The award-winning novelist Kamala Shamsie is not prone to self-righteousness. I’ve met her several times over the years. She is still, thoughtful, measured and wise, manifestly not into agitprop or hysterical public debates. And yet today she finds herself caught up in the mother of all battles, a conflict she neither sought out or could possibly have been prepared for.
Her last novel, Home Fire is stupendous and prescient. One central character, a thoroughly westernised Muslim man who becomes the Home Secretary, spookily anticipated the rise of Tory cabinet minister Sajid Javid. The book brought her many accolades and wider recognition.
Recently, she was awarded the Nelly Sachs Prize by the city of Dortmund in Germany for her writing, which, in the words of the judges, ‘builds bridges between societies’. Then abruptly, the prize was revoked because the author supports the global BDS movement. (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.) Led by Palestinians, the movement follows the example set by campaigners who successfully persuaded millions of world citizens to boycott South African goods, arts, sports, funds and events to hasten the end of Apartheid.
BDS supporters- and I am one of them- believe the Israeli government flaunts international law, does not respect or protect the human rights of Palestinians, occupies land illegitimately, is aggressively taking over more lands, and treats Arabs as second-class citizens. I would add that under the extreme right-winger Netanyahu, the people in Gaza are deliberately being humiliated, denied basics and wasted. They have lost all hope. Innocent Israelis live in fear of attacks too. Their history is always with them and that must be intolerable. But in this mammoth struggle, Israel is the Goliath. To say this or speak up for the weaker side is now, apparently, taboo.
The Palestinian cause, a just cause, is being pushed away into obscurity. Good people are bullied into submission. One Labour MP tells me she is now branded an anti-Semite because she backs the BDS aims and methods. When arts organisations refuse to take Israeli funds they are named and shamed by the media. University students who organize talks about Palestine and Israel are maligned by Zionists on campus. The atmosphere out there is unhealthy and it’s choking fair debates, reasonable enquiries.
Over the last few years staunch friends of Israel in the UK and abroad – with the tacit approval of many western politicians- have established a particular and restrictive definition of antisemitism across the free world. (This is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – IHRA- definition). In May the German parliament decided that BDS campaign was anti-Semitic. In the US, Trump totally sides with anti-Palestinian Israelis. In this country the indisputable and ugly anti-Semitism among some in the Labour party, has led to contemptible charges against the entire left by Israeli government apologists. They can’t stand it that we continue to stand up for Palestine. To their credit, various Jewish organisations have resisted this censorship. They have bravely taken on the Zionist establishment and valiantly opposed the unreasonable conflation of political criticism with anti-Jewish racism.
We Muslims now really have to watch what we say about Israel’s unjust policies because the denunciations come thick and fast. Am I even allowed to ask what crimes or misdeeds Kamala Shamsie has committed that makes her unfit to receive a literary prize? Are fiction writers not permitted to take ethical stances or to protest? What happened to freedom of thought, choice and action? Oh and what does the yowling troop of libertarians, at say, The Spectator, or Spiked Online feel about such gross pressure put on this brilliant British-Pakistani writer? They who claim an inviolable right to demean and degrade refugees, black people, Muslims, women and gay people, obediently follow and propagate the Israeli/Zionist lines. Listen to their heavy silence. Smell their complicity.
Renowned writers, including Arundhati Roy, William Dalrymple, Sally Rooney, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Yann Martel, and others have written an open letter to the judges in the London Review of Books: ‘What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression and the freedom to criticise? …Without those, arts and culture become meaningless luxuries’. Hopefully this powerful intervention will move the Nelly Sachs prize organisers. Maybe not. If they don’t rethink this miserable revocation, no other author should accept the prize. Otherwise art does indeed become morally empty and culturally worthless.
i newspaper, October 2019