NEW DELHI: Writer Amitav Ghosh is in the middle of an unsavoury award controversy. The writer of award-winning novels like The Shadow Lines and The Hungry Tide has won the million-dollar Dan David Prize. Won for “Rendition of the 20th Century,” he’ll share it with Booker-winning author Margaret Atwood. But their acceptance of the prize has invited strong protest from groups supporting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Ghosh – the third Indian to win the prize after chemist C.N.R. Rao (2005) and musician Zubin Mehta (2007) – and Atwood are scheduled to receive it in Tel Aviv on May 9. Because the award’s partly funded by the Tel Aviv University, the writers have received ‘open letters’ and emails urging them to refuse it.
“Stand up to your principles, Margaret, and set an example for other decent intellectuals…. A total boycott of Israel in response to its total occupation of Palestine,” wrote Antoine Raffoul of London in an email to Atwood dated April 11. This and Atwood’s response defending her decision and calling the boycott a “dangerous precedent,” were published on the website of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Another group, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), wrote an open letter signed by film-studies scholar Haim Bresheeth and biologist David Pegg among others, to Ghosh.
Slightly combative in tone, it says, “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.”…What can you be thinking of? Please, think again.”
Ghosh responded on email and later in a magazine piece. First, he makes the same point as Atwood that “this prize is awarded by a university in conjunction with a private foundation: it is not awarded by the state of Israel.” He further writes, “I do not believe in embargoes and boycotts where they concern matters of culture and learning,” and clarifies that he “did not turn [the Commonwealth Prize] down but “withdrew [his] book from competition because [he] disagreed with the specific mandate of that prize.”
BRICUP, “an organization of UK based academics, set up in response to the Palestinian Call for Academic Boycott,” didn’t let it pass. They wrote another letter on April 23. They’ve done their homework. Of Tel Aviv University, they write, “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…. 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?”
Controversy apart, the Dan David is a major prize. And it also has a unique rationale. The three awards of a million dollars each are for achievements in “fields…chosen within the three Time Dimensions – Past, Present and Future.” It awards work, “scientific, technological, cultural or social,” that has had a major impact on our world. Consequently, literature does not always feature on the list and the ‘Future’ category is invariably dominated by science. The winners are ‘Dan David Laureates’. Its elastic criteria means that some ‘laureates’ aren’t even human. The cities of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Rome jointly claimed the award in 2004. The category’s obvious – Past.