German city pulls prize from Kamila Shamsie over support for Palestinians

A city in northwest Germany rescinded an award from novelist Kamila Shamsie because of her support for BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

The eight-member jury of the Nelly Sachs Prize, along with the city of Dortmund which funds the award, announced their reversal on 18 September.

“The members of the jury were not aware that the author has been a member, has participated in and continues to participate in the boycott of the Israeli government over its Palestinian policy since 2014,” the city announced.

Dortmund said that Shamsie’s boycott of Israel is “in clear contradiction of the goals and spirit of the Nelly Sachs Prize,” such as “reconciliation among peoples and cultures.”

The statement claimed that the boycott movement “hits the entire society of Israel,” and thus “the work of Kamila Shamsie is withheld from the Israeli population.”

Dortmund’s statement made no mention of how millions of Palestinians are deprived of their rights to education, culture and contact with and travel to the outside world by Israel’s decades of military occupation – especially the ongoing 12-year blockade of Gaza.

“Great sadness”

“It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression,” Shamsie stated.

“And it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modeled 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.”

The BDS movement explicitly opposes all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Shamsie is the author of many novels. Her book Home Fire was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018.

She was chosen as the winner of the Dortmund award on 6 September, before bloggers from the Ruhrbarone website accused her of anti-Semitism and charged the jury with promoting “the destruction of Israel.”

Ruhrbarone pointed to Shamsie’s refusal last year to be published by an Israeli publisher.

“I do not want to cross the picket line formed by Palestinian civil society, which has asked everyone who wants to change the situation to not cooperate with organizations that are in any way complicit with the Israeli state,” she said at the time.

Ruhrbarone previously called for genocide against Palestinians in a now-deleted tweet.

Earlier this year, a German festival disinvited American rapper Talib Kweli because of his support for BDS.

Kweli’s performance was canceled after bloggers from Ruhrbarone urged organizers from the Open Source Festival to do so.

After Ruhrbarone’s recent attacks, Shamsie reaffirmed her support of the BDS movement.

The city of Dortmund then said it was reconsidering her prize.

Dortmund cited its February decision to bar BDS supporters from public venues.

Solidarity with Shamsie

Palestinians have condemned the decision to withdraw Shamsie’s award.

“German cultural and public institutions continue to isolate themselves by censoring anti-racist artists,” PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, stated.

Artists, writers and musicians have offered words of solidarity with Shamsie.

Pakistani lawmaker Sherry Rehman also said she supported Shamsie:

Palestinian group wins court ruling

Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, recently passed a resolution equating BDS with anti-Semitism.

The resolution calls for withholding public funding from organizations that support the boycott or call into question Israel’s claimed “right to exist.”

Though nonbinding, the resolution fuels a McCarthyite anti-Palestinian atmosphere among Germany’s media and elites.

Yet earlier this month, a court ordered the western city of Bonn to admit a German Palestinian group to the annual Bonn Culture and Encounter Festival.

The German-Palestinian Women’s Association filed a lawsuit against the city for excluding the group over its support for BDS.

The Cologne court ruled that neither the city’s opposition to BDS nor the Bundestag resolution “constitute legislative acts, but are political resolutions or expressions of political will.”

“These motions alone cannot justify, from any legal perspective, the restriction of an existing legal right,” the court ruled, according to PACBI.

Bonn excluded two other groups on similar pretexts.

The German-Palestinian Society and the Palestinian Community of Bonn also sued the city and are awaiting the court’s ruling.

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Comments

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It's a double honor, to be awarded a prize for your art, then denied it for your stand on Human rights—worth far more, in reputational cred, than the original prize alone. So: double-congratulations (and thanks, zio-pinheads). As the old miners' strike song asks, "Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?" The wheat is separated from the chaff; the gold is parted from the dross.

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"Dortmund cited its February decision to bar BDS supporters from public venues."

How long before the German state imposes an insignia identifying the wearer as a supporter of Palestinian rights, to be thus bebarred from public places and certain forms of employment, such as entertainment, education, the law, and electoral politics? Lists could be compiled and referred to the prosecutor's office for the crimes of membership, solidarity, advocacy and the like. If that sounds preposterous, just recall a bit of German history. Does anyone really believe that stripping a part of the population of their rights is a way of atoning for historical crimes or defending the rights of the majority? Germany is marching along a path of regression, and these attacks on supporters of the BDS campaign are part of a larger program for tightening control over the entire nation.

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Disgraceful, cowardly, stupid, philistine, ignorant, short-term and self-defeating. Shamsie's work will be read when the fools who have withdrawn the prize are little piles of dust remembered only for the pusillanimity.
This is high profile, but it is going on all the time. Shamsie has been helped by her somewhat privileged background and her work has not, to date , been significantly controversial. Many writers never get into print because there operates a quiet censorship which everyone denies. Commercial publishers do the dirty work. On the one hand they are obsessed by profit. Why have a book on your list which might sell 1,000 copies when you can have one which will sell 1,000,000? That inevitably tilts in the direction of the conventional. No one is going to publish today's Kafka when they could publish today's Agatha Christie. Yet behind this apparent commercial impulse, lies a political one. the commercial and the political conjoin in the will to keep from the shelves anything too challenging, anything which subverts the glib opinions peddled daily by a compliant media. Shamsie has a prize taken from her, but make no mistake, there are many writers who never get near a prize because the literary mafia confines them to small presses or to no publication at all. The same is true of the theatre which is more or less a museum. Plays are required to appeal to bums not brains. Once, some of the great new plays left theatres half empty and the critics baffled. Not any more. A script that won't fill the place goes in the shredder. Who would produce Godot or The Birthday Party or The Crucible or Awake and Sing as a first time play today? There has been a quiet but highly successful closing down over the past forty years. Pete Nichols, newly deceased. When did he last have a new play on stage? Too dangerous. The bounds have narrowed so that minds do too. Shamsie is lucky. She's world famous. Many good writers are unknown.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.