Opinion: Literary protest against the war in Gaza has gone off the rails

Editor’s Note: Ilene Prusher is a journalist and author who spent two decades covering the Middle East. She teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University, where she is the digital director of MediaLab@FAU. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

The decor was set, the fans were trickling in and the literati were milling about, wine glasses in hand.

Ilene Prusher - Jordana Miller
Ilene Prusher - Jordana Miller

But something about this year’s Jerusalem International Writers Festival, which was held late last month, was off. Missing, actually.

The festival’s artistic director, Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler, thought about whether the beloved book festival should happen this year at all. With Israeli society still reeling from the loss of more than 1,200 people killed in Hamas’s assault on Oct. 7, some 300 soldiers felled in battle since then and the harrowing wait for the many Israelis still held captive in Gaza, it looked likely that this year’s festival would be another casualty of the war. In Israel’s ensuing offensive since that attack, more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and large swaths of the territory have been reduced to rubble.

For starters, there was the name of the gathering. This year, it was simply called the Jerusalem Writers Festival — the word “international” quietly dropped off the title for the first time since its founding in 2008, as few writers from abroad were willing to come to Israel while it wages a devastating war in Gaza. Festival organizers told me that several “A-list” American writers who had originally agreed to come had backed out, whether out of concern for their safety or fearing the pressures they might come under were they to headline a festival in Israel.

Fermentto-Tzaisler, an Israeli author of two acclaimed novels, decided that despite the grim outlook, a gathering focused on literature was more important than ever.

“The moment that I decided that I didn’t want to cancel, and that I believe in the power in literature to change peoples’ hearts and minds — to evoke empathy and humanity — I was pretty determined to make it happen at all costs,” she told me before the start of the festival. “Literature is a bridge between human beings and it belongs to humanity as a whole.”

These are words that speak to me, and they sound very good on paper. Since the start of the war nearly eight months ago, Israeli authors, artists, musicians and filmmakers have been boycottedbooed and banned like never before. In wartime, we need literary minds to light the way. Those who have jumped on the boycott bandwagon by targeting literature festivals and other cultural outlets are missing an opportunity to win hearts and minds — and imagine a better future.

A shadow over the literary world

Examples abound of how fallout from the ongoing war is casting a shadow over the literary world. The recent Hay Festival, held annually in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, was rocked by a large number of artists canceling plans to participate due to the festival’s sponsorship by an investment management firm that does business with Israel. The festival ultimately relented and announced that it would temporarily sever its ties with the firm, Baillie Gifford, which has been the festival’s main sponsor since 2016. In other major literary events crumbling beneath the weight of the war, PEN America decided to cancel its World Voices Festival after a string of authors withdrew, bowing to a boycott campaign and complaints that the festival organizers had been insufficiently critical of Israel.

In her statement announcing the cancelation of the festival in late April, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel sounded exasperated. “We share the anguish over the loss of life and devastation of the war.  We are listening to our critics,” she wrote. “We now face a campaign that casts our struggle to reflect complexity, uphold our identity as a big tent organization, and show fealty to our principles as a moral abdication.  The perspective that engaging with those who hold a different point of view constitutes an impermissible act of legitimization negates the very possibility of dialogue.”

In a March letter announcing their withdrawal from the festival, a group of writers charged that PEN had not done enough to support Palestinians. “In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza,” the letter reads, “we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere.” In addition to canceling the festival, PEN called for a ceasefire and set up a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers, the AP reported.

It is inevitable that with such tragedy and senseless violence unfolding in the Middle East, the world of writers would be — should be — troubled. But it’s unfortunate that it was ultimately the writers’ loss, as meaningful exchanges did not happen, and prizes with significant financial support for them were not awarded — a blow to an already-financially strapped ecosystem for in which it is difficult for artists and authors to survive.

To be sure, these are not the only cancelations the literary world has experienced related to the war; nor are Jewish writers the only ones who have faced controversy. But to many Jewish writers, myself included, the silencing — which hurts everyone — has felt increasingly targeted. And New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof put it this way in his most recent column: “If you champion the human rights of only Israelis or only Palestinians, you don’t actually care about human rights.”

The cost of silencing literary voices

In the days since I attended the rather sad and subdued launch of the Jerusalem Writers Festival, a Jewish author, graphic novelist Miriam Libicki, was banned from a comic book festival in Vancouver and the Israeli women’s soccer team was harassed by pro-Palestinian protestors at the European Championship qualifier match between Scotland and Israel, with tensions at such a fever pitch that security officials decided that the game would be played without supporters, in an empty stadium.

The main message: Israelis and anyone with ties to Israel have no place in the public square, even if their role in that square is scoring goals, making art or writing books. Some Jewish writers say they’re being blacklisted or asked to publicly declare themselves anti-Zionists before meriting a place at the table or on the program.

I respect the right to protest against any government and to decline participation in an event that doesn’t align with one’s values. But there is something about the frenzy to boycott everything Israeli, accompanied by a thundering lack of interest in the massacres committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 and their long track-record of suicide bombings in buses and cafes, that smacks of something beyond opposition to this war. Do I even need to name it?

It seems that if there is a space where human beings can connect, share ideas, expose ourselves to something beyond what we know, it is the world of literature. One might argue that subjecting writers to literary litmus tests that almost ring of 1950s McCarthyism and far darker days in Europe not only represents missed opportunities for mind-opening engagement, but also debases the very point of our cultural spaces and texts.

Sir Simon Schama — a British historian, award-winning documentarian and currently, University Professor at Columbia University, and one of the few international authors who agreed to be a guest of the Jerusalem festival — told me in an interview between sessions that the entire point of such a public parley between writers is that it be a “theater of free debate and discussion, not gladiatorial games.” He was dismayed to see so few foreign writers on the roster here, and decried what he called the “boycott siege” of the Hay Festival in the UK.

Troubling questions remain

All of which leads to some interesting questions. Do such boycotts even work? Do they bring about change, or simply make the boycotted feel more maligned and marginalized? From what I heard and saw on my recent visit to Israel, I believe it’s largely the latter. The Israelis most impacted by this boycott already skew left: They do not support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and have been out protesting against him since he tried to overhaul the nation’s democratic institutions last year. They’re all the more outraged now that he seems to be putting the goal of “total victory” over Hamas before what most think should be his top priority: saving hostages’ lives.

There were a handful of other international writers on hand — novelist John Irving agreed to come but caught Covid and had to join via Zoom — but the overall vibe was noticeably less global than the last five times I attended the festival, including in its inaugural year. Of course, in a country literally wallpapered with images of killed and kidnapped citizens, the festival was bound to have a more inward bent.

The opening night included a memorial event for Oct. 7, featuring writers and poets impacted by the war, as well as heretofore unknown voices who lost family members on that day. An escapist approach felt wrong, Fermentto-Tzaisler said, so she and her team decided to make sure everything they did would connect to the reality they’re living through. A trivia night for Harry Potter fans, for example, was dedicated to Noya Dan, a 12-year-old girl who was killed along with her grandmother while visiting one of the kibbutzim Hamas attacked.

In another meaningful moment, celebrated Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo took the stage beneath the stars and read a kind of prose poem about dutifully agreeing to go anywhere and everywhere he has been invited since Oct. 7, speaking to the grieving, the wounded, the traumatized.

He said: “I learned in recent months what power and significance there is in words, and what capability we have, as storytellers, to heal and to give hope. From the start of this war, it seems I’m much more therapist than writer,” he read in a lilting Hebrew. “Sometimes I think it’s too much for me, and that it’s not by chance that I didn’t become a psychologist. And I wonder, sometimes, why people turn to a writer when they’re in pain.”

Perhaps it’s because we need our writers to help us better understand our own pain, and the pain of others. It was perhaps with that in mind that after covering the war in Iraq starting in 2003, I wrote a novel told from the point of view of an Iraqi protagonist. I was relieved when Iraqi friends told me that I somehow “got” them, and when readers closer to home said that through this character, they felt able to empathize with Iraqis in a way they never could before. I felt I had achieved something, however small, that goes to the heart of why we read and why we write. If a book can’t bring us into the world of the other and allow us to emerge with a clearer, truer picture of humanity, I’m not sure what can.

I am sure, though, that it was exactly this — reading and listening — that opened my eyes to the realities of Palestinians’ lives under occupation and which brought me around to being a supporter of a two-state solution, or any workable solution that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and dignity. Being influenced by each other’s literature and holding conversations where something greater than the problems of the moment gets discussed can only bring us closer to that reality. I want to believe that imagining that future is not just the stuff of fiction.

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