Groups: Amitav Ghosh, don’t accept Dan David prize

The following letter was issued by a coalition of organizations calling on author Amitav Ghosh to decline the Dan David prize administered by Tel Aviv University, to be awarded on 9 May:

Dear Amitav Ghosh,

We wish to express our deep disappointment in your decision to accept the Dan David prize, administered by Tel Aviv University and to be awarded by the President of Israel. As a writer whose work has dwelled consistently on histories of colonialism and displacement, your refusal to take stance on the colonial question in the case of Israel and the occupation of Palestine has provoked deep dismay, frustration and puzzlement among readers and fans of your work around the world. Many admired your principled stand, and respected your decision not to accept the Commonwealth Writers Prize in rejection of the colonialist framework it represented.

As scholars, writers and activists of South Asian origin and those working on South Asia and on anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperial politics at large, based largely in the United States like you, but also in South Asia, we think this is an important moment to consider the reasons why South Asians should take a principled stand, along with others, in refusing to legitimize a state guilty of war crimes and illegal occupation and instead join the growing movement for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Supporters of Israel have used a number of arguments to oppose the boycott, which unfortunately seem to be part of your rationale for accepting the prize as well. It is also time to consider why those who have taken a principled stand in other cases, as in the boycott and divestment movement for South Africa, find it difficult to take the same stand in the case of Israel.

In doing this, we join a chorus of voices opposing your decision in India. In a recent letter addressed to you, 50 prominent Indian intellectuals wrote, “In rejecting the appeals of a number of organizations [to decline the prize] … you have argued on two different counts. One is that a boycott of Israel is tactically wrong; the other is that cultural and academic institutions should not be boycotted or embargoed. … [T]he present situation calls for response — to the continuing siege of Gaza; the brutal occupation regime in which Palestinians have to cross military checkpoints every day; and the policies of the apartheid state of Israel in which Arab and Jewish members have different rights. The options for resistance open to the Palestinians are limited, given this situation on the ground. But in any case, the tactics to be attempted is for the Palestinians to decide; and the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society is calling for a boycott of Israel. We, who are neither participants in their struggle nor living under occupation, can best respond by being part of the international solidarity backing their struggle. … The second point you raise is that cultural and academic institutions should not be boycotted because they are independent of the state. Apart from the complicity of Tel Aviv University in the occupation regime … the Dan David prize is presided over by Shimon Peres, the President of Israel.” [The full letter available via] This letter was a powerful one, especially since it comes from scholars in India, a country that has forged a close military and economic alliance with the US. A campaign opposing normalization of relations with Israel has also recently been launched in Pakistan (

The argument that ties to Israeli academic or cultural institutions should not be severed is a critical one to be addressed as it goes to the crux of the academic and cultural boycott, which targets institutions, not individuals. A major report focused on Israeli academic institutions notes, “Israeli academic institutions have not opted to take a neutral, apolitical position toward the Israeli occupation but to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies toward the Palestinians, despite the serious suspicions of crimes and atrocities hovering over them. … [A]ll major Israeli academic institutions, certainly the ones with the strongest international connections, were found to provide unquestionable support to Israel’s occupation” (“Academic Boycott and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories,” Alternative Information Center, Bulletin #23, October 2009).

Most Israeli universities are state-controlled and maintain programs of direct or indirect support of the military and occupation regimes, as does Tel Aviv University (TAU). In fact, “TAU has participated in 55 joint technological projects with the Israeli army over recent years. TAU’s campus occupies the site of a demolished Palestinian village, Sheikh Muwanis, whose inhabitants were forcibly evicted in 1948” (Steven Rose, EMBO reports 11, March 2010, p. 151-152). A statement by BRICUP, an organization of British academics who support the boycott, notes that “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 2008-09, who could be eligible for prosecution for war crimes according to the Goldstone report.”

We are disturbed by your apparent belief that engaging in an academic boycott is somehow a violation of academic freedom. This fallacy is critiqued by many who point to the countless and ongoing violations of Palestinians’ right to education by Israel, which has bombed and raided colleges and schools (including in its most recent war on Gaza in 2008-09); prohibited access of Palestinian students to their educational institutions through road closures, checkpoints and Jewish-only roads; and denied scholarships as well as educational materials to students in Gaza, where the educational system has been destroyed under Israeli siege (see Marcy Newman, “The Fallacy of Academic Freedom and the Academic Boycott of Israel,” New Centennial Review, 8:2). In addition, for Palestinians living within the Israeli state that discriminates against them by law, there is “the discriminatory legislation that gives special benefits and credits to students from the Israeli Defense Force, which excludes Palestinian citizens of Israel,” not to mention “the many well-documented examples of racist harassment by professors and Jewish students of Palestinian students on the campuses of Haifa and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem” (Rose; see also Furthermore, the right to academic freedom cannot trump support for other basic human rights and freedoms, such as the right to live in equality and dignity or the right to freedom of movement.

Your own statement echoes another common rationale used by pro-Israel supporters, that to boycott Israel is to somehow treat it as exceptional, and different from other states that are also engaged in occupation or war crimes, such as, say, China or the US. This argument rests on another fallacy for it ignores the fact that Israel has exceptionalized itself — it is a state that has consistently tried to set itself above international law, having been condemned numerous times for its violations of international human rights and by numerous UN resolutions that are consistently vetoed by the US. It is this unique status, in fact, that is exceptional, especially in the US where many states are denounced for their violations of human rights (including China and the US itself) but to condemn Israel’s violence or racist policies is considered automatically “anti-Semitic.” It is this silencing, especially in the US academy, that has created an exception for Israel through practices of defaming, blacklisting and harassing scholars or anyone who dares to publicly challenge the official line on Israel or name the systemic discrimination practiced by the state as apartheid, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described it.

Perhaps a factor that dissuades many from refusing complicity with apartheid and occupation is the might of the Israel lobby in the US. There is a fear of the smear campaigns and coordinated attacks that inevitably follow and many prefer not to be burdened with the “other” boycott campaign, as it were, that intimidates and censors individuals. Yet, as in the case of the boycott and divestment movement opposing apartheid in South Africa, we wish to point out that these tactics of fear and desperation have been exposed for their moral bankruptcy and are being challenged by the gradually swelling tide of shifting public opinion. In fact, one tactical purpose boycott clearly serves is that of education, of inciting thinking, re-thinking and discussion.

On college campuses across the US the divestment movement is growing, from Hampshire College and Georgetown University to the University of Michigan-Dearborn and UC Berkeley. There is a growing community of academics, students, activists, cultural workers and others who are speaking out against and refusing to legitimize the brutal excesses of this apartheid regime that has persisted into the 21st century. This network of individuals and organizations provides support for those who have the courage and principles to take this stand of principled solidarity.

The question of solidarity is central here. That is the only way to avoid the charge of acceding to prevalent notions of Israeli exceptionalism. The call for academic and cultural boycott is thus clearly a way to encourage civil society to play a broader political role — that is why it has the support of wide sections of Palestinian civil society. One of the most significant questions that call poses to us is simply this: How could those of us who oppose apartheid, occupation and colonialism not support such a call?

Undersigned organizations:

Alliance of South Asians Taking Action
South Bay Mobilization
Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within
Students for Justice in Palestine, UC Berkeley
Friends of South Asia
Progressive Democrats of the East Bay
Education Abroad Equality Coalition, UC Davis, CA
Culture and Conflict Forum, CA
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
Bay Area Women in Black