‘Boycott of Israel would not serve any useful tactical purpose’: Amitav Ghosh

The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) and Pakistanis for Palestine amongst others have appealed to the novelist Amitav Ghosh to decline the Israeli Dan David Prize he is being given jointly with Margaret Atwood.

The BRICUP open letter to Ghosh reads:

It’s surprising to have to raise Israeli colonialism with a writer whose entire oeuvre seems to us an attempt to imagine how human beings survived the depredations of colonialism. Gosh, even the Dan David judges like the way you evoke ‘the violent dislocations of people and regimes during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’.

Those making him this appeal have reminded him of his rejection of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2001.

Give below is Ghosh’s response to the appeal:

Thank you for your message. I have received many others in relation to the Dan David Prize, which I am sharing with Margaret Atwood.

To begin with: I think it is of paramount importance to note that this prize is awarded by a university in conjunction with a private foundation: it is not awarded by the state of Israel.

I would like to state clearly that I do not believe in embargoes and boycotts where they concern matters of culture and learning. On the contrary I believe very strongly that it is important to defend the notion that institutions of culture and learning must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state. Or else every writer in America and Britain, and everyone who teaches in a British or American university, would necessarily be implicated in the Iraq war, and by extension, in Israel?s actions in Gaza and Palestine. Similarly every Indian writer and academic would also be complicit in the actions of the Indian government in areas of conflict. And if we don?t defend this principle how will we defend the rights of dissent of those who are employed in universities ? especially, for instance, in times of war, when reasons of state can be cited to create an explicit complicity?

Against the advice of some activists, I went to Burma/Myanmar in 1996/7 when I was researching my book ?The Glass Palace?. I am convinced that by going there, and writing the book I did something that was, in some small way, useful; staying away would have achieved nothing. I traveled to Sri Lanka in 2001, to deliver a lecture during one of the worst periods of the conflict; I have been ?guest of honour? at a book fair in a Gulf country where millions of my compatriots live and work in conditions of helotry, without any civil rights and religious freedoms. Many areas of my own country, India, are racked by violent conflicts.

I do not see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional, that it requires the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically-minded members of that society. Is it really possible to argue that there is in that country such a unique and excessive malevolence that it contaminates every aspect of civil society, including private foundations and universities? Let me remind you of something that Sari Nusseibeh once said: “If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals… If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.”

I have always felt that exceptionalism has been a major problem for the rest of the world in relation to both the US as well as Israel. How then can I now take an exceptionalist position myself?

I also do not believe that a boycott of Israel would serve any useful tactical purpose at this time. For more on this, please see this.

Some have mentioned my action in relation to the Commonwealth Prize. I would like to point out however that I did not turn that prize down; I withdrew my book from the competition because I disagreed with the specific mandate of that prize and did not wish to see my work placed within that framework. Not for a moment would I have considered severing my connections, such as they are, with Britain and the British literary or academic worlds.

So I am afraid this is an issue on which we must agree to respectfully disagree.


Amitav Ghosh

78 thoughts on “‘Boycott of Israel would not serve any useful tactical purpose’: Amitav Ghosh”

  1. Gaza students explain why Margaret Atwood should not accept the prize either:

    Open letter, Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel

    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 Tel Aviv University’s position vis-a-vis this form of illegal collective punishment, described by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 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 of Israel. 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 5,380 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 Desmond 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 she or 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 open letter to Canadian author Margaret Atwood was issued by the Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel on 4 April 2010.


    1. et tu Shivam? Cementing one’s rear end to the wall?

      When you can’t even take cement into Gaza, it’s time to stop being warm and fuzzy about philanthropy from Israel.

      Most Israeli’s are wonderful human beings. This is not about them. This is about the people of Gaza.


      PS – WRT to the the Dan David prize itself, the President of Israel is typically a part of the ceremonies.


  2. Amitav Ghosh’s attempt to justify receiving the Dan David prize is deeply disappointing and less than honest. There are three very significant problems with his argument:

    First, Ghosh claims that the prize “is awarded by a university in conjunction with a private foundation: it is not awarded by the state of Israel.” This is misleading. The prize is not awarded simply by “a university”; it is awarded by Tel Aviv University, a state-run institution. Perhaps Ghosh can defend receiving a prize from the institution of a state like Israel, but he should not pretend that this is somehow an entirely private affair.

    Second, and more substantively, is Ghosh’s failure to “see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional,” from, say, the US, UK, or India. But there is actually a fairly clear-cut distinction that separates Israel (and South Africa, the other obvious parallel he ignores) from these states: Israel continues to maintain a settler-colonial regime.

    Ghosh correctly points out that many states in the world engage in repressive practices as well as widespread discrimination. But Israel is in today’s world an unusual, if not unique, case: as part of its official ideology, it accords foreigners who happen to be Jews (even if they have no personal or family tie with the country) more rights than indigenous non-Jews (be they citizens or subjects under various forms of military/indirect rule). Similarly, South Africa, the US, Australia, etc. used to accord more rights to foreigners who were white than to indigenes who weren’t.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to say this is somehow quantitatively worse than, say, India’s repression in Kashmir, Saudi Arabia’s discrimination against non-Muslims, or America’s torture in Guantanamo. But like slavery before it, settler colonialism is one of those practices that is not only universally repugnant, but largely seen as anachronistically so. If Ghosh is afraid of some kind of slippery slope of boycott, opposition to ongoing settler-colonialism should be a clear enough principle to set his mind at ease.

    Third, Ghosh’s invocation of his trip to Burma/Myanmar is similarly illuminating in its misdirection. No one is suggesting that Ghosh refuse to set foot in Israel/Palestine; indeed, it would be wonderful if he were to join the many others who have gone to witness the horrors of settler-colonialism and show solidarity with its victims and the Israeli Jews of conscience who have opposed it. There is nothing to indicate that the Dan David prize represents such values or such a stance. Maybe some of the people involved think Israel should be less brutal in its methods, but there is no rejection of the fundamentally discriminatory nature of the state.


  3. Considering Mr Ghosh’s stand, one is perhaps reminded more of the few west indian cricketers who did the ‘rebel’ tours of apartheid south africa. let’s not forget that parallel, how long ago was it that the UN itself equated zionism with racism? a vote amending that was effected pre-oslo, and what transpired, eventually?
    the global, incipient movement for a boycott of israeli academics undercuts mr ghosh’s flimsy ‘it’s a univ, not the state itself’ line.
    remember, we are looking at a state which has, by any definition, people with openly fascist views running the government. all its institiutions, ALL, are deeply implicated in the zionist project.
    Again, just look up the latest, the call for (and strong public support for) making it a CRIME for a jew to marry an arab in israel.
    Mr Ghosh, sorry, but you have willy nilly given credence to an apartheid/facsist state and its institutions. A prize, surely, can’t be worth your conscience.


  4. Ghosh’s arguments sound specious and a-political. Ah Fatt’s critique is unanswerable, and I’d add only one point. As anyone familiar with Palestine solidarity networks will be bitterly aware, political mobilization on this issue has been desperately difficult, and does not take place on an abundant terrain where there is a plenitude of choices for activists. Of course an academic boycott comes with tragic costs – further isolation of progressive Israeli academics, stifling of cultural exchanges, etc, etc. The point is that other and less ‘problematic’ forms of boycott – against, for instance, the widespread marketing of produce grown on stolen Palestinian land – have been tried, and have failed, because of the complicity of most ‘democratic’ regimes with Israeli terror. Academics, on the other hand, have in important cases been able to muster collective mandates for a boycott – from, for instance, teachers’ unions in Britain. So in a desperate situation, this form of solidarity action, by no means the ideal one, is one of the very few that can actually be realized. What should solidarity organizations be expected to do, when their supervening governments systematically cut off every kind of possible meaningful action?
    The argument that ‘Israel is no worse than many other states’ completely misses the point of the boycott, which is not aimed at making some kind of Olympian, distanced judgment about the uniqueness of Israeli racism, but at making an engaged intervention in an ongoing battle. This is the commonest and dullest argument used against Palestine activists – why do you focus on Palestine, why not Darfur, Tibet, etc? Why fight your specific battle when there are so many other sites of injustice? This assumes that activists can simply choose from a marketplace of ’causes’, rather than fighting specific battles under severe constraints. There were, after all, arguably worse regimes than South Africa in the world when the boycott campaign took off, but that was simply not the point. What matters, when confronted with brutal and racist regimes, is what forms of action might reap dividends. You do not have to argue that Israel’s violence and terror is wholly unique in order to justify a boycott. It’s a question of realistic means and achievable ends in a context where other tactics have failed – just as the boycotts of South Africa, Chile and Spain were.


  5. There is an earlier case :
    “The American mathematician David Mumford, co-winner of the 2008 Wolf Foundation Prize in Mathematics, announced upon receiving the award yesterday that he will donate the money to Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, and to Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement. “


  6. The prose of righteousness is always based on an imputation of bad faith: for Ah Fatt, Ghosh’s explanation of his position is “…deeply disappointing and less than honest.”. “[H]is invocation of his trip to Burma/Myanmar is similarly illuminating in its misdirection”.

    Ah Fatt’s comment shimmers with the inquisitor’s enthusiasm for snouting up dishonesty and guilt. His objections might be useful if they supplied us with a moral compass for boycotting literary prizes, but they don’t.

    His case for boycotting the Dan David Prize rests on his assertion that Israel is exceptional: after apartheid South Africa, it remains (for Al Fatt) the one state committed to settler-colonialism.

    The reason Ghosh doesn’t invoke South Africa as a ‘parallel’ is because he has the moral sense to recognize that a Jewish state born in the aftermath of the Holocaust shouldn’t be twinned with a state built by Boer white supremacists. There might come a time when Israeli politicians like Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman formally inaugurate apartheid in an annexed West Bank: we’re not there yet. Israel is currently an oppressive majoritarian state that sustains a cruel occupation. In this it is not unique: there are Chechens and Tamils and Tibetans who see in Palestinian suffering a mirror of their own.

    Where does Ah Fatt place China on his scale of untouchability, given the systematic, state-sponsored settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet? Does he campaign against literary prizes handed out by American institutions given that the Zionist project would stall without Israel’s arch-enabler, the United States?

    More to the point, why should white settler nations like Australia and the United States be re-admitted into Ah Fatt’s commonwealth of virtuous nations (whose literary prizes can, presumably, be accepted without moral consternation), given that they were founded on genocide? Shouldn’t his moral antennae suss out the danger inherent in granting absolution to nations defined by successful genocide? Mightn’t some more zealous moralist argue that by tempering our indignation in the face of an historical fait accompli, we encourage ethnic cleansing and exterminism?

    This way lies madness. I think Ghosh has the right of it, but whether you agree with him and Atwood or not, you owe them the benefit of the doubt, if only for the sake of self-preservation; there are few spectacles more repellant than the moralist using a writer as a whetstone for his virtue.


    1. was the jewish state a consequence of the holocaust ? or was it the culmination of a process started by the Zionist fundamentalists to carve out a space for themselves ? sure, world war 2 helped the formation. so, are they not settlers ? may be a two state solution will eventually emerge, but we should perhaps remember this history – if i correctly recall.


  7. If the university and the prize jury is really as progressive and independent as Ghosh claims, then rejecting the prize would make them realize that they need to be even more progressive and independent! If the point is to encourage the Israeli academic community to criticize the state, then Ghosh should tell them that he is rejecting the prize for their own good!


  8. Clearly Amitav Ghosh has the right of it, as Mukul Kesavan notes . And certainly this is not going to be the only measure by which one judges his politics or his art.

    Yet, there are uncomfortable questions that do not go away, in spite of our good faith in Ghosh: Granted Israel is not exceptional, and granted no settler nation is free of blood-stained guilt, but to invoke that history to exculpate Israel’s wilful political evil is truly specious. It is one thing to grant Ghosh his politics and another to bend over backwards to frame Israel as a nation that has to be historically condoned. The comparisons with Sri Lanka and Russia, and China are fair upto a point, but will hardly bear historical scrutiny. Israel is not South Africa, we agree, but neither may it claim a great and tragic history of suffering and loss in earnestness, and all the time, given its own cynical use of that past. Those who have ruled Israel for the past three decades have greatly travestied by their politics a memory that has redefined our understanding of pain, endurance, evil and transcendence.
    To invoke the Holocaust to exculpate Israel vis-a-vis South Africa is not only unfair to the memory of the Shoah but also condescending to all those Palestinians who have attempted very hard to keep to this side of racism.

    Then again, as Shivam Vij has noted, ought not our views be informed by what the Dan David prize and foundation are all about? The Dan David Foundation does not appear to represent those who speak against the Zionist state. Its interest in academic freedom is belied by founder’s greater interest in profit and growth. A cursory look at the Foundation’s website reveals the following:

    – in 2008, the foundation supported an ‘Israeil’ Davos sort of summit, attended among others by former President Bush, Henry Kissinger, representatives from Goldmann Sachs, and presided over by Shimon Peres.
    – last year the Foundation awarded Tony Blair a leadership award.
    – nothing in the website allows us to imagine that the Foundation could actually stand in for that precariously free space which dissident Israeli academics have built and nurtured. Nor do we see anything even approaching a reasonable attitude to the Palestinian question.

    A last note on Israel’s exceptionalism: Israel’s model of rule is no more exceptional, because it has so successfully marketed it as a possible role to adopt to others. Israel has emerged most recently as an ‘inspiring’ example to South Asian states – witness how India and Sri Lanka are taking their cues from the Israeli military to fight their own citizens.

    Literary prizes are given and taken, and one could easily rest the matter through an invocation of a time-tested literary humanism – not all may feel that the argument works, but at least we would not have to answer for Israel’s existence one way or another. Israeli peace lovers, socialists, feminists and others have always been welcomed and supported, and by Palestinians – and the Dan David Foundation need not be the measure to keep alive that solidarity.


  9. Bhochka has helpfully explained the reasons why it is specious of Mukul Kesavan to equate support for boycotting settler-colonial states with opposition to boycotting states that are repressive in other ways (including states like the U.S. that conveniently ended their most overt settler-colonial policies only after wiping out most of the indigenes — precisely the outcome boycotting Israel is meant to avoid). There’s obviously nothing wrong with boycotting China, the U.S., Sudan, or other regimes for other human rights-related reasons — indeed, this happens so frequently that it doesn’t draw much attention. What is curious about the Israel case is that it is the only one where we suddenly encounter a demand for a universal boycott policy before proceeding — a truly universalist exceptionalism!

    But there is an additional teachable moment in Kesavan’s political analysis, which we can extract from his claims here:

    “There might come a time when Israeli politicians like Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman formally inaugurate apartheid in an annexed West Bank: we’re not there yet. Israel is currently an oppressive majoritarian state that sustains a cruel occupation. In this it is not unique: there are Chechens and Tamils and Tibetans who see in Palestinian suffering a mirror of their own.”

    Kesavan’s first statement is right: Israel has not formally annexed the territories occupied in 1967. In order to understand why, let us look to Kesavan’s flawed parallel with Chechnya and Tibet.

    Russia and China have unquestionably engaged in brutal (and obviously boycottable) practices in Chechnya and Tibet. But they have done so in order to forcibly integrate those territories and their populations, which at the very least contains the (obviously problematic) promise of equality.

    The state of Israel is in a different situation. It cannot promise equality, which is another way of saying it must be openly discriminatory: for the better part of its existence, it has controlled a territory that now encompasses about five million Jews and five million non-Jews, the latter being subjected to various forms of non-equality (including indirect rule). But even while irrevocably transforming this territory, Israel has not officially annexed all of it, precisely because it wishes to avoid the obligation to promise equal citizenship rights to the inhabitants. So instead it maintains the legal fiction that it is merely, in Kesavan’s words, a “majoritarian state that sustains a cruel occupation” — rather than a state for Jews in which Jews do not constitute a clear majority.

    This means that in order for Kesavan’s parallel with Tibet and Chechnya to be correct, Israel must annex the occupied territories — in other words, to act (as Kesavan acknowledges) like apartheid South Africa.

    One can either accept the legal fiction that we are looking at a state (pre-1967 Israel) that has engaged in a 40-year occupation of territories external to it or we can accept that there is a single state (covering British Mandate Palestine) that employs different spatial regimes to enforce a hierarchy of inequality. Either way you look at it, the Israel/Palestine case is analytically anomalous in today’s world. Yet the call to add it to the list of other states already targeted for boycott — China, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. — elicits protestations of “singling out” Israel. It seems that for Zionist apologists, Israel is simultaneously too “normal” and too “unique” to ever be boycotted.


  10. A long-time admirer of Amitav Ghosh’s work, I was a little surprised when he decided to refuse the politically innocuous Commonwealth Prize, for, among other reasons, its “memorialization of Empire”. Nevertheless, my respect for his intellectual integrity was only enhanced by his decision. When he now decides to accept a prize awarded by an Israeli institution which, as Geetha has put so well above, shows no sign of standing in that “precariously free space which dissident Israeli academics have built and nurtured”, along with Tel Aviv University that the Gaza students point out (in Rohini’s comment), “has a long and well-documented history of collaboration with the Israeli military and intelligence services”, I am seriously disturbed by the degree of legitimacy that Zionist Israel seems to have acquired in circles which I would have assumed to be sensitive to distinctions between imperfectly democratic states in all their manifestations and a state founded in the 20th C on the necessary extinction of the original inhabitants of the land.
    And yet, Ghosh, who does not distinguish between Israel, Sri Lanka, USA and Burma, nor between merely visiting countries and accepting awards from them in this context, is keenly sensitive to another distinction, that between the state of Israel and its academic institutions in it, a sense that is certainly not shared by dissident Israeli scholars like Ilan Pappe who now lives in exile precisely for endorsing the need for a cultural boycott of Israel, which he believes is the only way to end the occupation.
    Says Pappe: “I believe that things would change only if Israel receives a strong message that as long as the occupation continues it would not be a legitimate member of the international community, and that until then its academics, doctors and authors would not be welcome. A similar boycott was imposed on South Africa. It took 21 years, but it eventually led to the end of Apartheid.”


  11. The legitimisation of Israel and the sophistry deployed to defend the very idea of a Jewish state composed primarily of European settler-colonists which I read above is scary and very disconcerting, specially so since it comes from people like Amitav Ghosh and Mukul Kesavan.


  12. Ah Fatt cites Bhochka’s arguments as conclusive (in the same way as Bhochka judges Ah Fatt’s arguments to be unanswerable) without seeming to notice that they’re making opposed points. Ah Fatt’s purpose in both his interventions is to demonstrate the singular status of Israel (“But Israel is in today’s world an unusual, if not unique, case”; “the Israel/Palestine case is analytically anomalous in today’s world” etc.); Bhochka, on the other hand, argues that the argument from exceptionalism is besides the point: “The argument that ‘Israel is no worse than many other states’ completely misses the point of the boycott, which is not aimed at making some kind of Olympian, distanced judgment about the uniqueness of Israeli racism, but at making an engaged intervention in an ongoing battle.” So which is it to be? The question is rhetorical: it’s obvious from Ah Fatt’s follow-up post that his theme is the singular awfulness of Israel.

    Ah Fatt makes the point that if we disregard the fiction of the occupation, British Mandate Palestine as a whole is a territory equally divided between Arabs and Jews but ruled over by a discriminatory Zionist state that would rather informally occupy the West Bank than annex it. Annexation would require a formal denial of democratic rights to West Bank Arabs which would make the parallel with apartheid South Africa exact. I agree: Israel is a majoritarian state within its ’67 borders, trying to reconcile its hold on the West Bank with its Jewish identity. Lieberman and Netanyahu and ideologues like Benny Morris are willing to sustain the occupation of the West Bank indefinitely or at least up to the point where they’ve created enough facts on the ground to annex the parts they want.

    But Ah Fatt ‘extracts’ a ‘teaching moment’ from this insight. It turns out that the Chinese colonisation of Tibet is different from and better than the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Chinese brutality in Tibet is bad but at least the Chinese seek to ‘forcibly integrate those territories and their populations, which at least contains the (obviously problematic) promise of equality.” Leaving aside for a moment that blithe, bracketed gesture at Chechen or Tibetan suffering, notice the implicit judgment: being coercively assimilated by a majority on the majority’s terms, being gradually reduced to a minority in your homeland, is a promise of equality and thus a mitigation of Chinese settler colonialism which makes it satisfactorily distinct from Israeli settler colonialism. If this is a teaching moment, the subject Ah Fatt teaches is sophistry.

    Would Israel’s occupation of the West Bank be magicked into something better if there was a substantial majority of Jews in Mandate Palestine? Israel could then annex the West Bank, grant Palestinian Arabs there the right to vote as it does within its legal borders, and still run a formally democratic, majoritarian state. Would that make Israel less ‘analytically anomalous’, less ‘anachronistically’ repugnant?

    I think not. Our experience as Indians of living in a pluralist state, of struggling against majoritarian parties like the BJP ought to have made us wary of assimilationist ‘equality’. In an ideal world, Israel/Palestine would be the single bi-national state that Tony Judt dreams of. In some distant, hard-to-imagine future, this might still come to pass. Meanwhile it might help if people on this site stopped believing that Israel has cornered the world market in political wickedness in some uniquely evil way. I know this is hard to do when a fascist like Lieberman sits in the Israeli cabinet, but it’s worth remembering that Narendra Modi is the Chief Minister of Gujarat, that Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, organized genocidal violence in Chechnya, that America presided over the death and dislocation of millions of people in Iraq.

    So urge Ghosh and Atwood to boycott the prize if you want, but know that saying ‘Israel!’ in a scandalised way isn’t an argument. It isn’t. And try not to respond to argument by using your Brahmastra right off: “Zionist Apologist” in the second round is overkill unless you live in a cartoon world where Anti-Semites go toe-to-toe with Zionist Apologists in some never-ending prizefight. Finally, because words have consequences, try to pick your words carefully. I’m startled by this sentence in Nivedita Menon’s post: “…a state founded in the 20th C on the necessary extinction of the original inhabitants of the land.’ ‘Extinction’? Wouldn’t dispossession have done? Do you want to explain this metaphorical excess (I assume it’s metaphorically meant) or does it just go with the territory?


    1. You make some good points. Most importantly, you remind us that assimiliationist pluralism is hardly a panacea, and that we should stop pretending that “Israel has cornered the world market in political wickedness in some uniquely evil way.”
      On the first, I have nothing to say, except that, panacea or not, it in my opinion is a necessary first step towards creating an inclusive society, and an accountable state.
      The second statement is true. It is also profoundly irrelevant. No country outside the West is embedded in Western cultural and social institutions, including those nominally apolitical or even of the left, to the degree that Israel is, for several reasons. This warps the political reaction of the rest of the world to the Israeli state’s actions, especially of America, where Ghosh spends much of his time. Were this web of cultural connections to fray, Israel feel less secure, and therefore look at its own future more critically; and the rest of the world would find it easier to look at Israel as if it were, indeed, a normal country, and not the outpost of liberalism in the Middle East that causes many to reserve judgment on some of its actions.
      Ghosh has chosen to ignore that his actions perpetuate this claim. Even silence when asked to turn the prize down would have been instrumentally better than a rousing attack on “the severing of connections”.
      The Dan David prize is, in its own way, an intriguing window into the mental gymastics required to be an Israeli liberal today. Consider Atwood and Ghosh’s 2006 counterparts, dissident journalists. Adam Michnik of Poland is well known and widely admired for being one of the clearest voices in Eastern Europe on the wisdom of abandoning the fetishisation of its blood-soaked pasts. Goenawan Mohamed kept hopes for Indonesian democracy alive through that country’s darkest years, through his poetry and his (very lyrical) reportage. Monica Gonzales investigated and was imprisoned by Pinochet in a decades-long tit-for-tat. And to this they added the very odd Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-Italian who publishes lists of Israel-haters, perhaps in the belief that support for Israel in the Italian academy is the moral equivalent of what the others have done.
      Israel is not specially evil (even if its state structure is anachronistic in its barbarity), but its connections to the rest of the world are unique for a state of its sort. Boycotts address that.


  13. As always happens, to hell with the issue at hand and show off one’s pedagogical and intellectual skills against the other. The subtext being ideology: varying from liberal, to left-liberal to left-radical positions.

    I don’t have the time or inclination to engage with this debate at length, but I would definitely point out the crux of my own understanding of this context.

    I don’t want to lose focus. The issue is clear (if not simple): Should or should not Amitav Ghosh accept the Dan David prize and in his individual/intellectual capacity as a writer, recognize Israel in any manner?

    If I have any categorical answer (after all the usual complexities which plague thinking is over) – I have to say – NO. I don’t think the answer is difficult, or needs much deliberation. Let me furnish my reasons as pithily as possible.

    First of all, the issue is not a ‘literary’ issue but a political one. The question is: What are the political responsibilities of literature? Amitav Ghosh knows it as much as we do. He’s rejected the Commonwealth prize before. Was it a more youthful idealism working then, and a corrupt, expedient maturity working now?! One is simply provoked to ask.

    Whether Israel can be equated with other criminal and ruthless regimes or not is to simply take the issue away from its primary concerns. We have to focus on Israel and ONLY Israel. Norman Finklestien has made it clear to the whole world by now that Israeli Jews have built up a “Holocaust industry” and shamelessly exploit the memory of the dead to further their heinous crimes on Palestinians. This criminal act in the name of past victims and the bogey of Anti-Semitism, should end. Even Gandhi in the 1940s didn’t accept the logic of the Jews on Palestine. But then, the question is of cultural boycotting. Is it necessary? YES it is. Ghosh makes a bad case for himself by quoting the conservative Palestinian Sari Nusseibeh on this issue. He should have rather asked himself (if his questioning was worth anything): Would Edward Said have been happy if I accepted this award? Would Mamud Darwish have been happy? Ghosh was a good friend of the late poet Aga Shahid Ali, who in turn was a great admirer of Darwish. Surely Ghosh could have referred to the sensibility these writers stood for, in his thinking on the issue. But words like “tactical” doesn’t give the impression that Ghosh thought with his heart (like writers should, and writer’s with a political conscience, more so). In fact, but giving justifications for taking the prize, Ghosh has individualized the writer – whereas the writer cannot betray the political community which serves his cause. The writer is independent on his imagination – but not on his political responsibilities. That is the point I am making.

    Mukul Keshavan is trying to shoot his liberal defenses of Ghosh using Ah Fatt’s shoulders (though not admitting it. Rather he’s doing it by decrying Ah Fatt! What irony!). Keshavan is anxious of moralism here. Even Prabhat Patnaik did the same thing once. When politics becomes an individual commodity of rights and values – then even moralism makes sense against it.

    I have written more than I intended but the last point nevertheless: ACCEPTANCE has never been a political act for any writer since the 20th century. It has always been REJECTION. So let Ghosh not give us reasons of why he wants to accept this prize and yet tell us he is political. Let him simply say he’s seized to be political in this matter and is going ahead. That will end this debate, and also help Keshavan from delving into more shallow rhetoric.


  14. cant we not let ghosh accept this prize? when was he ever any committed radical political writer anyways. we will not lose anyone from the ‘progressive camp’. rather we will know who was falsely posing as one in this camp. it is good people get exposed for what and who they are. and this is what is happening – so cheers!
    the hope that if big people who win prizes are on ‘our side’ then only we will be victorious is a pathetic sign for any struggle. it is to belittle those ordinary people fighting for palestinian self-determination. the attacks on ghosh here displays an obsession with activism by the elite celebrity-kinds. it shows that lot of people here pinned too much hopes on big celebrity kinds. dump them, fuck authority! let the reactionary elites please give prizes to each other – and also fight over these prizes. edward said’s idea of oppositional intellectual is good but the struggle cannot rely on these figures.
    hey whats happening to the intifada? whatever happened to the PLO? should we not again read jean genet’s piercing writing on the sabra and shatila massacre…


    1. Supriya, I by and large agree with the kernel of your argument (but can’t be indiscriminately exclusionist in case of celebrity support). But I did not like the expression “fuck…” This seems to be case of being victim of the categories of one’s own oppressor. The act in itself is quite human and humane but the use of the expression has certain contextual abhorring connotation.


  15. I fully agree with views of Geetha, Nivedita Menon and Ah Fatt on the issue.

    However, it is heartening to see some poetry, desire to get some flowers, in the midst of horrid, genocidal, humiliating Zionist politics – in the midst of blood and torn human flesh strewn around.

    It is horrifying to see that the political arena of almost all hues do not have even an iota of poetry – needless to say poetry not only in its literal sense but also and more importantly in its lager metaphorical senses.


  16. methinks Keshavan protests too much(“…we’re not there yet..”)..leaving aside the question as to whether Israel practices apartheid or not to future historians (future and historians), will MK at least accede to the reality of today that Israel is in fact a genocidal state?(i don’t know if that is an official term for it..but what i essentially am asking is if he is denying(even as he cleverly writes as if he is at the same time aware and unaware of it) the fact that Israel practices systematic and doctrinaire genocide.. that this is how the state of Israel gets it jollies?..and that is reason enough for REJECTION to be not only an appropriate political gesture but the only correct gesture properly political so called….


  17. BRICUP (British Committee for Universities for Palestine) has issued a response to Amitav Ghosh’s response and has requested that it be shared on Kafila:

    Dear Amitav Ghosh

    You have been offered the Dan David Prize, to be presented at Tel Aviv University. It is always nice to have your achievements recognised. And if $1 million comes with it, even nicer.

    Your response to criticism, including ours at BRICUP, has been popping up on too many websites to mention here. Only in one did you remember to add a paragraph expressing dismay at the policies that Israel is pursuing in Gaza and the West Bank.

    Your arguments might be summarised as follows:

    i) the award is by a university, not the state of Israel – so boycott would be misdirected

    ii) institutions of learning and culture “must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state”

    iii) in any case there should never be embargoes and boycotts of culture and learning

    iv) you have already made trips to Myanmar, Sri Lanka and an unnamed Gulf country, where bad things happen. And you withdrew from the Commonwealth Prize competition (not a boycott) in 2001 because you didn’t like the word Commonwealth. So your actions are consistent

    v) surely Israel is not so exceptional that its state malevolence contaminates all aspects of civil society

    Where to begin? Here are some short answers:

    i) Palestinians’ options for resistance to the massive strength of the IDF and the ruthlessness with which Israeli state power is deployed against them are extremely limited. Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly asked the international community for a boycott of higher education and cultural institutions, as part of a general programme of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. By accepting this prize you are refusing to do the one thing that you can do to support the Palestinians.

    ii) Why must universities be so “regarded”? Is it a moral or logical imperative to do so, even when the facts shout out the opposite? Israeli universities are involved up to the neck in the dispossession of the Palestinians, and in the maintenance of the Occupation. Take Tel Aviv University, where the Dan David Prizes are based and where the ceremony will be held. The University is built on the land of the destroyed Palestinian village Sheikh Muwanis, whose residents were deported. Its University Review for Winter 2008-9 boasts of 55 joint technological projects with the Israeli army. The head of TAU’s Security Studies Program was a former head of the R&D Directorate of the Israel Ministry of Defense; he holds the rank of Major General in the Israel Defense Forces, and is a member of the Knesset. The university appointed as a Law lecturer the colonel who provided the legal justification for Israel’s unrestrained assault on Gaza in 2008/9 – who could be eligible for prosecution for
    war crimes according to the Goldstone Report. Autonomous?

    iii) It seems that you don’t rule out all boycotts as such (eg consumer boycotts); but you give no reasons why universities and cultural institutions should be specifically off limits. You seem to think that the boycott called for by Palestinian civil society is of individual artists and professors. It is not. The free flow of ideas generated by
    researchers, authors, artists will not be impeded by the boycott. The boycott is specifically of Israeli institutions. By all means speak with, write to, have friends who are Israeli cultural figures. Don’t go to Tel Aviv and take this Prize that is “headquartered” there (according to Dan David himself).

    iv) There seems to be some rather fine logic chopping in your argument about the Commonwealth Prize, but let that pass. There is no reason to boycott all states which behave badly. Boycott is a political weapon, not a moral imperative. Use it when the cause is just, when the most relevant people have asked for it, when normal politics
    has failed, and when boycott has a chance of being effective. Israel fits that description.

    v) Israel is indeed a special case. What other country that claims to be a democracy has occupied a land belonging to others since 1948, and taken yet more territory, in contravention of innumerable UN resolutions, since 1967? Slowly but surely that occupation has poisoned Israeli society to its roots. You quote Sari Nusseibeh in support of Israeli universities as havens of progressive views. If only! Nusseibeh is isolated as the only leading Palestinian academic who has opposed the academic boycott.

    The offer of the Dan David Prize gives you a great opportunity. By rejecting it and giving your reasons you will give hope to the oppressed. As a master of prose I am sure you will find compelling words that will attract the attention of the world.

    Yours sincerely

    Professor Haim Bresheeth
    Mike Cushman
    Professor David Pegg
    Professor Jonathan Rosenhead


  18. If the same yardsticks are applied to states how many states in this world would qualify to be condidered as humane states or decent states.
    As an Indian I would consider Israel as a friend of India and we should see Israel not just from the perspective of those who live in Gaza strip. One can sympathise with them without boycotting Israel.Israel has not done anything against India.
    It has been a supporter of India. It has not sided with Pakistan in international fora. So should I not consider that a friendly ally.
    It was the OIC that sided with Pakistan in the Kashmir issue.Did any of the academics and left groups in India call for boycott of members of OIC.
    Israel is better than Iran in some aspects. Israel had survived against all odds and had been successful in the wars against it. Can anyone say that Israel is always the aggressor while those who oppose Israel are always victims. Hezbollah too had committed crimes against humanity.
    Why apply different scales when it comes to evaluating islamic and non-islamic states/groups. Israel and India are affected by islamic terrorism.
    26/11 is a grim example of that. They need to come closer and work more together. As an Indian I am glad that Ghosh has decided to accept the Prize and thereby go beyond the typical leftist perspective that is unfriendly towards Israel.If at all anything I would love to see more co-operation between India and Israel in cultural and academic activities.


  19. I dont know if it matters to the self-proclaimed intellectuals who populate this site, but in 1999 Kargil war, when India was woefully short of hi-tech weapons, it was Israel that helped India out by speeding up the delivery of those weapons. Israel has always been India’s friend. It is in India’s interest to support Israel. But the self-proclaimed intellectuals of this website wont understand that, as India’s interest is irrelevant to them.


    1. First: they gave us nothing special. UAVs, ammunition for Bofors and slightly more accurate bunker-busting missiles for Mirages. All these were available elsewhere. So, they got it to us 24 hours quicker than European suppliers, and charged us more, no doubt. That’s a reason to view “supporting Israel” as “in our interest” as Indians? Twaddle.


  20. Mihir,

    During Kargil, Israel dipped into its war wastage reserves to rush badly-needed ammunition to us..Not many countries would do that, not even Russia, our all-weather-friend!

    And about their equipment not being “special”, well…Just to take a couple of examples, they did not supply “slightly more accurate bunker-busting missiles ” during Kargil…They supplied us with the Litening LDPs – the targeting system used for precision bombing…Its used by NATO forces widely, and the only competing product is the Amercian Sniper! Further, they export to us equipment from their “strategic” programmes, again somethign that very few countries do…The Green Pine radar, part of their Arrow BMD system is but one example – most countries would give and arm and a leg to lay hands on that (including China, which failed due to American pressure!)..

    Of course not counting the important variable that Israeli equipment come without the threat of sanctions, something that Amercian and European stuff come in-built with..

    In a nutshell, we have no axe-to-gridn with Israel…No one’s expecting us to shout our support for everythhing that they do from the rooftops (not even by the Israelis themsleves!)..But doing the converse, ie, shouting our condemnations hoarse all the time, serves no purpose either…Israel is an important country with whom we have a lot in common in the stratetgic and economcis spheres…thats all that matters to India at the end of the day..


    1. Kafila may be the oddest place on earth on which to have this conversation, but here goes: Getting LDPs off the Israelis is no big deal, everyone has managed, even the Venezuelans. And the US has no objection to giving us the Sniper. Why should they? They gave it to the Saudis. So forgive me for not being overjoyed.
      In any case, without necessarily agreeing with Nivedita Menon’s post in its entirety, I think that both clauses of “Israel is an important country with whom we have a lot in common in the stratetgic and economcis [sic] spheres…thats all that matters to India at the end of the day..” are far from proved.


  21. Somnath, Prashant and Ravi believe that Israel is “our” friend (“We have no axe to grind with Israel”, “it is in India’s interest to support Israel”, “israel is a friend of India”) because Israel supplies “us” with arms, and because it does not support Pakistan.
    First, I dont read Amitav Ghosh’s decision to accept the award as based on a positive assessment of Israel’s value to India, so much as on a negative, “boycott of Israel will not help the Palestinians” kind of argument.
    But whether it will “serve a tactical purpose” or not, is for people and movements struggling in that context (and I dont mean necessarily living there) to decide, and that assessment is not one that can be made by someone who is not active in that politics. And it seems the overwhelming opinion of such voices is that a boycott of Israel would indeed serve a tactical purpose, and this is why Ghosh is being appealed to. I would think that Ghosh should heed these voices instead of making an individual, de-contextualised assessment on what strategy would work best for a political struggle with which he has not, to the best of my knowledge, engaged.
    As for the “Israel is our friend” brigade – that kind of understanding of “India” as an entity that represents all of “our” interests”, that these “interests” are best served by sophisticated arms and weaponry, and that “India” and “Pakistan” are natural enemies, are all opinions that the “self-proclaimed intellectuals who populate this site” (we haven’t so proclaimed ourselves ever, but let that pass) – disagree with vehemently.
    We refuse to recognize ourselves as part of this “we” and this “India” that Somnath, Prashant and Ravi set up, and assume to be natural, so speaking for myself, I think this debate should be over the issues Ghosh raises in his statement, rather than on whether “India” and “Israel” can be BFF.
    Mukul, you remind me that Israel only wants to “dispossess” Palestinians, not make them “extinct” – surely you agree that “extinction” can refer not only to the physical person, but to identity. Generations of Palestinians growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip ( according to even official UN figures, steadily increasing from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 4.3 million in 2005), have no hope in their lifetime, nor in that of how many future generations, of ever actually living in the land called Palestine, which is itself being steadily eroded by Israeli occupation (about 20 percent of West Bank territory has been occupied by Israel to create closed military zones). I dont think the Palestinian identity will ever become extinct, but that is no thanks to Israel – it’s because of the tenacity and courage of the Palestinians who stubbornly refuse to be packed off from the world-stage of nation-states. But yes, Mukul, the Israeli state is premised on the extinction of the Palestininian identity, there is no doubt about that.


  22. ‘…the Israeli state is premised on the extinction of the Palestinian identity, there is no doubt about that.’ I agree. The Zionist denial of a Palestinian national identity for decades and its grudging, pro forma acceptance of it now is part of the historical record. But this isn’t the same as saying Israel was founded on the ‘…necessary extinction of the original inhabitants of the land’ which is a form of words that can be construed to mean genocide. Thanks for the clarification.


  23. Such a boycott may serve some tactical purpose for some groups but what will be its impact on israel. Ghosh perhaps is convinced that boycotting is not the right way to engage with Israel.
    Whether I like it or not the reality is this- Pakistan and India are not comrades in arms, nor the islamic terrorists treat India as a country that they should not meddle with. Why one particular building associated with Jews and Israel was attacked on 26/11 at Mumbai. What is the population of Jews in this country and how many Jews visit India from Israel. Islamic terrorism targets India and Israel and this reality cannot be wished away. As countries facing similar threats India and Israel have every reason to be each others ally. Finally Palestine issue too complicated to be resolved by India’s involvement or mediation.


  24. I’ve enjoyed reading Amitav Ghosh and Mukul Kes(h)avan and real recognition comes from a reader (like myself) and not the one coming from an institution – allied to the state or otherwise. The sobering thought is that such official recognition that people are speaking of here has eluded so many greats and will continue to elude many.

    In case Ghosh and Atwood travel to Tel Aviv, they can do an experiment by walking with peace activists to Gaza and West Bank. That will restore them their humility after the prize binge. And Kes(h)avan too can join them.


  25. Just thought it would be interesting to hear Atwood’s stance regarding this deabte. Here’s MARGARET ATWOOD’s response i found through this LINK:

    Since I accepted the Dan David Prize and it has been announced, I have received several letters from different groups asking me to reverse my acceptance and boycott this event. For some reason, Amitav Ghosh of India, with whom the prize is shared, does not appear to be a target of this campaign. He and I have been chosen to receive the Dan David Prize for our literary work—work that is said to depict the twentieth century. In my case, women and the environment also feature. Here is the citation:


    I sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls. Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering. The world wants to see fair play and humane behaviour, and it wants that more the longer the present situation continues and the worse the conditions become.

    As soon as I said that, in an earlier letter, I got yelled at for saying there were two sides, but actually there are (or possibly more than two). See:



    I certainly have no power to influence these events.

    However, the Dan David Prize is a cultural item It is not, as has been erroneously stated, an “Israeli” prize from the State of Israel, nor is it a prize “from Tel Aviv University,” but one founded and funded by an individual and his foundation, just as the Griffin Prizes in Canada are. To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent. And to boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it — a view I strongly reject, just as I reject the view that any book written by a woman is produced by some homogeneous substance called “women.” Books are written by individuals. Novels are the closest we can come to experiencing human lives in particular places as they unfold in time and space, and lyric poems are the closest we can come to co-experiencing another human being’s feeling-thought.

    Another dangerous precedent is the idea of a cultural boycott. Even those strongly endorsing a financial boycott, such as http://www.artistespourlapaix.org, Artists For Peace, reject cultural boycotts, which they see as a form of censorship. (See their December 22 posting, in their Israel-Palestine file.) Indeed, such boycotts serve no good purpose if one of the hopes for the future is that peace and normal exchanges and even something resembling normal living conditions will be restored.

    PEN International, an organization of which I am a Vice President, is in favour of continuing dialogue that crosses borders of all kinds. http://www.internationalpen.org.uk “International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and to promote understanding among all countries.” (See U.S. PEN’s recent New York Tariq Ramadan Cooper Union event, for which they were attacked by extremists from all sides.) Moderates who want to promote dialogue always get hammered twice as much, as they get stones thrown at them from several directions at once.

    In this situation, threats to open discussion come from both sides of the wall: consider this report from IFEX: http://www.ifex.org/israel/2004/07/28/israel_palestine_journalists_pressured/

    I realize that I am caught in a propaganda war between two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict. I also realize that, no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree with my decision and attack me for it. That being the case, I have chosen to visit, to speak with a variety of people, and – as much as is possible — to see for myself, as I have done in other times and other countries many times before, including several behind the Iron Curtain and Iran and Afghanistan.

    If I can go to the Occupied Territories, I will. After that, I will write my own “Open Letter” – something that I would otherwise be unable to do. Groups opposing my going to Israel, and to the region, should bear that in mind.

    In that letter, I am very likely to call attention to a hard truth about the whole region: it is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The Dead Sea is evaporating rapidly, and heat is increasing. Unless some immediate and shared thought and work is done soon, there will not be a Middle East to dispute about, because no one can live there anyway. See the exemplary work being done by Friends of the Earth Middle East, http://www.foeme.org/index.php, which brings together projects spanning Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

    See also this 350.org photo:

    Jordan, Palestine, Israel

    See also this Barn Owl Israel/Jordan/Palestine story:


    These initiatives are examples of how people can live together and work together for desirable common ends. And how – increasingly, around the world – we will have to. Nature recognizes no national borders, and does not negotiate. If the world were a basketball, the biosphere would be a coat of varnish. Our ability to remain alive depends on that thin skin. At my age, I am devoting much of my increasingly limited energies to the cause of bio-viability – the ability of life to continue living on this planet.

    Finally, I believe that those behind the choice for the Dan David Prize acted awarely, and that they fully intend to hear something about colonialism, unequal power, and in my case the subjugation of women and the perils facing us because of environmental degradation. Otherwise, why would they have invited me?

    With respect,

    Margaret Atwood


  26. Nivedita is right on the essential point – the debate here is not on India’s strategic posture vis-a-vis Israel..Its about the issues raised by Amatava Ghosh in defence of his stance…

    And on that, the “boycott” stance is always problematic, it frequently lends itself to charges of “self servism”, if I may use that term…So accepting an award from Tel Aviv university is not kosher (pun unintended), but one from a foundation funded by among other things, the African slave trade, is?! Similarly, arguments that seek to somehow bestow greater rationality/meaning to Chinese treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs compared to Israeli treatment of Palestinians fall flat even before they raise any questions on the basic parameter of consistency..

    On the broader question of Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian question, a nuance that is often forgotten is as abominable as Israeli actions might be, Israel remains the only state in the Midddle East that gives its minorities the “equal” right to vote…For that matter, it is the only state in the Middle East that gives muslims the right to participate in free elections, and the only state that offers all citizens (muslims included) a constitutional process of juridical recourse…

    Therefore when people (many a time justifiably) criticise Israeli actions, they tend to hold a very different datum level to the one they subject the rest of the Middle East to..

    Criticism of Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians are valid..But why does one doesnt hear the same standards of critique over Arab attitudes towards Palestinians?

    Demonise it as one might, the Israeli state (and I use the term state deliberately), the fact is that it is the same state that has converted a desolate, harsh piece of land into one of the most vibrant intellectual powers of the world..Tel Aviv University, the key variable of the discussion, is one of the finest in the world, as is Technion or Ben Gurion…Israel has the HIGHEST per capita patent filings in the world acccording to some estimates, and consistently punches abopve its weight in both the physical as well as the social sciences..

    To argue that somehow such a “nation state” is worthy of wholesale apartheid is more than a touch ironical, especially given the fact that the same standards are not extended to Chinese, Russian or for that matter, Pakistani state complexes!

    PS: Mihir, you are right – this isnt the right forum..But just so that you know, India was under sanctions from the US in 1999, no way we could have gotten the Sniper LDPs – you see the point? With Israel, the relationship is much “fairer”..


  27. What Celebrated Writers/Artists do in times of crises has always been something that has added or diminished their stature and their worth has on many occassions been measured through these acts.

    This is as true in the times of Zionism as it was in the times of Nazism

    Bertolt Brecht raised this question in one of his poems and the part that might be relevent in this debate went something like this

    They will not talk of the walnut tree swaying in the breeze
    They will ask when were the workers attacked

    They will not talk of little children creating ripples in placid waters with their polished pebbles
    They will ask when did war preparations begin

    They will not talk of the the time when the beauty arrived
    they will ask when were conspiracies hatched

    They will not say that those were bad days
    They will instead ask why were your artists silent

    The question shorn of all its sophistory is when the choice is between taking a position and gaining nothing and not taking that positon and gaining a million dollars, what would one choose. Mr ghosh chose a million dollars.

    as for Israel being a friend of India
    you buy their weapons they are your friends
    remember israel sold weapons to iran in its war against iraq (the iran contra deal)

    it might be of interest here to note that when the project of befriending israel was initiated during the nda regime, rss publications carrying laudatory references to hitler suddenly became scarce.

    The theory of enemy’s enemy being a friend might have had some validitity in the hoary past, but it can not be the guiding principle of our foreign policy in the 21st century.


  28. Sohail,

    No amount of rhetorical sophistry can present the Israeli state (whether you call it Zionist or any other fancy name), warts and all, as Nazism Mark II. The capabilities (and thats what is most important, not intent, real or imagined) of the Israeli state are far inferior to that of Nazis, or for that matter even the Russians or the Chinese…

    Are they being nasty to the Palestinians? Of course they are..But by the same touchstone, Egypt isnt being particularly friendly to the PAlestinians, Jordan hasnt been a welcoming host to them..Using a consistent moral compass, are the Chinese any less nasty to the Tibetans, to repeat a point made earlier?

    Israel isnt about to “change” the world for the worse – it simply doesnt have the capability to do that…So demonising it serves no purpose at all – there simply isnt enough public resonance for that thought process…

    About Amitava Ghosh favouring the lucre over “high principles”..Well, the grande dame of the liberal intelligentsia didnt have too many qualmns about the equally substantial prize money from an award funded by among other things, the African slave trade!! So why single the good Mr Ghosh out?

    About Israel’s relationship with India, again digressing from the topic..But nation states dnot become “friends”, they only act on permanent national interests…And as of today, there is a huge congruence of strategic imperatives between India and Israel (there’s no “enemy’s enemy syndrome” at play here – Israel has no problems with Pakistan at all)..and no amount of ideological disdain for the “Zionist state” can deny that fact….Its not restricted to weapons trade only, though thats what gets reported more in the media…It runs across a swathe of India’s strategic calculus – our influence in the Middle East, engaging with a resurgent (but increasingly conservative) Turkey, dealing with transnational terror, trade in high tech IP – the list is long…


  29. That is self delusion in the extreme, Somnath. Israel and the Zionist right runs US foreign policy – perhaps you yourself know that. In many ways it is Nazism mark II, and the Egyptian or Jordanian relationship with Palestine is of an entirely different order. But a blinkered vision is a blinkered visions and there is of course, no way, we can agree on this, no?


  30. “‘Boycott of Israel would not serve any useful tactical purpose’: Amitav Ghosh.” Sweet. Not boycotting sure will. Tactical gains that would take anyone not a bank teller half a day to count. If it were the full prize money to one beneficiary, ‘twould take the full day.


  31. All those of you who criticize Amitav Ghosh for accepting an Israeli award because you think Israel is a modern Nazi state…. I wonder if you have anything against people like Dilip Kumar accepting Pakistan’s highest award ‘Nishan-e-Pakistan’ ? Pakistan is responsible for the murder of thousands of Indians. Why is Israel evil and Pakistan good ?

    You want India to have good relations with Pakistan, but want India to boycott Israel. Which country is India’s friend and which one is India’s enemy ? You tell me.


  32. Prashant, quite frankly bringing in the Pakistan variable is a complete non-sequitor here (not least because Israel itself has no issues with Pakistan!)…

    My problem is basically with the sheer inconsistency of the “treatment” of Israel in the moral construct of Sohail, Ahmer, Nivedita et al..Israel should be boycotted for its treatment of Palestinians, then why shouldnt China (for its treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans) or Russia (for it treatment of chechens)? This, especially in light of the fact that Israel is the only republican democracy in the Middle East, one that gives voting privilages and rights of juridical recourse to all its citizens, muslims included..Thats a lot more than what can be said of any other country in that region, and a great deal more than what can be said of China..

    Aditya, Israel runs American foreign policy? A better way of putting it is Israel tries its damndest to ensure that American foreign policy actions do not hurt its “core” interests…Its a legitimate tool in statecraft, all nation states do that…Borrowing that train of thought, one can argue that North Korea runs Chinese foreign policy! About the Israeli state being NAzim Mark II, I will believe that when I see an Israeli capability to enforce something like that – as of today, they cant even do much to “take out” Iran’s nuclear capacities, w something that is a “life and death” issue for them…Imposing Nazism Mark II will take an inifinitely greater accretion to those capabilities…Till then, the discussion is purely at the level of “ideological intent”, which, besides being subjective, isnt worth much in hard politico-strategic terms unless backed up by capablities to enforce the same…


  33. I have an admission to make. What irks just a (tiny) little bit in the othewise irresistibly persuasive and deeply stirring discussion on Ghosh’s supposed ‘apostasy’ (& Kesvan’s free-of-charge advocate-playing) is that the ‘critique’ seems to accord a sort of unwitting respectability to the sophistry of bad faith by engaging ‘earnestly’ and even ‘heart to heart’ with the authors’ adroit mental (and mostly verbal) jugglery – as though they were simply and innocently misinformed, or just ‘hadn’t got it’. In a curious way, thus, his arraigners seem to end up pleading with Ghost as to the rightness of THEIR OWN STAND, as though his certificate on the Arab-Israeli issue mattered a groat – now, by a peculiar displacement that puts the shoe on the wrong foot, people have to kind of ‘defend’ themselves to Ghosh and said counsel on the whole Palestinian problem by ‘debating’ G & K’s specious and bankrupt rationalisation of what’s a straight sellout! The fact is that the stakes just got higher, and the pretenses a tad harder to maintain just by simply smooth-talking your way out of the spot when pinned down by a sharp ‘seminar’ question.
    And I don’t think it’s simply a question of “tactics” either – that misses the point, because this truly is a case of existential Bad Faith in the properly Sartrean meaning. You can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hound & expect everyone to think you came out smelling like roses. Not sure why the historically persecuted should demean their cause by persuasional special pleading on their generations of suffering, their widows and their butchered children with someone for whom speeches, cocktails and half a million bucks evidently matter more.
    Many of those on Kafla seem “shocked”, “disappointed” etc by what he’s gone & done – I can’t say I particularly am. It’s extreme, but in a way it’s actually of a piece with a long although slippery slope into incorporation – it’s just that in this case the Emperor’s clothes are worn threadbare thin, and with nowhere left to hide, the intellectual rope-tricks got a little more far-strained than usual – all the way to what Mark Twain so delightfully called a “stretcher”. Ghosh’s politics I believe have skirted around in a suspiciously dilatory way over time, though in a elusively camouflaged way to be sure, and his provenance stays unpinndownable & labile (and yes I know an author isn’t required to unfurl his flag and flash the party card, but this discussion on Israel and its literary prize isn’t about textual metaphoricity alone).
    Let’s do some remembrance of things past – might refresh memory. I’ve heard him say that he saw no diff b/w British Raj and Nazism (intriguingly inexact for a social scientist, that bland equation in toto), and now he can’t see anything so unusually malevolent in the Israeli dispensation (let’s grow up folks, all bad guys are really just about equal, only some are more equal than others in the big bad world) as to make us lapse into “exceptionalism” by making an exception out of that country – just purely coincidentally at the very time bellicose elements in India’s sectarian Right are busy ‘love discovering’ India-Israel bhai-bhai! Such serendipitous coincidences! The same author has showered testimonial encomiums on Naipaul – at the very time Naipaul was coming brazenly out of the closet with his rabidly communalist pseudo-historiography sillhouetted against the blazing fires of hate in the subcontinent (Farrukh Dhondy did this more frankly, crassly and thus less disingenuously). It’s even arguable that Shadow Lines itself is a troublingy (though again evasively) problematic work in terms of its underlying identity schemas, crisis moments and trick geographies: what’s really the take on subcontinental communalism?
    The chatterati, let’s face it, can become enamoured by slickster cults, & Ghosh has worked that bunch & its ‘celebritism’ to the hilt. The latest development though has forced folks to straight-look at what the unblinkered may have noticed long ago: that the Emperor never had any clothes on the entire time, the courtier throng just declined to notice it.
    My friend Debu reminds me of G’s similar fancy footwork on Pokharan, that begins in signatural sightseeing mode, and ends with the n-bomb forwarded in terms of an insurrection of the elite, under BJP. In his ’84 riots confessional the 2 elements were (a) a species of “existential engagement with the moment”, with the subject-author bemusingly centrepieced in someone’s colossal historic tragedy; and (b)a sort of strange stance of ‘spectatorship’ toward the dance of death and madness (politically orchestrated), right in the heart of the national capital, as though the main thing were for a ‘reporteur’ to milk the ‘moment’ for its textualising posibilities. On the N-Bomb thing… this sort of thing is/was very ‘in’ with the sociology brass. That kind of argument places Ghosh the sociologist (and free-floating expert commentator on everything) roughly in line with a sort of fishy inverse subalternism that you at times encounter in Veena Das, or Ashish Nandy for instance. Das wrote a revealing piece where upper caste street eruptions a la anti-Mandal street lumpenism were read as the “insurrection” of caste elites. Here, a kind of postructuralist ‘onslaught from the margins’ line gets conflated with the notion of street violence as inherently radical, thus imparting to elite agendas and mobilisations, possibly flagrantly rightist, claims to radically subversionist agency and urgency. (Sati too has been comparably ‘radicalised’ via theoreto-mysticisation, in a way that turns the institution of widow immolation into a gestus of protest against anti-Sati legislation as patriarchal-colonial suppression of ‘national’ identity, ‘female agency’ & c – a protest in which the immolating female subject reclaims agency, voice & autonomy of political resistance against a patriarchal ‘foreign’ law. Vow!) In these tropes a cornucopia of soft-cough apologetics and adroit displacements and confabulations attempt to read radical gestures in the least expected place (very deconstructionist, that), and so the subaltern is ‘magically’ heard ‘speaking’ from sundry loci of social conservatism – BJP, anti-Mandal arsonists, sati protagonists et al – while meanwhile smoothly eliding all the material facts in the case, such as for example the fact that in Sati most women were drugged/forced (think Deorala), and the rest were in effect compelled by the pressure of internalised ideology (projective identification).
    The plot doesn’t really change, it just thickens in the case in point. Now it seems there is something to be said about Israel’s properly fascist annexation and depopulation of a territory with real people living on it from time immemorial (what’s he say on Adivasi evictions?), herd-driving them from their home into the arid wilderness of desert country, forcing them into sequestration behind barbed wire reservations and militarily guarded cordons (none of that is even faintly like a Nazi concentration camp), bombing the living daylights out of them, disenfranchising them of every vestige of citizen’s and human rights, erasing their place of residence and (attemptedly) their very identity, scandal-sheeting them into global community pariahs with US backing, engaging in endless chicanery, perfidy & brazen reneging on international commitments and obligations…and going on and on doing this for six decades non-stop! But that’s all in the game, right? Nothing “exceptional” about that, it’s pretty normal. After all historical amnesia isn’t so fantastical in one who dwells well accoutered in a land mass whose birth as a political nation and economic entity (a nation significantly more supportive than any other of Israel) was predicated on the humiliation, disembowelment, pushing into reservations, grand-scale physical liquidation and civilizational wipeout of the, yes, “colonised” (!) continent’s original inhabitants in history’s largest unsung and unspoken genocide (120 million dead).
    Two wrongs do not make a right. One can’t ‘correct’ the Holocaust by the ‘Holocausted Turning Holocauster’ upon a new conveniently available victim in what psychologists call the ploy of “transference”: your boss harangues you, you come home and terrorise the neighbours who had nothing to do with your troubles or your quarrel.
    On top of it all – this is a matter of tastes of course – even Ghosh the author isn’t so unquestionably and inarguably enthralling really, he often comes across as pretty unnecessarily top-heavy, pretentious and intellectually adrift in those learned meanderings through everywhere that get nowhere. The reading thus can make arduous (though statutory) toil, even if a surprising number of people don’t seem to think so. At any rate, what is less questionable is that he manifestly shares with Rushdie that search search of strobe lights for the diasporic Third World author in First World climes, and the accompanying honorifics and endorsement from newborn transfigurations of the ex-colonial (“yes!”) metropolis – not to forget the warm fuzziness of straight moolah (half a million of greenback in the present case is nothing to scoff at, why make an “exception” of that?). Rushdie just happened to hit the magical realism bandwagon in the Indo-Anglian writing scene a micro-hour earlier, and to start with had a kind of politicist edge and journalistic quickness in his reactions, and of course he was great at linguistic invention; he’s also gone much further in the obvious courting of the ersatz. However, unlike Ghosh, he doesn’t seem quite so comfortable with reeling off (un)shamefaced apologetics for the incontestably and scarily reactionary political (the same unfortunately cannot be said for Rushdie’s embarrassing soft-apologetics, at points, on US adventurism in the Middle East for example, but in that, as in Satanic Verses, he’s playing to the tune of the piper that pays, let’s be honest about it). In terms of discursive idiom (and yes the politics of authorship do nestle in the idiom of the discourse), where Rushdie is sharp, polemical and populist, Ghosh, from the standpoint of societal commitments is namby-pamby, elite and ‘erudite’ in a breezy eloquent way that helps obscure grazing flirations with obscurantism via the ploy of intellectualisation. Railing away at the crimes of historical colonial is fine and unexceptionalbe, but the classical colonial system sad-demised a while ago did it not, so the urgency of the passion seems a little overdon when scary new avatars of imperiality are flourishing aggressively meantime, and of course Israeli fascisto-colonialism hasn’t exactly gone away anywhere. The ‘rage’ against colonialism (even the sound of the word Commonwealth is painfully oppressive) could be a touch eschatological. Reminds you of the joke in Stalinist Russia about the visiting American in Moscow who politico-goaded his new Soviet friend by pointing out that in America one could stand right in front of the White House and call the US President a bloody fool. So what, the Russian calmly countered, we can also stand right in front of the Kremlin and call the American a bloody fool, what’s so special about that?
    It’s all a question of where you’re standing isn’t it, and when?


  34. It is educative to consider another situation in which Margaret Atwood did decide to pull out of even participating – a literary festival in Dubai, because that festival withdrew its invitation to the novelist Geraldine Bedell citing the controversial nature of some passages in her novel (a gay sheikh, for example). In that situation, Atwood withdrew citing her opposition to censorship. Similar arguments that she now makes against refusing the Dan David award (the need to keep conversations going, etc) could have been applied there, with greater justification. As one commentator said: “Atwood doesn’t want to support censorship. On the other hand, she wants the Gulf states opened up to literature of all sorts, and by refusing to go, she lowers the prestige of the event (other authors are considering boycotting it, too), and makes its harder for the festival to resist some future outside efforts to censor its choices (which might include Bedell at some later date).”
    As it happens, I think she was right in deciding to pull out of Dubai. For even that one act of censorship.
    But now she is not just being invited to Israel, she insists on accepting an award, from a state with many more crimes against humanity on its record than one act of censorship. (Yes, yes, Dubai is terrible in all sorts of ways, but Atwood did not cite all of that, she would have gone but for that one incident).
    An easy No to Dubai. An easy Yes to Israel. Hmm.


  35. Why should you think literary prizes from institutions constitute recognition? There is no answer to this question by anyone here!


  36. I must congratulate Ahmer Anwar for his/her response. Such lucidity is rare indeed. I am a brazen admirer of Naipaul so I’d like to single out Anwar’s searing critique: “Naipaul was coming brazenly out of the closet with his rabidly communalist pseudo-historiography sillhouetted against the blazing fires of hate in the subcontinent.” That’s a punch that will knock Naipaul out!

    As for the debate on Israel, I agree with Ghosh that boycotting the prize will not make any difference. Israel will continue to massacre Palestinians and supply arms to India. Let the poor writer have his money. All the debaters here do not stand to lose anything. They do nothing, can do nothing, against Israel, but harass a defenceless writer. Yes, debating is fun, but it is not politics. Ghosh teaches in the US, Israel’s mai-baap and a much more sinister state than Nazis and Fascists combined, so boycotting Israel will only be hypocritical. Indian academics must first do something themselves before making high demands. Hamam mein sab nange hain, why shame Ghosh alone?


  37. That “hmm” at the end of your note ties it all up perfectly Nivy. Dubieties mutiply, and paradoxes upon paradoxes. I have to say Atwood disappoints in this likewise – & given her antecedents, perhaps even more sadly.


  38. The whole world (or lets say, most of it) said a very easy yes to the Beijing Olympics – officially billed as the Chinese state’s “coming out” party!


    1. Somnath, first, we are not “the whole world” and nor are we responsible for that entity. Second, not every author is appealed to in such circumstances, only those with assumed politically progressive credentials. Third, the original appeal to boycott Israel came from Palestinian and dissident Israeli voices, and others are backing those voices. Finally if such an author were offered a Chinese award, and the Free Tibet movement made an appeal to turn it down, that appeal would find strong supporters from among those who now appeal to Ghosh.
      But you know what, I’m beginning to agree with Supriya, Amer Anwar and Gaurav Dikshit – let the poor writer have his money!


  39. I found these words from Kesavan quite odd:
    ” a Jewish state born in the aftermath of the Holocaust shouldn’t be twinned with a state built by Boer white supremacists. There might come a time when Israeli politicians like Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman formally inaugurate apartheid in an annexed West Bank: we’re not there yet.”

    -First, a misreading of the emergence of the South African state–racism and dispossession in that country predates the formal inauguration of apartheid in 1948. The Boers were one part of this history, and instructively their self-perception and myths of national origin presented them as being victims of British imperialism–the whole notion of ‘land without people for people without land’ is an oft-repeated trope of the Afrikaners. One can argue of course that the Afrikaners were delusional and we can see the ‘truth’ (and that Israel really is a victim), but that would be missing the point. The issue is rather the instrumental effect of this ur-history of the nation-state and its continuing importance in political discourse.

    Second, so should we wait till the Israeli Right strengthens further and gains confidence to institute formal ‘apartheid’ before we begin a boycott? Are not the kernels of apartheid already present in these parties’ stated goals and moreover, in the actions of the Israeli state?
    Already, one knows the unequal citizenship that marks the life of non-Jews in Israel (apart from the occupation of Gaza and West Bank). From highways to water for fields, there is a hierarchy of rights depending on one’s identity.

    Third, what do you make of many leading anti-apartheid activists from South Africa including Archbishop Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils who support a boycott campaign against Israel?
    And as they point out, the situation in Gaza is worse than in erstwhile Bantustans–never did the apartheid regime bomb Transkei by air or launch a massive invasion like happened in Gaza last year. Sharpeville was the bloodiest it got there, and bad as it was, pales in comparison to the attack on Gaza.

    By the way, supporting a boycott emphatically does not mean an endorsement of, for instance, the occupation of Tibet. The point is that it is a strategy that has a good chance of transforming the situation in Israel–especially if one sees the solution as a single secular democratic state (something along the lines of post apartheid South Africa).

    Beyond that quote and on the question of is Israel being unfairly isolated and targeted by activists, there have been many points made here already, so without repeating them I have only one thing to add: I am at am american campus currently and from this vantage point it is an unfair criticism–those active around the boycott of Israel are the very people who are also leading the anti-war movement more broadly (including the opposition to the American occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the occupation of Tibet).
    Mostly, Hillel and other pro-Israel groups stay away. And not surprisingly: Israel has been a key ally of the US’ so called ‘war on terror’ and is a cheerleader for an invasion of Iran or less permanent actions like ‘surgical strikes’.

    Finally, and taking a broader view of it all, whether or not one agrees with all the aspects of politics of Israel/Palestine, and assuming that most of us here want a peaceful and just solution, does Ghosh’s acceptance of the award further or hinder that goal?


  40. Amitav Ghosh should know that all the conflicts originating from 1940’s,have been resolved. So too Arab-Israel with a 2-state solution, BUT Israel refuses to accept;earlier Israel was beating drums of war on Iraq [starting with Desert Storm 1] now it is busy beating the drums of war with Iran, & with the Goldstone report, there is pressure building up inside Israel; & this is just not the right time to lend any form of legitimacy, accept prize-shize

    One short work by him . Countdown, on Pokharan blasts was the only one I’m familiar with; otherwise if u can recall , in early 80’s, esp after the anti-sikh riots, I saw him observing from the sidelines in a situation as tense as that in one peace march across the river that started from Pandav nagr and ended close to Mother Dairy plant. In some subsequent `novel’ that touched on the subject hi turned his politics into some existential engagement.I also recall my friend, mish saying that the guy, like rushdie were basically after fame. Anyway, in Countdown, that opens with a useless chapter about a drive from Bikaner to Pokharan I cannot recall anything sensible being said by him, in view of my own very mobile presence in those routes those days. His argument was that the n-bombs represented the insurrection of the `elite’; or the elite take over of the state under BJP. This sort of theorization has been doing some rounds ever since but it’s a hollowed at the level of fact, forget theory. It’s a way of abstracting the state, the bjp govt in power and n-blasts in terms of an actively strong category like insurrection. Now, even though one may have thought in those terms then, given the situation, clearly subsequent developments do not elaborate the theory in the real, in situ but it seems to have become a tacit kind of presupposition, implying that the take-over was historically real. One cannot specify any of that and at the empirical level it did not make sense even when it was termed like that

    Ghosh, Naipaul, Arundhuti and sadly even Atwood [ besides a whole lot who have been riding piggy-back in social human sciences] remind me of digging wells in deserts where uncertainty holds on till the first drop gets to you lips. Because then is where you get to know whether the water is potable/drinkable or brakish/ saline. All the wells dug up by the above authors have yielded water, yes, but only by the look of it. The depths cross 300 feet mark easily in some areas and water diviners + satellite pics are correct about their forecast re. presence of water, but not about it’s quality except in some well known locales. Mssrs. authors cited above have just gone about digging lots of wells all of them yielding heavily saline, flouride contaminated water and their venerable readers have had to drink that then go on to certify as being potable, precisely because stakes are involved! The time, the investment and that particular quality [use-value] of labour are the stakes that are sought to be defended! Would there be any further dig?

    I also mean that it is one thing to execute on your awareness of the ecological crisis through knowledge of where to drink the real deep sweet water, which is the real commons, and quite another trip to go on certifying fake brakish water fit for human consumption and championing what is commons for say, camels, as the same for human beings !; i already begin to see a unholy nexus between big pharma co’s and plain farzi !


  41. On Atwood and the Dubai Literary Festival, it appears that Atwood subsequently reconsidered her position because she believed that she had been misled about the facts regarding Bedell’s novel:


    Apparently, she agreed to participate in the festival albeit via video link:


    I think it is pertinent to note that Atwood mentioned that her initial boycott decision was motivated partially by her being a Vice President of PEN International – the organisation which fights censorship. I think there is a valid point here: if you are an office-bearer of an organisation whose brief is fighting censorship, then you cannot really go to a festival where a work has (supposedly) been “banned. ”

    One can certainly criticize Atwood but I don’t think she deserves the “An Easy No to Dubai. An easy Yes to Israel” which – to be frank – seems to imply that she’s an Islamophobe.

    On the issue of Israel and boycotts, some might be interested to read the brief description of the following incident involving the Game Theory Society and the former editor of its journal, the International Journal of Game Theory:


    Professor Ariel Rubinstein’s dissenting letter (referred to in the article but with an outdated link) is available here:


    Not that it matters in any way, but I have no issues with either Atwood or Ghosh accepting the award.


  42. I agree with Gaurav. What started as a discussion on efficacy of boycott as a political instrument in a specific geo-political scenario is gradually turning into a highfalutin’ symphony of moral turpitude. I’m not sure if everyone in this debate introspects so deeply, and judges the pros and cons so minutely, as is now being expected from Ghosh and Atwood, before accepting research grants/awards/scholarships from xyz foundation.


  43. To me, this sums up the thought process of the “boycott Israel” brigade nicely..

    “By the way, supporting a boycott emphatically does not mean an endorsement of, for instance, the occupation of Tibet. The point is that it is a strategy that has a good chance of transforming the situation in Israel”.

    So a boycott will “work” against Israel precisely because of what it is – a republican democratic country with a vibrant (even raucous) civil society..Boycott its universities consistently, and chances are that Uri Avnery will have half of Tel Aviv Uni’s faculty at the forefront of another peace march before long..Boycott its economic institutions consistently, and quite soon Haifa’s hi-tech startups will vote with their feet and dollars by migrating to the Silicon valley….Of course, get Amitava Ghosh to boycott the Dan David prize, and you send in a statement across a section of of Israel’s (influential) civil society on how abominable their state is, and appealing them to “vote” it out!

    None of which, of course is likely to work againt someone like (say) Egypt, or more pertinently, China..Absence of a “civil society” is such a deterrence against the “strategy” of boycotts…It is so much more difficult to organise peaceful protest campaigns (as the “political” corollary to the boycott) in countries where the regimes dont think twice before introducing tanks on the streets…And not having the inconvenience of an electoral democracy is a sure medicine to develop “boycott-agnosticism”..

    Lastly of course, one can also then talk of solutions like “a single secular democratic state” for the “boycotted” entity….A little more than what one can talk about while talking about any of Israel’s neighbours, including its extended neighbourhood?

    In a way, Israel is an “easy” target – its rich (on the basis of sheer brainpower), its successful (across a range of human endeavours) and its got huge geopolitical influence..At the same time it is a raucous, argumentative (!)society based on republican tenets..Therefore, its excesses are that much easier to condemn, and its state that much easier to vent collective liberalist spleens on..


    1. I think the assumption that I mentioned in my statement–that all of us are interested in a peaceful and just solution–doesn’t apply here if I go by your argument. I say this because for you Israel is ‘rich’, ‘successful’ (whatever that means), functions through ‘republican tenets’.
      So does occupying, and further entrenching its occupations not give you pause as to reconsider the country’s stated ‘republicanism’ and democracy? How about banning Arab parties prior to elections? Bombing the hell out of Gaza? Or the invasion of Lebanon in 2006?

      Boycott has a–though slim–chance of succeeding in Israel because the country is 1) relatively small and reliant on foreign investment and exports; 2) the relationship with the US is particularly important and a change there may be effective, and 3) because the solution, as in RSA, involves a redefinition of the state (to a secular democratic one, as i mentioned) and citizenship and not its destruction or some such.

      And not to mention the the patronizing and judgmental tone of your critique–‘collective liberalist spleens’…


  44. I would like to make one last remark.

    The situation of Palestinians is particularly hopeless even for the hopeless age we live in. If the Holocaust industry was not enough, now Islamic terrorism haunts them. But the heart of the matter remains the USA. It is clear that only the US can make a difference, and I see neither a tactical nor a moral boycott of the US. By all means boycott Israel, but have some effective strategy against the engine of Israel’s power.

    Such a strategy, alas, seems impossible. There is nothing — no mobilization, no insurrection — to stand up to the US’s power. Academic politics stays within academic circles, and even if Ghosh had refused the prize, Israel would have let it pass like Bush let pass the shoe flung at him. I cannot help feel cynical about symbolic academic protest. People like Finkelstein and Amira Hass have devoted their life to the Palestinian cause, and more power to them, but I am sorry to say that individuals cannot overcome organised power. I wish the world had heeded the appeal by the Palestinian students, but the world only listens to the powerful. I hope that Ghosh’s acceptance of the Dan David Prize will make us accept that the only effective resistance to Israel is of Hamas. Speaking in a hundred different voices or criticising Hamas will mock the one desperate hope Palestinians have.


    1. Gaurav, you are indeed right. The hegemonic totality of United States imperialism is profound, and the contemporary conjuncture does seem in some ways prohibitively ‘irresistible’. The problems with such a (perhaps ‘true’) envisioning of the situation though is that it breeds a pessimism that is not merely of the intellect, but equally and simultaneously, of the will. Faced with this kind of ‘experientially insurmountable’ constellation of factors and forces, many would simply retire from the battleground, others make peace with the dragon, following the logic of Stockholm Syndrome – if you can’t beat em, then with no where left to get away either, let’s join em (& rationalize this by self-tricking oneself to dream up some virtues for what you decide to kiss up to, in the perceived absence of exit routes or alternative possibilities). Which is why a pincer movement of resistance from many sites, be the ne’er so humble, becomes the law of necessity in a time of extremity. But I fear the route of individual terror is the response to extremity by the desperate expedient. That never works, because that’s the lesson of history. The definition of craziness is to go on doing the same thing which never worked before over and over again, expecting a different result. It’s even worse if what you go on doing over and over again has the inherent structure of destrution. It’s understandable as a ‘reaction’, but it’s not necessarily correct and not demonstrably useful. Sometimes it’s necessary to regroup and just think very hard and coolly. That’s why to raise a point about Ghosh (he’s really a symbol and occasin in all this, not the object, although a symbol of many kinds) is never to raise a question MERELY about Ghosh. One cannot let go of the trees just because the woods look much too overwhelming. Sometimes historic movement has the form of a fell sweep, or an avalanche; and sometimes one must rely on the cumulative effect of a myriad little scrapings of a monolithic surface for the difference to felt to begin. Different historic configurations dictate different and pertinent forms of thinking – the necessity of thought in the theorem of historical change is why one can’t simply dismiss the intellectuals’ seemingly most localised and limited strikes. Such a demand – if you can’t change everything pronto, say nothing – only helps the hegemons.
      Btw, thanks for your generously worded comment.


    2. Gaurav, you are indeed right. The hegemonic totality of United States imperialism is profound, and the contemporary conjuncture does seem in some ways prohibitively ‘irresistible’. The problems with such a (perhaps ‘true’) envisioning of the situation though is that it breeds a pessimism that is not merely of the intellect, but equally and simultaneously, of the will. Faced with this kind of ‘experientially insurmountable’ constellation of factors and forces, many would simply retire from the battleground, others make peace with the dragon, following the logic of Stockholm Syndrome – if you can’t beat em, then with no where left to get away either, let’s join em (& rationalize this by self-tricking oneself to dream up some virtues for what you decide to kiss up to, in the perceived absence of exit routes or alternative possibilities). Which is why a pincer movement of resistance from many sites, be the ne’er so humble, becomes the law of necessity in a time of extremity. But I fear the route of individual terror is the response to extremity by the desperate expedient. That never works, because that’s the lesson of history. The definition of craziness is to go on doing the same thing which never worked before over and over again, expecting a different result. It’s even worse if what you go on doing over and over again has the inherent structure of destruction and self destruction. It’s understandable as a ‘reaction’, but it’s not necessarily correct and not demonstrably useful. Sometimes it’s necessary to regroup and just think very hard and coolly. That’s why to raise a point about Ghosh (he’s really a symbol and occasion in all this, not the object, although a symbol of many kinds) is never to raise a question MERELY about Ghosh. One cannot let go of the trees just because the woods look much too overwhelming. Sometimes historic movement has the form of a fell sweep, or an avalanche; and sometimes one must rely on the cumulative effect of a myriad little scrapings of a monolithic surface for the difference to begin to be felt. Different historic configurations dictate different and pertinent forms of thinking – the necessity of thought in the theorem of historical change is why one can’t simply dismiss the intellectuals’ seemingly most localised and limited strikes. Such a demand – if you can’t change everything pronto, say nothing – only helps the hegemons.
      Btw, thanks for your generously worded comment.


  45. Rohit,

    Its not my point that Israel is a paragon of great liberal virtues..Only that its critique is based on fundamentally different moral datum levels from what is applied for its own neighbours, or for that matter, a host of other countries (China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia)….

    Yes, the Israeli CEC banned two Arab parties – it is also true that these parties have a right to appeal against the ban in the Supreme Court, and its widely believed that the court will overturn the ban…That is the tenet of republican statehood that one is referring to while talking of Israel – you think it will be possible in any of the countries referred to above? If not, then why talk of boycotting Israel while not making the same clamour for them?

    Your points on why boycott will succeed are only the superficial reasons.. you can argue exactly on the same lines for North Korea – small country completely dependent on Chinese (and South Korean) aid, adn the Chinese support is crucial to the survival of the regime…But no one in the “liberal world” talks of appealing to China to boycott NK..Why? Because fundamentally, it wont make a difference, a) because China will treat the appeal with Confucian disdain and b) the North Korean regime wont in the least bit be affected by such boycott calls or the boycott itself..No civil society, an authoritarian police state combine to make them completely immune to such actions…But not Israel, for precisely the reverse factors..

    About the political actions (Gaza, Lebanon etc), one can make those points about a lot of other states – its an unfortunate reality (has been for ages!) but Israel is hardly a Robinson Crusoe state in that…And when one looks at the Israeli state’s (and people’s) achievements (they are not “whatever”, they are real achievements across a range of areas that compare favourably with any other nation on earth), they mark such a contrast to every single state in the Middle East (as also states like North Korea, Cuba and even China) that one wonders how a “boycott” call of the state is meaningful…


  46. @Gaurav, you have just turned a deaf ear to the voices, requests, demands and advice rendered to Ghosh and Atwood. All the protest amounts to this : they should have refused to accept the Dan David award at this point of time when some unusual pressure is building up inside Israel and in the world for Israel to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    You seem to be out of your mind when you say that `if Ghosh refused the prize, Israel would have let it pass like Bush let pass the shoe flung at him’. Bush would never in his wildest dreams let pass half-a-million dollars let pass if that bundle or cheque was thrown at him. He would have gone out of his way chasing that cheque or bundle. Second, if Ghosh and Atwood had refused accepting the prize, Israel would have been deservedly disgraced before world public opinion, once again. Since this is a matter of prestige, such acts of refusal take on an extraordinary meaning and significance. Third, refusal to accept the prize would have added yet another banner of honourable resistance to Israeli policy of occupation. The pressure on Israel would have increased and Israel deservedly embarrassed once again, but this time increasing the pressure on Israel means much more than it would have prior to their latest offensive on Gaza.


  47. let me spell out the issue at stake without entering the space of israel/palestine conflict.
    Dan David’s philosophy is expressed in the statement he made: “Money is a measure of success like Celsius degrees for temperature; it is not a purpose in itself. Success can be a source of satisfaction but money should be put to work for good causes after personal needs have been met. It is the reason why I chose to create the Prize, to devote some of my fortune to rewarding and furthering the work of the eminent figures who have increased our knowledge of our past, improved our present and helped us forge a better future”.
    now, let me put it as simply as i can. if you agree with dan’s statement then go ahead and accept the award. i think nivedita has hinted at it.
    second, kissinger is on the board of this organization. this award has been given to people like blair and gore. some people refuse to accept an award on such criteria, as well. is amitav comfortable with this? i would not be. this might mean never accepting any award( all awards have something hidden in the past). so be it.


  48. I follow a debate like this wondering just one thing: if and when I contribute, what can I say that’s not been said already?

    There is plenty of evil in this world — which is a sentence every bit as banal as Hannah Arendt found evil itself to be. But it bears recall, because if we’re cataloguing it, we’ll be at it for a long time.

    If Chechen terrorists assaulted schoolkids in Beslan and turned the world’s stomachs, Russians have been responsible for unspeakable horrors in Chechnya for well over a century. (I recommend Gall and Waal’s “Chechnya: A Small Victorious War”). If we’ve heard of Japanese atrocities against American troops in the Pacific during WW2, Americans did some pretty ghastly things to their Japanese captives too. (I recommend Sledge’s “With the Old Breed”). If Pakistani terrorists massacred 170 Indian innocents on 26/11, Indian terrorists massacred 3000 Indian innocents in November 1984. (Plenty to recommend).

    And if the Holocaust was the horrific climax of the centuries of persecution Jews have suffered, and if that was the context for Zionism and the formation of Israel — and I believe there is truth and substance in that context — if that’s so, then the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is context too, for Palestinian dreams of self-rule. (I recommend, among others, some of Chris Hedges’ writing on Gaza).

    So where there’s evil, where there’s context, I don’t believe such things as awards can be shorn of it all. On the contrary, they feed off the context, are informed and shaped by it. On this page alone there are those for whom the award is tainted by Israel, just as there are those for whom it is a reminder of, of all things, solidarity between Israel and India. (Imagine the Modi Government in Gujarat giving someone X an award — there’d be the people urging X to decline it, there’d be the people applauding it as a great honour for X from someone they consider the best CM in the land).

    All of which is why, in the end, it’s our individual consciences that count (another banal assertion, of course). Whatever Ghosh does will leave some folks dissatisfied; therefore, he must follow his conscience.

    Nobody is giving me a prize, but if Dan David were offering me this one, I’d do this.

    First, I would remember my belief that there’s a historical justification for the existence of Israel, and a right for Jewish people to make a life in dignity and peace. For that reason, I would not have a problem accepting the award.

    Second, I would remember my belief that this same Israel has caused immense suffering in Gaza in particular, but also to Palestinians in general by various oppressive measures; my belief, too, that there’s a right for Palestinians too to make a life in dignity and peace. For that reason, I would immediately hand over the award money to some worthwhile Palestinian cause, whose representative I would have asked to be present at the venue for this very purpose.


    1. Dilip, what makes you think that the representative of Palestinian cause would accept the tainted award money?


  49. “First, I would remember my belief that there’s a historical justification for the existence of Israel, and a right for Jewish people to make a life in dignity and peace. For that reason, I would not have a problem accepting the award.”

    the historical justification would doubtless be the centuries of pogroms and slaughter of jews in europe, culminating in the national socialist genocide till 1945. if there had to be a UN mandated partition for european jews to make a life in dignity and peace, then this could have been to carve a jewish enclave in germany, poland. a ‘switzerland’ for jews, prosperous, independent, and located in their cultural heartland.

    historically oriental and sephardic jews prospered in west asia, anatolia, mesopotamia, malabar. were there ghettos in cairo, alexandria, baghdad, damascus, istanbul, cochin? in european christendom, jews were accused of deicide, christ (god) killers. hence their justification for violating the commandment – ‘thou shalt not kill’ as far as jews were concerned, until the middle of the last century.

    now all that seems to have happened is jews in israel live in a self-imposed walled prison. and the others are herded into their pens. what should have happened is a free open country, with jews, christians, muslims, agnostics living together, comfortably. make a life in dignity and peace.


  50. Should we see the “context” of holocaust in the present Palestinian situation? Is it not mere brutality in the part of Israel, aided and protected by the United States? Bringing holocaust into this issue has been Israel’s reason for making Palestinians struggle, should we buy that? And Israel and US are responsible for whatever happened in the Arab world since 1967 war (death of Arab nationalism, liberal and progressive politics, growth of religious extremism, etc).

    If someone believes in the Palestinian cause as much as it should be, they will use all the possible occasions they get to make a point and attack Israel/ US. I hope a great thinker like Amitav Ghosh, with such backgrounds in Egypt and Arab world, and Colonialism and Imperialism, will do something more than merely accepting the award (and thus legitimizing Israel’s ways’ acceptance in this world by a bit more). I hope he’ll do some form of protest that makes some news.



  51. “Naipaul was coming brazenly out of the closet with his rabidly communalist pseudo-historiography sillhouetted against the blazing fires of hate in the subcontinent.”

    Ahmer, in other words someone simply stuck a microphone before the “revolutionary” “radical” “revisiting” notables of Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia and showed us all for the utterly banal reactionaries they are. And not once, he did it for the first time in “Among the Believers” and again with “Beyond Belief”. The hate if any is in the unspoken assumption that a modern edifice can be built upon the destruction of one tradition and its people.


  52. i am sad for gaza.. i wish things were different.. i remember better days..

    i wonder where the people of gaza were when thousands of rockets were raining on israel for years.. i wonder where their voices were hiding.. they know how to show up by the hundreds of thousands to support hamas but to decry the incessant attack on their neighbours their voices suddenly become mute..

    and yet still – i wish egypt had a more balanced policy to support gaza and frankly i wish we did too – even though i dont feel we owe gaza an open border..

    i dont think any one in israel enjoys this situation.. but i think the sense is that we have little choice.. whether lebanon or gaza.. fact was the conflicts and force were the only way to secure our borders.. no other threats or negotiations worked..

    it is truly tragic and i hope things changed soon..

    so what could be done?

    (a) hamas could amend its constitution to stop calling for our death and destruction

    (b) it could also amend its constitution to say that when agreements are reached that they will be honoured. currently it says the opposite

    (c) it could disallow the bombing of our fence

    this would be a great start

    if it was serious about peace – it could probably strike a deal to swap all weapon for farming equipment – declare a tax free zone – collect sales taxes alone and invite every arab bank in the region to set up a head quarter..

    it wouldnt even need a peace agreement – a long term ceasefire would work fine..

    peace would follow shortly after..


  53. The State of Israel has once again bared its fangs in the name of “tactical purpose”. Finally, an international outrage against the brutal machinations of Israeli paranoia. Wonder what Ghosh’s understanding of tactical purpose would say to this tactics by the Israeli state. If violence and murder can occur in the name of tact – then Ghosh should find a better purpose.


  54. truly another fallen idol. Thanks for the smug picture, it makes the bitter pill easier to swallow…

    And why should we preserve a discreet silence about the money? Here we are yelling ourself hoarse about how the media/ and individual journalists, take money to be silent on certain issues, really, how is this so different? writers don’t have responsibilities, is that it? what about writers who made HUGE amounts of money writing about dispossessed people? no responsibility again?

    but, oh wait, i forgot, those are ethical and moral issues. This is a case of show me the cash baby, and i’ll toe any line you want me to toe… and, because youre so powerful and rich, i’ll ALSO exercise my considerable linguistic skills to write an i’m-convinced-i’m-right defense.



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