The Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI)
Endorsed by The University Teachers’ Association in Palestine