Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose

Linda Grant
21 August 2005

A boycott of Israeli writers is repressive, regressive and unworkable cultural policing, says Linda Grant.

Professor Jacqueline Rose, who teaches literature at Queen Mary, University of London, is interviewed in openDemocracy about her recent book, The Question of Zion, an intellectual-historical exercise in marrying political theory to psychoanalysis. In passing she mentions that she supports a military, economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel as an extension or adjunct to her theoretical work.

Jacqueline Rose implies that no one could object to such a course of action if they knew the true extent of the control Israel exercises over Palestinian lives, and with what devastating consequences.

Linda Grant is responding to Jacqueline Rose’s interview, conducted by openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler:

“Nation as trauma, Zionism as question” (August 2005)

I want make it clear that – unlike many who seek to implement such a boycott – I have been to the West Bank and Gaza.

In Gaza, I visited the town of al-Mawasi, hemmed in between a settler-only road and the sea. I met a Palestinian man there who was refused permission to transport the body of his dead wife to the cemetery in his car, and was forced to carry her in his arms across the checkpoint.

In the West Bank, I have stood in the trashed upper floor of a house near Nablus which Israeli soldiers had taken over, just before the son of the family below was to move in with his new bride; this delayed their marriage for a year, and led to the whole family being accused of collaboration by neighbouring villagers.

I have seen the monstrous height of the wall at Abu Dis, and elderly and disabled people crawling across a broken space, making a mockery of the army’s claims that the wall’s purpose is to prevent suicide bombers.

How censorship works

I have seen all this – yet I am also aware that when people predominantly preoccupied with ideas begin to seek practical applications of them, they are often unable to anticipate what can turn out to be disastrous consequences. As a statement of vicarious identification with the victim – in this case, the occupied Palestinians – Jacqueline Rose is prepared to embark on a policy of literary censorship, aimed at a single state.

This is clear in the way that Professor Rose resents the idea that Israeli academics are permitted to “wander around the world giving papers which are nothing to do with the political situation and which simply accrue prestige to the state.” I assume that in proposing a cultural boycott, she is also opposed to Israeli writers wandering about the world speaking at literary festivals, publishing their novels and poetry, having their plays staged, and accruing prestige to the country that is producing Hebrew literature.

Also in openDemocracy:

Stephen Howe, “Boycotting Israel: the uses of history” (April 2005)

At the very least, Jacqueline Rose does not think through how such a cultural boycott might be implemented. To illustrate the point, let’s take three examples.

First, consider the novelist and essayist David Grossman. Jacqueline Rose is an admirer of Grossman, as one of the first Israeli writers to systematically describe the effect of the occupation since just before the start of the first intifada, at least insofar as it conforms to ideas that she already holds (such as his novel See Under: LOVE).

Let’s suppose that David Grossman might be permitted to attend a conference in London to give a talk on his opposition to the occupation, but would not be allowed to read from his work at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival – unless he chooses to write a novel about the occupation. Peter Florence, director of Hay, has already been under pressure not to accept sponsorship from the Israeli embassy, though such sponsorship consists in its entirety of paying the travel expenses of Israeli writers, which the festival itself is unable to afford.

Second, consider the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua. He writes his fiction (notably his novel Dancing Arabs, a bestseller in Israel), and his weekly column in Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz, in Hebrew. Under Jacqueline Rose’s dispensation, Kashua might be permitted to speak in Britain as long as his subject was the treatment of Israel’s Arab minority and its second-class citizenship, but not read from an apolitical novel about a man’s relationship with his wife. Or, perhaps, Sayed Kashua would be exempt from the boycott on the grounds that he is Palestinian-Israeli, thus selecting for censorship writers on ethnic grounds: Arabs okay, Jews not.

Third, consider the literary collaboration of Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef, an Israeli and a Palestinian writer who jointly published Gaza Blues, a book of short stories, in 2004. Would el-Youssef be permitted to read from his fiction in Britain, while Keret is permitted only to read a statement about the occupation? Or would Keret be the absent non-presence on the platform? (Miriam Schlesinger, his translator, was fired in 2002 from the editorial board of The Translator, by its editor Mona Baker, as part of her freelance academic boycott.)

As the examples accumulate, so do the complications. Who will be establishing the rules for this boycott, and under whose aegis will it operate: Professor Rose herself, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a specially convened cultural secretariat of engaged British artists and writers?

What writers do

I suspect that, like all other attempts at literary censorship, any effort to silence Israeli writers will be condemned by bodies like the Society of Authors, the Writers’ Guild, and PEN. They will uphold the same standard of free circulation of ideas that has always challenged intellectual nomenklatura and upset conformist minds. Fyodor Dostoevsky was an anti-semite; his work is still taught at the university where Rose herself teaches; Daniel Barenboim broke the censorship on performing Wagner in Israel.

By contrast, the cultural life of the Soviet Union and its satellites was drenched in censorship of those considered enemies of the proletariat and the revolution. “Which side are you on?” is a question shared by Jacqueline Rose and the apparatchiki of Writers’ Unions in such totalitarian states.

Writers are responsible for producing literature. That’s it. Their choice of subject is theirs alone. They write what they have to write about. Aharon Appelfeld has since the 1960s been entering and re-entering the trauma of his childhood in wartime Europe. He writes every day in a café in Jerusalem, and has almost nothing to say in his work about contemporary Israel, let alone Palestine.

Any demand to turn writers into instruments of political change or conformity to a set of ideas, however correct in principle, will ultimately fail – even where the full weight of the state leads to their banning or even (as with Isaac Babel among many others) their murder. Of course, this is not Jacqueline Rose’s intention. She merely wishes to control writers, to tell them what to think and what to say, to instrumentalise them for her own political ends.

Linda Grant is a writer whose novel When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. Her latest non-fiction work, a study of Israelis, will be published in March 2006 by Virago.

Fortunately, the creative force of art is likely to break attempts to raise barriers and close minds.

In February 2005, Samir el-Youssef and I travelled together to the Jerusalem Book Fair, joining Palestinian, Arab and Israeli writers who defied the cultural gagging Professor Rose wishes to impose upon us. We talked about politics, we talked about language, we talked about literature. And we found each other’s work.

Samir el-Youssef, who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, told the story of reading an Aharon Appelfeld novel in which two Jewish boys are hunted through Europe by the Nazis until finally, they escape by boat to Palestine. “And I felt relieved”, he said. “Then I thought, what are you doing feeling relieved? They’re coming to steal your country.” Such is the subversive power of art. It has a tendency to unpredictability, producing empathy for the wrong people and the wrong causes.

Jacqueline Rose is not unaware of the problems inherent in her project, but as she admits, she does not mind if it “creates something of a mess”. For those who go about the world making messes rarely feel that they themselves will have to clear them up.

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