Nelly Sachs prize was withdrawn over Shamsie’s support for boycotting Israel, prompting more than 250 fellow writers to defend her stance
Alison Flood – The Guardian
Arundhati Roy, JM Coetzee and Sally Rooney are among more than 250 writers who have defended Kamila Shamsie after a German literary prize withdrew an award over her support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
In an open letter published today in the London Review of Books, the writers, who also include Noam Chomsky, Amit Chaudhuri, William Dalrymple, Yann Martel, Jeanette Winterson and Ben Okri, say that the Nelly Sachs prize has chosen to “punish an author for her human rights advocacy”. Michael Ondaatje, a former winner of the award, is one of the signatories to the letter.
The judges had initially chosen Shamsie for writing that “builds bridges between societies”, but changed their minds on learning she backed the BDS movement, saying that her “political positioning to actively participate in the cultural boycott … contrasts with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures”.
Shamsie’s supporters ask: “What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression and the freedom to criticise? … Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.”
The letter had more than 100 signatories a day after it began to be circulated by the writers Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton, co-founders of the Palestine festival of literature.
The revoking of Shamsie’s award follows a motion passed in May by the German parliament that labelled the BDS movement antisemitic. But the letter writers point to a decision earlier this month in the administrative court of Cologne ruling that Bonn city council’s decision to exclude the German-Palestinian Women’s Association from a cultural festival because of its support for BDS was unjustified.
The writers highlight the statement last year from more than 40 progressive Jewish organisations arguing that conflating anti-Jewish racism with opposition to Israel’s policies and system of occupation and apartheid “undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against antisemitism”.
The letter also criticises the German city of Dortmund, which runs the award, for refusing to make public Shamsie’s written response to the decision.
Shamsie, winner of the UK’s Women’s prize for fiction, had called it a “matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust”.
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the city of Dortmund said that the jury had decided not to give any further statements. “The council has legitimated the jury of Nelly Sachs prize to choose an awardee,” she said. “The jury is autonomous in its decision and gave reasons in the press release. There has been no council meeting after the jury’s decision, so the withdrawal has not been a topic for the council yet.”