On Sept. 6 this year the German city of Dortmund awarded the Nelly Sachs Prize to the British Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie. The Nelly Sachs Prize, named after the visionary Jewish poet and dramatist Nelly Sachs, herself a Nobel Prize winner in 1966, is given biennially to authors whose work “builds bridges between people,” promoting “tolerance, respect and reconciliation.” There’s obviously trouble in store for any jury having to decide what work does or doesn’t fit that bill. In one sense all novelists perform some such function, since they invite the reader to engage in acts of the imagination and the imagination is no respecter of barriers. On the other you could insist that the novel is better suited to blowing bridges up than building them. Be all this as it may, two weeks after awarding Shamsie their prize, the jury blew up its own bridge and told her they were taking it back.
And the reason for this change of mind?
Shamsie is—indeed has been for several years—an active participant in the cultural boycott of Israel. There is, it should be said, no suggestion that Shamsie has concealed her involvement in BDS. Why should she? Germany might consider the BDS movement to be anti-Semitic and illegal but in sections of the British arts community support for it is a badge of honor. Given which, one might have thought that the jury for the Nelly Sachs Prize would have been aware, or taken the trouble to find out, who they were honoring. As matters now stand, the jurors look foolish, vindictive and lily-livered. Not only can they be painted as acting politically, against the liberal spirit of the prize itself, they are exposed to the charge—as an angry Shamsie has expressed it—“of bowing to pressure.”
Let the dust settle and the question has to be: pressure from whom? No one has yet brought up the World Jewish Conspiracy, and I doubt Shamsie ever would, but you don’t have to say those exact words, do you? You don’t even have to know you’re thinking them.
Three days after the withdrawal of the award an open letter signed by more than 250 writers appeared on the London Review of Books blog site, the LRB being the house magazine for the expression of writerly opposition to Israel. Following a furious statement from Shamsie, which references Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank and the killing of two Palestinian teenagers by Israeli forces—both egregious, but neither any more an expression of Israeli culture than unlawfully proroguing Parliament or misleading the Queen are expressions of British culture—the letter concludes with a rhetorical question. “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?” Rhetorical because it admits of no answer. Not a single right of Shamsie’s to advocate for whatever cause she chooses has been undermined.
Leaving aside the question of how much thought the signatories to this letter have given to the specifics of the case—“freedom of conscience and expression” being principles we would all sign up to in our sleep—it is easy to understand Shamsie’s anger and frustration. We novelists like prizes, consider ourselves worthy of them all, and don’t much care for having them snatched from under our noses. She is, by general consent, a good writer. I must say I have always enjoyed talking to her whenever we meet at parties or prize-givings, whoever is winning them, and expect to enjoy talking to her no less in the future, even though I now know what her politics in relation to Israel are. I certainly don’t begrudge her an honor. But is it too much to ask her to have second thoughts of her own and see why her position on BDS disqualifies her, and always should have disqualified her, from a prize that overtly makes a virtue of promoting understanding between peoples?
Whatever BDS means to achieve it is not subtle in its grasp of the rights and wrongs, the causes and the consequences, of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors. Not subtle in its penetration of how things stand for all parties. Not at pains to be evenhanded where evenhandedness might prove fruitful. And not far-seeing in securing the political well-being of actual Palestinians. But these are practical, and some would say desperate, considerations and as such might just be permitted to slip past the vigilance of moral rectitude and intellectual rigor.
A cultural boycott, however, imposed by teachers on teachers, thinkers on thinkers, writers on writers, is a monstrous absurdity. The absurdity is self-evident when Shamsie explains her refusal to allow her work to be translated into Hebrew because she is unable to find an Israeli publisher “who is completely unentangled from the state”—who acts, in other words, not by the lights of its own “freedom of conscience and expression,” but by hers.
Accusations of McCarthyism have been thrown at the hapless Dortmund jury. Yet Shamsie’s insistence—again in her own words—on “a BDS-compliant Israeli publisher” is sinister in ways that exceed McCarthyism. How must a publisher prove its BDS-compliance? Must it refuse to publish writers of whom the proponents of BDS disapprove? Which ones? What academy issues the kosher for BDS certificate?
To the familiar self-righteousness of boycotters, Shamsie adds the overweening vanity of the wounded novelist. A writer has to estimate herself highly indeed to consider the withholding of her words a sanction. Should I turn out to be wrong on this, and not being able to read Shamsie indeed brings the Israeli administration to its knees and opens the gates to a peaceful, flourishing Gaza, I will be the first to apologize. But if books can have this effect in their absence, only imagine what their effect might be if they are read.
It must be an irrefragable rule of thought and art and knowledge that they pass freely from person to person and state to state. Whoever would impede that passage is a traitor to the very idea of civilized discourse, however grand in their own eyes the motive for blockading it is. If we are to talk, in the language of the LRB, of freedom, then the freedom to open a page of a book is the most precious freedom of all, and whoever seeks to close a page cannot claim to be freedom’s champion.
The irony of it all is the more delicious for being missed by the signatories to the LRB letter who read the decision to rescind the prize simply as a politicized “punishment” of Shamsie for her commitment to BDS—never mind that the prize explicitly cites the opening of communications as its raison d’être, and Shamsie’s raison d’être as a boycotter is shutting communication down. Let Shamsie be showered with other prizes; she couldn’t be less entitled to this one.
In its letter, the LRB cannot resist making the long-granted distinction between anti-Jewish racism and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies. I have learnt to prick my ears to this. Since there is barely a Jew, friendly to Israel or not, who would argue otherwise, who exactly is it they are trying to convince?
So far I have not seen it necessary to bring Jewishness into Shamsie’s argument with Dortmund. I have questions about some of the motives behind the BDS movement she espouses but I have no argument with her in the matter of Jews. To the 250 signatories to the letter, though, I say this: Israel in the eyes of many of you is an anathema, and has been an anathema since the moment of its creation. But might not you, before seizing the pretext of a literary prize to express this view yet again, have paused to consider the nature of that prize, the person after whom it’s named, and the poetry she wrote?
One of Nelly Sachs’ most renowned poems is O die Schornsteine—Oh, the chimneys—which begins:
O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air—
Israel in this poem is not the country whose politics, alone among nations, stirs artists to silence other artists. As an idea, as a memory, as a tragedy and as an aspiration, it is the fragile casing of the Jewish people’s spirit.
I do not cite Nelly Sachs’ poem to curtail anyone’s right to advocate for human rights. Those chimneys justify no cruelty. They do not right what can be shown to be wrong. But the poem should remind all those to whom compassion, conscience, and conciliation are said to be dear of the fine tracery of connections that binds a people and its history, an idea and a place. Understand that and you may still go on with your campaign; but it should not surprise or alarm you that a prize named after the author of O die Schornsteine has decided it must hold those bonds sacred.
To Kamila Shamsie I say, your crying foul makes a fool of you, whatever support your movement gives you. Whoever visits censorship on others cannot reasonably complain when something they paint as censorship—though in this instance it is no such thing—is visited on them. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
You’re a writer, Kamila—attend to the majesty and justice of those words. Or, if you can’t, at least allow the joke. Leo Rosten defined chutzpah as killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you’re an orphan. Another definition is locking a door and then complaining when you can’t get in.
Read Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson’s monthly column in Tablet magazine here.