Margaret Atwood received open letters from various groups, including BOYCOTT!, VTJP, PSCABI AND PACBI. She had written back to an individual from VTJP, Kathy Shapiro. This exchange was followed by an exchange with another person from VTJP, Mark Hage, and then by the following exchange with Ayala Shani, from BOYCOTT!. Since Atwood's letters are defined by her as personal, they are only briefly summarized for context. Atwood also issued this public response.
Dear Margaret Atwood,
As you may know, I am one of the people who appealed to you to refuse the Dan David Prize and refrain from attending the related Tel-Aviv University symposia, along with my friends at Boycott from Within*. I am aware of your correspondence with Kathy Shapiro and Mark Hage from Vermonters for a Just Peace for Palestine\Israel and do not wish to repeat what was already said by them, which I support wholeheartedly . However, I do wish to express some of my thoughts in response to what you have written so far.
I am an Israeli Jew who has lived my whole life in Israel and learned to reject the false and harmful narratives I was fed with from childhood onwards. One of these particularly harmful "stories" was introduced to me when I was an high school student, namely the "peace process" narrative. At the heart of this narrative lies the pretense that what takes place between Israel and the Palestinians is merely a conflict between adversaries and not an occupation, a systematic racial discrimination (apartheid) and an oppressive relation of power. This pretense was the basis for the negotiations between one Palestinian group, PLO, and Israel, and has led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority that ironically further deepened the dependence and the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, i. e. made it even more than before about power relations. I encourage you to read a more comprehensive analysis of the subject in the article How surrendering Palestinian rights became the language of "peace" by Joseph Massad.
I recognize the "peace process" narrative as prevailing in your attitude. The colonization of Palestine has many manifestations on the issue of water too, which you attest to be focusing on. Amnesty International's last October report shows how Israel is denying Palestinians the right to access adequate water by maintaining total control over the shared water resources and pursuing discriminatory policies. Palestinians in the occupied territories suffer from lack of steady access to water, consume a fifth of what Israelis and settlers consume, and pay a few times more for their water, even though they are much poorer. Their water supply, if available at all, is rationed in many cases by trucks, or subjected to harassments and cutoffs by settlers and Israeli authorities. Israelis, on the other hand, including all West Bank settlers, enjoy steady tap water, a large part of it originating from the West Bank. Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that does not address and is not dedicated to undoing this basic inequality - further advances and sustains Israel's discriminatory policies.
You mentioned you do not see BDS as effective and therefore do not wish to put your energy on it. How do you explain then the president of Israel's presence in your planned award-winning ceremony? Is it ineffective of him to come? Or does he too recognize his role in acquiring prestige for the Israeli regime, particularly through cultural events among progressive figures such as yourself and Mr. Ghosh - and in light of Israel's continued numerous violations of human rights and atrocities?
I'll end with a quote of Naomi Klein on the BDS movement from her speech last June in Ramallah:
"Everything would be fine if we used words that barely register and tactics that barely worked. [...] But we are here to reject that. We are here to use language that resonates and reaches people. And we want to use tactics that actually work".
Tel Aviv, Israel
* BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within
Atwood responded with a series of questions, asking for practical immediate means to improve the lives of Palestinians; questions to ask moderate Israelis with power; warnings for the future if the status quo is maintained; what kind of cooperation on Climate Change in Palestine\Israel would Ayala advocate; things to tell the present government of Canada and helpful suggestions for Hamas. She also labeled herself a bad messenger for extremists; mentioned Susan Sontag strong but ineffective letter to Castro, which started with "You murderer", and referred to an article critical of the BDS movement by Salutin.
Dear Margaret Atwood,
Thank you for answering me and for your will to continue this exchange.
You asked for suggestions on practical and immediate ways Israel can improve the lives of Palestinians, which, if I understood correctly, you will consider to pass on in conversations you will have in your visit to Israel. While there are certainly many such steps Israel could have taken if its government wanted to, there's not much prospect in this path you are offering. There's a framing to your visit that cannot be undone easily or fully, even if you were committed to its undoing. A witty speech or pointed questions will not move a system that has already made it clear that only words don't go so far even for the Obama administration. You are referring to improvements on the ground, right now, but who are you planning to persuade or lobby: The 94% of Israeli Jews who supported the recent Gaza massacre? All Zionist parties - holding 110 out of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament - who supported that massacre too?
As many have already conveyed to you, you are already missing your true opportunity to make a difference - either by publicly joining a movement that has the patience and moral resilience to overcome the key elements of the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, or at least, by silently avoiding being used by the Israeli propaganda and branding efforts. Indeed, if you are set on accepting the Dan David Prize and participating in mainstream academic and cultural events in Israel, you will be used. In light of this, and the views you are holding on BDS, I suggest to you to seriously consider this last option - not to specify BDS-related reasoning, but to nevertheless cancel your visit.
Margaret, I do not consider you as a messenger, not in Canada and certainly not in Israel. I do not engage in such delegating of people to convey messages on my or others' behalf. I, as many others, have asked you to make a conscientious and politically significant decision. You have argued so far that our methods are ineffective and explained that your conscience is not bothering you in this matter, particularly in light of your involvement in saving this planet for us all. I would like, however, to contest your arguments against the BDS movement and to discuss the issues you have raised in your letter and the article attached to it.
There's a reiterating concept throughout your letter, as well as in the article attached to it, in regard to relying on governments' power and on appealing to the state to amend its wrongful ways. While this is certainly necessary sometimes, it has to be kept in mind at all times that by appealing to the state and its institutions, one further reaffirms the state's centralized power, strengthen its institutions and assumed power hierarchies, and implies to the people's and civil society's powerlessness.
Governments follow what has already been a prevailing concept within civil society's discourse, or succumb to international pressure. They do not, for the most part, lead struggles for change. That is why it is beside the point what practical suggestions would I have for the Israeli, Canadian or Hamas governments - not to suggest commensurability between Palestinian governing under occupation and siege with the Israeli or Canadian governments.
Moreover, Susan Sontag's letter to Castro is not an equivalent to BDS campaigning, as we do not turn to the Israeli government. In the article you attached, Salutin argues that boycotts actually started working in the case of Apartheid South Africa only after sanctions has effectively isolated the country. Salutin fails to discern the crucial role of campaigning for boycotts, divestments and international sanctions throughout the years since the 1950s - which has laid the foundation for the international isolation of Apartheid South Africa. Governments were in fact the hardest and many times impossible elements to be brought into actually holding even their own decided policies (See chapter 4 here).
Boycotts are not just or even mainly about the end result of whether a certain product or institution was actually or severely affected by civil society's mobilization against it. They are the carriers of a broader shift in public conception and discourse. They can lay the foundations for a wider international pressure and isolation. The boycott of Israel is merely tactical. It is not a principle against co-existence, even under conditions of inequality. It is not about being self-righteous.
Salutin comparisons between Israeli laws and policies discriminating against Palestinians and BDS campaigning within Palestinian society is an outrageous demagogy. The Palestinian prisoners' club did not "agree to the decision", as if BDS campaigners has the same role within Palestinian society under occupation as the Israeli parliament has in Israel. There's a large support in the BDS campaign in the Palestinian society and over 170 civil society organizations has already joined it. Whoever wished to promote the performance in Ramallah could not have faced the popular pressure against it.
As Salutin conveniently fails to mention, Leonard Cohen wanted to perform in Ramallah only in response to an already existing BDS campaign against his performance in Israel. When refused in Ramallah, he then turned to Amnesty international to donate his personal gains from the performance, but due to much pressure against it, he was refused again. With the boycott being a tactic to mobilize the isolation of Israel, it is of crucial importance to the BDS movement that there won't be an easy way for internationals to bypass criticism while undermining the boycott. A performance in Ramallah or a donation cannot change the status-quo of Israel's acceptance and impunity among the world's nations when accompanied by a performance in Israel. Hence the appropriate use of the term "whitewashing" in this regard.
Sarah Shulman, a Jewish novelist and professor in the City University of New York, recently wrote this about her decision not to undermine the boycott:
"In November 2009 I had the honor of being invited to keynote the Tel Aviv LGBT studies conference, and very much wanted to attend. However, when I learned that it was being held at Tel Aviv University, I decided to instead go on a solidarity visit to anti-Occupation venues in Israel as well as meeting with Palestinian LGBT groups in the West Bank. LGBT audiences came to alternative venues to speak with me, so I was able to dialogue with queer audiences without undermining the Boycott. Although it took a lot of conversation and thought before I decided to participate in Boycott in this way, the trip convinced me that this was the right decision." (more)
It is true that pro-Israel elements shamelessly exploit fears of anti-Semitism to their advantage. But they do so over any criticism on Israeli policies, not just in regard to BDS. The BDS movement, based on opposition to all forms of racism, on justice and human rights, and being supported and promoted by many Jewish figures and groups around the world - overcomes such accusations.
Salutin further mentions the failure of the Arab League boycott as foretelling the fate of the BDS movement, but he doesn't elaborate on what was that boycott about (chapter 2 here). Completely unlike the BDS movement which is modeled after the struggle against Apartheid South Africa, the Arab League boycott was not a Palestinian initiative, not a civil society's initiative, and without the Palestinian people's best interests in mind. It was carried out by Arab governments who had performed human rights violations themselves. It had no clear goals, and did not focus on raising the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel within the public discourse nor on calling for a conscientious decision to be made. Most of it was handled behind closed doors, issuing threats and black-listing companies who did not adhere to the boycott. Finally, it has increasingly made compromises when state's interests contradicted boycott policy.
You paint me as radical, and that may be true - it is impossible to be a Jew who supports Palestinian rights in Israel without being radical. But the Palestinian struggle, including the BDS movement, is certainly not radical. It's a liberal struggle, designed to secure universally recognized basic human rights. It is not socialist either. Capitalists can to relate to it too . The only way it would seem radical is if equal rights and opposition to racism were to be largely ignored when it comes to Palestinians.
Your question of what Israel can do, what is practical of it to do right away to improve the lives of Palestinians, is an elusive one, as I started to explain. Israel is in no position to change its violent and oppressive course without significant external pressure. But for the sake of dialogue, I will mention a few things, relating to the Israeli occupation of 1967, that are of crucial importance and could have been done easily and right away by Israel, if its government wanted to.
END THE SIEGE ON GAZA. It seems to be largely agreed that this is the topmost priority right now. Israel has closed hermetically Gaza for human movement from and into it, disconnecting it also from the West Bank and the outside world (through sea and air sieges and agreements with Egypt). It has banned Gazan exports. It has placed severe restrictions on what sort of goods from Israel are to be banned altogether and is placing quotas for overall trucks quantity. Israel is rationing the Gazan population with the aim of putting it on the brink of a man-made humanitarian catastrophe.
STOP AND REVERSE ISRAELI ANNEXATION OF PALESTINIAN LAND AND RESOURCES. Palestinians are routinely facing house evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, while settlement expansion is not halted nor reversed. Contributing to the settlement enterprise, the separation wall, built on and annexing Palestinian lands, has to be dismantled and the land annexed by it should be returned with compensations to its rightful owners.
ALLOW FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT IN AND OUT OF THE WEST BANK, INCLUDING EAST JERUSALEM. Israel should remove its checkpoints, stop segregating populations, stop the permit system and deporting and jailing of the Palestinian people simply for bypassing unlawful freedom of movement restrictions. Recently the Israeli army has issued a new military order allowing it to label Palestinians as "infiltrators" and to perform mass expulsions without the supervision of the Israeli courts.
END MILITARY LAW ON WBGS AND RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS. Military law, applied to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) is merely a measure to subject the Palestinian population to severe oppression. It does not involve making justice, but bypassing internationally recognized juridical standards. Israel must release the political prisoners it has already apprehended, stop its practices of administrative detention, unlawful arrests and trials and unequal juridical treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population by canceling military law's applicability to Palestinians.
STOP KILLING, WOUNDING, TORTURING AND TERRORIZING PALESTINIANS. The recent story about a whistle-blower within the Israeli army has brought back some attention to the Israeli army's extra-judicial executions, committing war crimes against Palestinians, carried in some cases even against Israel's own high-court decision. Less attention is given to the Israeli army's often and arbitrary humiliations and torturing. The Goldston report has carefully detailed the terrorizing and massacring of the Gazan population within the Israeli army's "Cast Lead" operation. Israel should stop its violent attacks on Palestinian populations, and treat Palestinians as human beings worthy of the same protection from state's violence given to Israelis.
To discuss another issue you have raised, within these points there are also warnings for the future, as Israel intensifies its oppression and attacks on Palestinian populations. It is worth mentioning though that the argument about warnings in regard to Palestine\Israel is predominantly Israeli and Western oriented. Palestinians are already under severe oppression and occupation. That should already merit immediate action.
Finally, related to this last point is the issue of co-operative ventures on Climate Change. There too what is mostly a warning and a danger to Israel and the West is already a fact on the ground for many Palestinians. You summarized the water issue by saying that Israel is "hogging" all the water. Israel is not just doing that, it is also drying whole villages out of water, creating an ever-increasing water crisis for the Palestinians in the West Bank. A cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on Climate Change effects cannot be fertile for the Palestinians, if it doesn't address the inherent situation of inequality on the ground, opposing the power relations and Israeli institutions that sustain this inequality.
member of BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within