Monthly Archives: May 2010

Israel/West Bank #3: Environment & Writing

General subject:  Environment & Writing

See also # 1 and # 2, and Some Palestinian/Israeli Co-Operative Peace Groups.

This post is the third in a series of three posts about things people said to me when I was in Israel and the West Bank. These people were not some kind of sinister “official” people, delegated to pull the wool over my eyes, keep me from seeing things or saying things, etc. Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely). I didn’t feel anyone was lying about his or her feelings, though there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating. As for the cold hard facts, some of them are cold and hard (no argument, everyone agrees), but some are fuzzier in their presentation– you hear different “factual” versions.

The opinions are those of the speakers.

“People” includes:  native-born Israelis; Palestinians living in Israel; West Bank Palestinians; Israelis who originated in other places, such as the U.S.; non-Israeli, non-Jewish, non-Arab people who are in Israel now (e.g. for diplomatic, NGO, or business reasons,); and, via remote means, North Americans not in Israel, Jewish and not, British not in Israel, Jewish and not. To preclude judgment of the comments because of the affiliations of the commentator (“as in, “They always say that, they don’t mean it,”), I’ll wait a week before tagging them by origin. I won’t name individuals, I said I wouldn’t, and it could be dangerous or unpleasant for them. (I.e., they would get attacked, or worse.) Meanwhile, see if you can guess what kind of person said what.


What do environmental workers and writers have in common?  Lots. They are often considered odd or threatening both by elements within their own societies and elements outside them, and accused of privileging their own concerns above more “necessary” ones, such as hospitals or poverty. It is frequently assumed that neither “nature” nor “literature” has any “value” in and of itself, since the units within these categories cannot be easily evaluated from an economic viewpoint –what is an endangered species or a poem “worth”? – and thus it is constantly being demanded that they demonstrate some utility to an entity outside themselves: the state, a political party, human health, “society,” religion, or the like. Defending them means defending against attacks on them that come from every conceivable direction.

The communities of interest they belong to – nature, literature – are by definition international: “nature” recognizes no humanly constructed borders, “literature” is a virtual republic inhabited by all writers of all nationalities and languages, dead and alive. Neither community has an army or a set political position, and neither is monolithic or even well organized: many groups and individuals exist within these communities. Globally, both produce people who find themselves on the front lines when it comes to repressive governments and/or huge multinational corporations.

How “necessary” are “nature” and “literature” to human life, anyway?  Close up, not very. You can live your life without ever admiring a beetle or reading a book; millions have. In the long view, essential: the human body cannot exist without air, water, and food, and all come from “nature.” As for “literature,” paper and electronic texts are both scores for human voices – at their best, complex and intricate voices. Alone among the media and other art forms, such texts allow us to experience as closely as possible what it is like to be another human being, from the inside. What you think of such a capability in individual instances will of course vary, but if our species  as a whole were to lack the ability to empathize  with others, we would not be “human beings.”

And both are bridge-builders in conflict areas. Birds travel across borders. So do books.


“Perhaps the paucity of rain is what makes us, the inhabitants of this land, Jews and Arabs, so anxious and temperamental that peace continues to elude us. It was here that prophets thought they heard God imposing punishment by withholding the rain or rewarding His people with fertile fields. Such a small land with an outstanding variety of topographies: one snow-capped mountain, which belongs to Syria, one desert, one fresh-water lake and another very salty one, and ne proper river. One of everything. And so little water that we’ve had to live with our eyes constantly turned up to the heavens.”

Raja Shehada, Palestinian Walks: Notes On  A Vanishing Landscape (Profile)

(This book is a fascinating, sad, beautiful ramble through landscape, personal life, politics, and time.)

You might think that subjects such as restoration of damaged lands and water features, or the creation of nature parks, would not be contentious, but that is far from the case.

“The environment? People don’t think about it much. We’ve had other priorities.” “The nature parks are in Area C. Palestinians can’t go there.”“The barriers and settlements have completely ruined the landscape.”

“Water is a big issue. The Israelis control most of it.” “They turn off the water as a punishment.” “The water is polluted.” “The water is scarce because of government mismanagement.” See:

“The beach at Tel Aviv is polluted with both chemical and human waste. Not all the time, they let you know.” “They take off too much for agriculture.” “They’re draining the aquifers.”  “The Jordan is just a muddy ditch.”

For the Jordan:

For an overview from a Christian Arab Liberation Theology magazine:

On the other hand, there are some impressive restoration projects, including one involving an old Roman water-wheel grinding mill, located between a kibbutz and an Israeli-Arab village. The restoration has benefits for both, including enhanced wildlife habitat, educational possibilities for children, and potential tourist value.

“It’s getting hotter and drier.”  For deserted Syrian villages and worsening water conditions in Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan, see:

For coming worldwide food shortages and an overview, see:

See also Bill McKIbben’s new book, Eaarth.

“Any solution will have to be regional.”  (In fact, without a regional solution to water shortages, the whole area has a dusty future, if any future at all. An inclusive water plan is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. The human body can live without many things, but three days without water and you’re dead.)

Some people are thinking about this. Here’s one plan:

Here’s Friends of the Earth Middle East, an umbrella group that includes Israel, Palestine, and Jordan:

And who knew about this:  Atlantic Centre for the Environment:

And also:

“There has … never been a time in human history when some have not defied attempts to divide them on the basis of their difference and have not instead united to defend or expand human rights. All too often, those people have been all too few. But that simply makes their achievements all the more impressive. Challenges such as combating climate change – which could literally sink all our constructs and take us with them – make the task of first recognizing our commonalities and then mobilizing them for the common good all the more urgent.”

Gary Younge, Who Are We? And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Bird Conservation

There are a lot of heroic efforts being made in the region, and in the larger “Middle East.” But the birdfolk are the most frequently overlooked.

Consider the dedicated Iraquis who put together an Iraqui bird guide literally under fire,

The whole Israel/Palestine/Jordan/Syria/Lebanon region is on a major migration flyway, as it funnels birds back and forth from Europe to Africa during migrations. The birdlife is incredibly rich… As everywhere, bird conservationists are working on preserving habitat, monitoring birds, working with farmers, and educating people, teaching them the benefits of a living biosphere and how people can fit within it in a sustainable way. Here is an inventive project that works with farmers, using barn owls to control rats and mice in Israel and Jordan:

I saw this plan in action – it’s impressive! – and kestrels have now been added – they eat rodents during the day, and the barn owls take over at night.

I knew both the Israeli BirdLife Partner and the Palestinian one though this international organization, and saw them both while in the area—where they kindly met with me and showed me around. Thanks to Yossi Leshem and Imad Atrash, and also to Amnonn Hahn, who manages the Friends of the Swifts programme. Among the bird people, one can look beyond human conflicts.

Here is the Israeli Partner of BirdLife International:

They have another website at:

There are a lot of energetic and inventive projects going on, including a wetland bird observatory right beside the Knesset (frogs included).

The Friends of the Swifts  — an international org. devoted to swifts –is also active, and has a nesting-box program in Tel Aviv buildings. I was able to see it in action – and to view the inside of a nest box through webcam – at “HerzLillienblum, The Museum of Banking and Tel Aviv Nostalgia” – dating from @ 1920. Birds and Banking? Are the birds a reminder that money is an entirely man-made construct?

Here is the Palestinian BirdLife Partner:

This organization is very active. It did have a wonderful project to restore the polluted Wadi Gaza, the only river that flows through Gaza – they did an excellent guide book about its nature – but it’s hard for the workers to get in there right now. It does much educational outreach work to enhance awareness.


International PEN has Centres in Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon.

I did meet some writers and publishers, but I don’t have an exhaustive catalogue. There has been a huge amount written about the area – from every possible perspective.

There are many Israeli literary events – the Jerusalem festival, for instance.

In the Wesr Bank, there is the three-year-old PALFEST, which took place without major incident this year, unlike last.

These were recommended to me:

Eilat Negev’s interviews with Israeli writers – Close Encounters With Twenty Israeli Writers – will give you an overview of the wide range of approaches and opinions that sizzle within Israel.

The Tamar Institute in Palestine is devoted to children’s books and reading:

Adina Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali — “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness – a Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century” –was recommended by several. (An Israeli writer, a Palestinian subject.)

I am now reading Meir Shalev – top Israeli writer, and also a “bird person.”

Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks was already mentioned, but I will now read “Strangers in the House.”

And I am about to read the following remarkable book, which seems like a good place to end: on a note of tragedy tempered with hope:

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey,  Dr. Isseldin Abulaish.

By the Gaza doctor whose three daughters and niece were killed in the Gaza invasion, and who remains fervently attached to peace.

Coming shortly: Who did say what, and — in light of that–  suggestions for a resolution.


Filed under Uncategorized

Bard College: Commencement Address and Mary McCarthy Award

On Friday, May 21, I went to upstate New York to partake in the ceremonies at Bard College,, where I had been given the Mary McCarthy Award. You should know that I admired Mary McCarthy, having read her famous novel, The Group, in 1963, but also that Mary McCarthy was one of the first reviewers of my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The review was a stinker, and gave my publishers much grief. Mary slapped my wrists, especially, for my deplorable lack of imagination.  (True, in a way, as my rule for The Handmaid’s Tale was not to put in anything that hadn’t happened, at some time, somewhere.)

This review gave me grief of a different kind, as well: interviewers always ask you about your bad reviews, hoping for quotable sparks, but I’d received a letter from The Times telling me that Mary McCarthy had suffered a stroke shortly before writing the review. Could I say, “Well, what do you expect, she’s just had a stroke?” That would be too mean. So I said, “I was bought up never to say rude things about people much older than myself,” which seemed about the best I could do under the circumstances.

But, dear Mary, all is forgiven – I am now almost the same age as you were when you wrote that review, and I can see all sorts of  — what shall we call them –challenges? addlements? – coming my way. In any case, your review did not finish off my career the way it might have; and I learned from the experience, and vowed never to review books I don’t like or understand. So I was happy to accept.

But beyond that, Bard is a very impressive institution – a small, underfunded liberal arts college which nevertheless manages to practice many creative forms of outreach through its affiliated institutions,, including a very successful prison programme and a number of educational initiatives in Palestine: Among the graduates was Carlos Rosado Jr., who’d just been released from prison. His Project was  “The Diet of Punishment: The Transformation of Prison Food in the Post-Rehabilitative Era.” It included the raising of organic vegetables, I understand. He’d be a great speaker for the Save Our Prison Farms rally in Kingston, Ontario, on June 6: — an effort to change the Federal Government’s short-sighted plans to close all the prison farms – dealing a blow to community food efforts, retraining programmes, and prisoner health, and upping the public’s long-term prison bill. (We know that in-prison training reduces recidivism, and that interaction with nature markedly reduces illnesses in prison.)

In any case, here’s what I said to the Class of 2010.

Commencement  Address

Dear Class of 2010:

Congratulations! You must all have a great sense of relief – you made it through, you have now graduated from Bard College – a unique and extraordinary liberal arts college, battle-scarred but still bravely standing — where you will have gained invaluable experience in thinking outside the box and in dancing to a surprisingly different tune. I thank Bard for inviting me here, and for the honour they have done me.

I don’t deserve all the nice things you’ve said about me – a writer is doomed once he or she starts believing the billboards — because it’s part of the novelist’s job to represent humanity in its wholeness –warts and all – and you can’t really get into those warts without having some of them yourself. Yes, I am a warty person.

For who but a warty person – or, to put it in more romantic terms, one who has visited the shadow side — would have written two fun-filled, joke-packed novels about the almost total annihilation of the human race? I didn’t get any literary awards for those. Judges might warm to the idea of an atrocity or two, but the entire human race?  Note to self: Margaret. You’re an idiot. You went too far.

I hope these novels will remain just that – novels – and that you won’ t be faced with what’s in them. Still, you must have some apprehension. Ahead of you lies The Rest of Your Life, and that can be a daunting prospect, especially in these tough economic times. The difference between someone your age and someone my age is that I kind of know the plot. I know how my story is likely to turn out, and not so far from now. But you don’t, and that can be very anxiety-making.

Let me try to remember what it was like to be roughly your age – some 47 years ago.

The reason for my being invited here to Bard was the Mary McCarthy Award, which I have incongruously but gratefully received – and, as it happens, when I was your age I was reading Mary McCarthy’s famous 1963 novel, The Group. I can remember exactly where I was reading it – in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the bathtub on the third floor of a Women’s Graduate residence. It was a rambling 19th century classical white New England building – unbeknownst either to itself of to me, it would later serve as the model for the Commander’s house in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.  It was a warm late spring day; my just-washed hair had been shellacked with a green gel product called Dippity Do and rolled onto big bristle rollers, in my ongoing struggle to make it straighter. The window blind was down, but the window was slightly open, kept from being raised higher by a lock, for this women’s residence was a magnet for prowlers, peeping Toms, and exposure artists.

I was just at the famous numerological sex scene in The Group when in through the open window came a large, hairy hand, groping around to see what might be accomplished. I thought of slamming the window down on it, or putting the wet soap into it, but I did nothing. I merely contemplated it, wondering to what literary uses it might be put. Surely Mary McCarthy would have known.

That story makes those times sound carefree. But consider: World War II had been over for a mere 17 years, and many countries were still recovering from the enormous trauma and destruction that war had caused. Elvis Presley had already occurred, but the Pill and mini-skirts and panty-hose and the Beatles were still in the future; so was the Woman’s Movement that began in 1968-9. Women at college were told they were there so they could make suitable dinner-table conversation once they married a lawyer. We lived in the shadow of the Cold War and the Atomic Bomb, convinced that we could be blown to smithereens at any moment. The Civil Rights Movement was trying to end segregation, and encountering violence and murder. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was followed swiftly by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which had scared us silly.

John F. Kennedy was the glamorous President, but he had less than a year to live: he would be assassinated on November 22 of that very same year. American involvement in the Vietnam War had already begun: a war Mary McCarthy would later oppose, as she opposed many things throughout her life. One of the many things she wasn’t too keen on was The Handmaid’s Tale, which she reviewed unfavourably for the New York Times. Lack of imagination, was her verdict. I suppose she just didn’t believe that religious extremism would ever get that powerful, though she did agree with the novel’s suspicion of credit cards.

Those of us entering The Rest of Our Life back then felt we were living in tense times. And we were. And so are you.  The problems you will face are to some extent predictable – who can now avoid the fallout from the economic meltdown of 2008? The ripples are still spreading. Then there’s the environmental and climate crisis. “If you want to make God laugh,” goes the joke, “tell him your plans.”  All gods were once weather gods, and the weather gods are laughing at us a lot.

With climate change will come water wars, and worsening conditions for crops, and famines – 25 million people entered the ranks of the malnourished in 2007 alone. Couple these conditions with growing demands for energy, and thus more Co2 and more global warming – how will such forces play out? As populations attempt to shift from less prosperous to more prosperous areas and conflicts threaten, more walls will go up, as those who have try to keep, and those who have not will in desperation try to storm the barricades. Epidemic diseases will break out.  What is a single individual to do? What can a single individual do? It will be part of your story to find out.

But more important for you to consider are the mental walls – the polarization and labelling that seem to be so characteristic of our times. When people can no longer talk about the problems they share, but can only scream as if the debate were one big shock jock radio rant, a democratic society is in trouble. Part of the screaming happens because, as a civilization, we’ve exhausted the usefulness of the old terms of reference –the traditional left and the traditional right have lost much relevance, as global financial systems twist under the strain and neither side seems able to come up with new, useful ideas. Choice of evils debates always produce extremism—people choose what they hope is the lesser evil, then call it good and demonize the other choice. It will be a challenge for your generation to synthesize – to move beyond Us versus Them, to We.

I sometimes make hopeful predictions rather than dire ones, so let me try a few. Situations that seem hopeless and deadlocked today can change in an instant. The Middle East situation will be resolved under the process begun by President Obama, when Israel realizes what many of its citizens already know – that to do otherwise would lead to disaster. The beleaguered Palestinians will finally be a recognized state. All parties in the region will join together to work on solutions to the vanishing water supply, for no one can survive more than three days without water. The entire Middle East, including Iran, will begin talks leading to a nuclear-free zone. Green energy technologies will improve to the point at which we are no longer eating and drinking oil. Industrial hemp – you’d have to smoke an acre to get high, so no threat there  –will once again be grown in the United States, adding a valuable fuel, food, and clothing crop, not to mention paper: the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

That’s about all the hope I can handle for today.

Back to Mary McCarthy. With her strong and energetic spirit, Mary McCarthy worked her way through various ideologies –adopting them, testing them, rejecting them, to arrive at a belief in – I quote —  “the necessity for creative autonomy that transcends doctrine.” That is the gift all warty novelists ultimately need to have, and that is the gift I would wish for you. It will allow you to work in communities, but not to be entrapped by them; to contribute what lies within your power, rather than what others tell you that you must. Above all, relish your sojourn on planet earth. It may be a strenuous and demanding time, but what time has not been? Enjoy the flowers. For happily, there are still many flowers to enjoy.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Israel/West Bank: What Was Said (2 of 3)

General subject:  Land, Settlements, Proposed Solutions

See also: Some Palestinian/Israeli Co-Operative Peace Groups

This post is the second in a series of three posts about things people said to me when I was in Israel and the West Bank. These people were not some kind of sinister “official” people, delegated to pull the wool over my eyes, keep me from seeing things or saying things, etc. Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely). I didn’t feel anyone was lying about his or her feelings, though there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating. As for the cold hard facts, some of them are cold and hard (no argument, everyone agrees), but some are fuzzier in their presentation– you hear different “factual” versions.

The opinions are those of the speakers.

“People” includes:  native-born Israelis; Palestinians living in Israel; West Bank Palestinians; Israelis who originated in other places, such as the U.S.; non-Israeli, non-Jewish, non-Arab people who are in Israel now (e.g. for diplomatic, NGO, or business reasons,); and, via remote means, North Americans not in Israel, Jewish and not, British not in Israel, Jewish and not. To preclude judgment of the comments because of the affiliations of the commentator (“as in, “They always say that, they don’t mean it,”), I’ll wait a week before tagging them by origin. I won’t name individuals, I said I wouldn’t, and it could be dangerous or unpleasant for them. (I.e., they would get attacked, or worse.) Meanwhile, see if you can guess what kind of person said what.

Land issues: West Bank:

“It’s about land.” “The settlements are illegal.” “We were taught they just ran away, but now we’re learning that’s not true. Many were driven out or killed.” “The barriers are to divide up the land, so there can’t be a viable Palestinian state.”  “Before 1948 there were big landowners, many people lived on the land but didn’t formally own it; when the landowners sold, the people continued to live there. So they didn’t have papers. Then those old arrangements stopped being honoured, and the legal apparatus used for kicking people off was that they didn’t have paper ownership…” Me: (thinking): Like The Highland Clearances. (See John Prebble) or Native North American land grabs … no “papers.”

“Papers got forged.” “Some Palestinians own houses and land. But a lot of the land is owned and controlled by the state. So…” “There’s a lot of land deal corruption. Ex-politicians…”

Me: What happens if one of the land cases is lost? “They just kick the families out.”  Me: Out, where? “Out onto the street.”

“East Jerusalem is different. Arabs who live there could never get these building permits, but they had to make their living spaces bigger, because they’re prevented from buying different houses, so the houses get torn down for not having the permits…”  Me: “Like Kafka.” “Yes.”

Protests against expulsions: See Taayush.

Also:Adameer. Accounts of arrests, prisons, prisoner detainment without charges.

Recommended by friend: See new Israeli-director film: about Budrus, Palestinian village where Palestinian inhabitants/Israelis successfully stood off encirclement:

From a Letter from a British Palestinian:

I have read your reasons for accepting it. Although I do not fully agree with you, I respect your cogent arguments for doing so. ..

Whilst you are receiving the Prize, the consequences of Israeli Military order number 1650 recently issued will be felt by thousands of Palestinians being deported from Eastern

Palestine (known currently as the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the West Bank). This Military Order issued by an occupying force is termed ‘Prevention of Infiltration’ entered into effect on the morning of 13 April 2010.

This is only one example of Israel’s repression of Palestinians living in lands occupied by Israel since June 1967 – land regarded as illegally occupied by the international community, including Israel’s staunchest ally, The United States.

As I said above, I fully respect your decision to follow your conscience and accept this Award. As a Palestinian British, I appeal to you to consider the plight of the millions of my fellow Palestinians living under cruel occupation. If you get a chance to do so, it would be an act of humanity to the victims of Israeli Apartheid if you were to use your position of literary authority to alert your Israeli hosts to the need to cease this oppression and give peace a chance.

We must give peace a chance. It is our only chance.

The shape a solution should take:

“Everyone knows what has to be done.” “They know what they have to do, they just don’t want to do it.” “It has to happen soon.” “It should be a two-state solution.”  [Nobody I talked with proposed a one-state solution.]

“There has to be financial compensation for things that have been destroyed, land that’s been stolen.” “They understand that. It’s being talked about.” “There has to be an admission of what was done, and an apology.”

Me: Can anything happen without Hamas having a seat at the table? If Jerry Adams in Northern Ireland, if Nelson Mandela, why not…  “But they want to destroy Israel.” “But yes, maybe Hamas at the table, maybe that’s right…”

“The settlements and outposts have to go. Of course from the settlers there will be riots.” “It will be painful but we’ll have to do it. It’s the only way to save Israel.”

Me: What about the fences? “They’ll go.” Me: After all that work and building? “They’re mostly wire.” Me: You could just turn off the electricity and that would be the end of the sensors. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“It should be a two-state solution, but with a total-region governing council, like the E.U., to work on common problems.” “We have to get beyond Us and Them and think in terms of We.”

Canadian Government position: Anti-settlement, anti-barrier, more:


Pictures don’t convey the scale of space in relation to the body itself. I was astonished at how close together and intertwined everything in Jerusalem was. Layer upon layer of history/masonry; time and space condensed.  It would be impossible to separate the various religious buildings into districts… Several old synagogues had been destroyed during the Jordanian occupation. The Dome of the Rock was a sign of hope, simply because it was still there: nobody had blown it up.

“Jerusalem should be an international city, open to all religions.”  “With a Palestinian capital building in East Jerusalem.” “It has to be like that.”

Golan Heights (Israel’s continued control of this space impedes a truce with Syria):  “It should be an international or jointly-controlled nature park. The people already there can stay but no new development.” “No military emplacements.” [Note to reader: Military emplacements on the Golan Heights would command a sweeping range of the territory below.]


This was the most contentious issue. Hamas  — though I was told there were three factions, one of them in Damascus – is the elected ruling government there, and because it has not formally declared an acceptance of Israel it is deemed a terrorist organization by many countries. Israel has withdrawn physically, but controls all accesses except one, through Egypt. Truckloads of goods and food move in, but only about a quarter of the amount that used to move. There are tunnels through which more goods move, but Egypt is making an attempt to block them off, and recently gassed some of the workers in one of the tunnels.

“The West Bank had a growth rate of 7% in the past year, but in Gaza things are deteriorating quickly. We call it de-development – the reverse of development.”  “You can get almost anything in Gaza – though things are expensive—it comes in through the tunnels. Weapons too, of course.” “Not many jobs – 79% male unemployment.” “Infrastructure was destroyed in the 2008/9 Gaza invasion.” (“Cast Lead.”) “Fishing is next to useless – the boats aren’t allowed out to where the fish are.” “Not enough health supplies.” ”There’s malnutrition.”  “People are moving away from Hamas, but not towards Fatah — they want something more radical.” “It will tip over into a full-scale humanitarian disaster.” “Gaza [2008/9 invasion] was the turning point.” “Israel is losing the propaganda war because of Gaza.” “Israel was stupid not to participate in the Goldstone Report.” And from Canada: Operation Cast Lead spurs increase in anti-semitic attacks:

Lack of one strong Palestinian leader: Often used as a reason to delay. A friend who is a veteran of these battles writes:

“party beside a whirlpool sounds right. what’s amazing is how they tend to carry on, decade after decade, as if that isn’t the case. hamas, for what it’s worth, seems to me to have a more nuanced or at least contradictory position than outright rejectionism (which is  part of their position). they’ve said they’d accept a two state  solution as an interim measure for, say, 50 years, and then let future generations decide where to go from there.[ ]

there is a palestinian guy in israeli prison named marwan barghouti who brokered  a pa-hamas [pa=Palestinian authority] deal from inside, with a hamas prisoner there, that was  two state and peaceful, and that both sides outside accepted. he has  by far the most cred of any palestinian and the israaelis are keeping  him there probably because, if they ever decide to get serious about  peace, he’s the one who could deliver it. it’s a morass of  contradictory statements (rather than actual contradictions) on all sides. hamas, by the way, got strong support from israel in the late 80s because they thought it would counterbalance the left, secular, plo.  there are really some splendid israelis trying to carry on thru all this.”

More from same friend: “pa- as in palestinian authority which is thegovernment of the west bank- and hamas. so it’s really the old plo and fatah people who still retain control in the west bank while hamas is in control in gaza. barghouti is from the fatah-pa side of  things but worked with hamas people in the prison to sort out the compromise. i find it very interesting that you found no one talking about a one-state solution. one hears about it in political, especially leftwing, circles and among leftish intellectuals like tony judt. it’s become newly fashionable, as it once was long ago, but apparently not on the ground. chomsky, along with avnery and others, opposes it as a kind of talking point for intellectuals and political (including some palestinian) radicals, which really just serves the interest of those who want to sustain the status quo- since it’s not going to get anywhere and gives fodder to those who say the palestinians are hellbent on destroying the jewish state, even if that doesn’t mean killing all its inhabitants. in that way it implies another holocaust without actually saying so.”

Different kinds of boycotts:

BDS is the most sweeping one. (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions.) There is much talk among various kinds of peace activists and those opposed to Israel’s policies about whether this particular tactic will “work” in Israel, ie. be listened to there, or just cause more defensiveness. Even those who say it may not “work” directly (i.e. be a direct cause of change) say it may nonetheless put pressure on third parties., ie. cause a change of mind. Or at least draw attention to the situation.

J-Street, a US. Jewish org: J-Street takes a position against total BDS, for several reasons but  also because J-street endorses a two-state solution.

See also: Divest This: (Against one-state)

Some advocate more limited kinds of boycotts – endorsing BDS but exempting culture, viz.  Artists for Peace in Québec:  Deceember 22 posting, .

There is also: a long-standing targeted settlement products boycott, from Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom:

Some say one need not sign onto the whole package (i.e. One-State), just do something, anything.

However, there is no doubt that the boycott/protest movement – largely considered, all in all  — is having an effect in the US, and that effect is being felt in Israel: “This has to be taken seriously. It’s gaining ground on American campuses.”

Next, in Post 3: Cultural and environmental.  Plus: Looking forward.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Some Palestinian/Israeli Co-operative Peace Groups

Having received a number of messages depicting all Israelis as a thoroughly bad lot (and I’m sure to receive some that say the same thing about Palestinians), I worried that I’d discover that this might in fact be the  case. Happily I found it wasn’t.

Contrary to what one is sometimes, indeed often told – that Israelis are a violent, monolithic block of Us vs. Them, and so are Palestinians – there are many organizations devoted to co-operation, that include all, and that work for fairness and peaceful solutions, without “de-legitimizing” either Israel or Palestine. Often their peaceful actions place them in danger, on the Israeli side from the government and on the Palestinian side from those who view such co-operation as collaboration. There are also Christian organizations working in this part of the world. (“What kind of Christians?” I asked suspiciously. “The OK kind.”) I learned about some of these non-exclusive, peaceful groups by asking people in Israel and the West Bank – many of them connected to one of these — and other people who have worked in this area which other ones they would recommend. Here are their recommendations:

Machsomwatch: Israeli women keeping watch: at such places as checkpoints:

Taayush (“Co-operation”in Arabic): Israelis & Palestinians striving together to end the Israeli occupation and to achieve full civil equality through daily non-violent direct-action. (They protest at such things as illegal building demolitions and they accompany shepherds and support agricultural land rights.)

Combatants for Peace: Both Israeli and Palestinian: telling about violence:

Breaking the Silence: international network of ex-soldiers:

Al Haq: Lawyer group defending against illegal appropriations and actions:

Christian Peacemaker Teams | Getting in the way.

Provides organizational support to persons committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives where lethal conflict is a reality or is supported by public policy.

Sheikh Jarrah: Just Jerusalem: inclusive group working for fairness and stop to divisions in Jerusalem:

Bilin: A Palestinian village peacefully demonstrating, non-exclusive:

The Friends (Quaker) School in Ramallah: See also Canadian Friends Service Committee Palestine.

Jim Wallis’s “God’s Politics” Peace Blog: (I’ve met kindly Jim elsewhere):

The BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), a non-violent group  to which some but not all of the organizations above belong: Global BDS movement

Freedom Flotillas: Ships from other countries attempting to carry reconstruction materials to Gaza:

You may also be interested in these voices:

Gush Shalom and Uri Averny: Outspoken Israeli commentator:

Rabbis for Human Rights: Help with rights violaton, rabbinical perspective:

Tikkun:Recommended in the US:

Eileen Fleming, Founder of <>
A Feature Correspondent for <>
Author of “Keep Hope Alive” and “Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory”
Producer “30 Minutes with Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Stumbling Upon a Gem: Tollbooth Cottage Museum, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation “Toronto Purchase” Land Claim Success

While walking back from the Saturday Farmers’ Market at the Wychwood Car Barns Park (, a friend and I passed a little sidewalk book sale set out on the lawn at the corner of Bathurst and Davenport. While I was purchasing several Victorian books (“Helpful Nellie,” a collection of Christian uplift tales, was among them – I was drawn to it because of its name, and wanted to see what Helpful Nellie’s version of helpfulness might have been, having often got myself into the merde through possibly misplaced helpfulness), we began talking with the booksellers. They explained that the book sale was in aid of the Tollbooth Cottage Museum, situated right behind them. (See picture: one of the volunteer docents, Catherine Watts, in her period costume, by the porch of the Cottage, which is open every Saturday between 10 and 5.

I had passed this corner numerous times. The Toolbooth Cottage must have been there. But I had never noticed it. So we went in for a tour. The cottage was built in 1835, and miraculously survived until its rediscovery, its relocation (it had been moved) and its restoration. There’s a painting of mid-century that shows it on its present site, with fields all around, Davenport Road – the oldest, longest road in Canada, we were told – going past it, and Bathurst Street reaching down to the shore of Lake Ontario, with the spires of Toronto rising in the distance. The Cottage is lovingly furnished with items the working people living in it would have used, and there’s information available about how it was constructed. The walls contain huge wide boards from the enormous first-growth trees that were still around then.  More at:

As luck would have it, the dedicated Big Boss, Jane Beecroft, was there. She made a point of emphasizing that the Cottage had “the best volunteers in the world – they’ve put in 15,000 hours in restoration alone!” Jane and several others were looking at pictures of a white birch planting ceremony at Mississauga New Credit First Nations, in which the Cottage had participated due to the link between them, and the annual visit of the Nation to the Cottage, every August:

The Mississauga were the First Nation living in the entire area in the 18th century. The Credit River takes its name from them, as they were renowned among the English for their honesty, and for paying what they owed. During the War of 1812 they were first-up in the defense of “Canada,” not yet “Canada,” against the invading Americans, but then they were pushed off the land and shunted about, via forged documents and a bad deal (“The Toronto Purchase,” which included most of the land that is now Toronto) playing a part in their difficulties. They filed successive land claims, and have now been successful – they will vote on whether to accept the proffered Federal settlement in a week’s time. To see the background and the basis of the claim:

There are many places in the world in which land has somehow gone from aboriginal inhabitants or previous owners to incomers or other people, sometimes through violence, sometimes through trickery and forgery. There are also many attempts to reach compensation agreements.  Both the procedures, the way the case was built, and the form of the settlement might serve as a useful model for some of these cases. I offer this in the spirit of Helpful Nellie.

My friend and I bought some Maple Sugar Candies, and continued our walk, much pleased by our discovery of this tiny downtown gem and by the hospitable welcome of its guardians.

More: Sacred Feathers, by Donald B. Smith (Jane’s recommendation)

More on other land claims: see Ipperwash, Oka, British Columbia Land Claims: these topics will lead you to others.

YES PLEASE! – and please mail this form to:
Community History Project
c/o Spadina Road Library
10 Spadina Road
Toronto, ON  M5R 2S7


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Amitav Ghosh’s Reply to Letter of May 7

May 14, 2010

Dear Signatories to the letter of May 7:

I am sorry I have been slow to respond to your letter expressing disappointment in my decision to to accept the Dan David prize. I will attempt to do so now.

You begin by describing my work as dwelling ‘consistently on histories of colonialism and displacement’. I am dismayed that my work should be reduced to this simple formula. My work is about people who find themselves in many different kinds of predicament, historical and contemporary, and anyone who is familiar with my books will know that my most important characters are never those who see things in black and white; nor do they resort to easy judgements. In my view all important ethical and political judgements are difficult; what is more they are always specific to the situation at hand. If this were not the case then every situation would be reducible to a few simple formulae and novelists and poets would be out of work.

I would like to mention here my book In An Antique Land which is partly about my time in Egypt, and partly about the life of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish trader who came to live in India in the 12th century. To write this book I had to learn an obscure and now extinct language called Judaeo-Arabic, which was the language of Ben Yiju’s correspondence: it is basically a variant of colloquial Arabic written in the Hebrew script. I could not have written this book without the help and support of both Arab and Israeli scholars, and it has always been a source of pride to me that this is one of the few works to be well received on both sides of the divide. At its heart this book is an attempt to inhabit the dangerous, mine-strewn space that links Jews and Arabs to each other and to India: I cannot and will not renounce this project.

I would like to pause here to say that I understand very well the wider context of your letter: many of you are engaged in a difficult struggle over the issue of divestment in Israel. I do not by any means oppose this effort. You are certainly right to point out that dissent on issues relating to the Middle East has been too easily suppressed in America. I know all too well that through the long dark night of the Bush years many dissenting voices were sidelined and marginalized: for many who felt disempowered at that time this movement has become a means of regaining a sense of relevance and citizenship.

Furthermore I feel that the disinvestment movement does indeed serve a purpose, even when it fails to achieve its immediate end. Having been engaged with Middle Eastern issues for thirty years I have come to be convinced that the answers to many of the region’s problems lie not there but in the United States: in this sense changing American minds must be a crucial component of any solution. At the very least, the disinvestment movement will serve the purpose of bringing these long-suppressed issues out into the open where they can be freely discussed – this is of no small significance whether or not the resolutions actually pass (I would like to add an important caveat to this but I will come to that later).

There is a great difference however in supporting a disinvestment motion and undertaking a gesture such as that which you enjoined upon me. A disinvestment motion has a specific significance and function; it can be imposed or witheld as circumstances demand, and in that sense it is an instrument of policy. What you – and many others who have written to me – were asking me to do was something else altogether: the gesture you were asking me to make was one that would have had the import of denying the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions and thus of Israel itself. As such it would have been completely contrary to my beliefs. Let me explain why.

Let us forget about history for a moment, because if it were possible to re-write history there would be much that we would want to change. Let us instead look at the Middle East today: Israel is country of seven million people; it is armed to the teeth and possesses nuclear weapons; many of its citizens have lived there for generations and have nowhere else to go; beyond a certain point, whether or not they have the support of America or anyone else, they will fight to the last. Let us look at these realities and ask ourselves: what is it that we really want for the people of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank? Do we want a bloodbath – an Armageddon of the kind that extremists on all sides (including some parts of the left) seem to be hoping for? Or do we want to prevail on all sides to reach some compromise that allows people to get on with their lives? Such a compromise would of course take the shape of a two-state solution in which Israel withdraws to some negotiated equivalent of its internationally recognized borders; where the dispossessed are paid compensation; the settlements are vacated; East Jerusalem is fully restored to the Palestinians; checkpoints are withdrawn; the siege of Gaza is lifted and both sides agree to a cessation of violence – and so on.

If it is Armageddon and an undoing of history that you want then clearly we have nothing to talk about. If it is the second option then I invite you to ask yourselves whether any compromise solution is possible without fully, completely and sincerely accepting the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

I had to ask myself these questions five years ago when I received a joint invitation from my Hebrew publishers and the literature department of Tel Aviv University. Then, as now, I was appalled by the violence unleashed on Palestinians by the Israeli security services (although I must add that I was also horrified by the wave of suicide bombings within Israel). I asked myself many of the questions that figure in your letter, and many others besides. For example: Could I allow my books to be sold to readers whom I would never agree to meet? If I did agree to meet my Israeli readers would it have to be outside an institutional context? And so on. It was in trying to think through these issues that I came to the realization that it is impossible to imagine a peaceful, non-catastrophic future for the Middle East without sincerely accepting the legitimacy of Israel; and if one accepts this then how can one deny the legitimacy of Israeli civil institutions, including universities? If one does deny this then what exactly has one accepted?

Of course an acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy does not imply an acceptance of all that it does (any more than in relation to India and the US): legitimacy, in this sense, is only a starting point, but an essential one.

I need hardly add that I am not alone in coming to these conclusions. India, for example, witheld full diplomatic recognition of Israel until 1992. Today most countries around the globe, including most Arab countries, have come to the conclusion that there can be no peaceful settlement in the Middle East without an acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy.

The issue then is not one of legitimacy but of changing and restraining Israeli actions and of producing a negotiated settlement. Divestment might well be an instrument that pushes Israel in that direction. But the gesture you wanted of me would have been aimed in a different direction: it would have been tantamount, as I have noted, to a denial of the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions, and thus also of the state itself. As I have said above, this would have been a direct contradiction of my beliefs.

Whether you yourselves accept the legitimacy of Israel I do not know, but I must say that the tenor and wording of your letter suggests that you do not. You point out for example that the President of Israel was meant to be present at the Dan David awards ceremony as though this were some sort of indictment of it. I am sure you know full well that in a parliamentary system the role of President is a symbolic one, embodying precisely the legitimacy of the state.

You try to make the case that the University of Tel Aviv is complicit with the state and that it accepts military funding etc. You do this knowing perfectly well that if this is true of Tel Aviv University, then it is also true of many Indian institutions (including certainly the Central Universities) and it is true of almost every university in America. Many of you seem to be from UC Berkeley: surely it is no secret to you that this institution’s existence is predicated on the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories? All of you are certainly aware that in America an enormous proportion of funding in the humanities comes from military sources; I am sure that many of you have accepted fellowships and funding that comes directly or indirectly from the US armed services. If you were to apply your canons of logic to yourselves would this not make many of you complicit in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (or for that matter in Kashmir and North-Eastern India)? Would it not then be incumbent upon you to resign your university jobs and fellowships – or at least to make gestures equivalent to that which you enjoined upon me?

I know you are all people of conscience and good intention so let me ask you this: what is the point of making generalizations that are so totalizing as to erase all possibility of nuance? Is teaching in a Californian university that is supported by weapons research really the same thing as torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Can’t you see that in this world sanity depends upon being able to perceive and make certain distinctions? If you cannot make these distinctions in relation to Israel how will you answer the people who say that all Palestinians are terrorists and all Gazans are suicide bombers?

Indeed, to me one of the most troubling aspects of your letter is precisely this insistence on seizing the rhetorical weapons of your adversaries. You say that the term ‘anti-semitism’ has been used repeatedly to stifle debate and close discussion. Of course this is true: I have seen this phrase being deployed against some of my own friends and the spectacle has disgusted me. But does this mean that you should similarly weaponize the term ‘apartheid’? Remember that apartheid was a system that identified itself by that name: this means that when used in other circumstances it is necessarily an analogy. A leftist friend of mine in Israel said to me recently that the cost of introducing this term into the debate is that it results in an argument over metaphors rather than substance. This plays right into the hands of those who defend the actions of the Israeli military, for it is in their interest to derail the argument. You say similarly that we should treat Israel as exceptional because of its own claims in this regard. But if you accept this premise then the debate will just go around and around on the matter of whether it is exceptionally malevolent or exceptionally deserving. It will be impossible to address the issues. And I need hardly point out that if you continue to uncritically accept the right-wing premises then you will quickly become a mirror-image of your adversary.

On the matter of cultural boycotts I have stated my views clearly and unequivocally. I do not believe in them and the single most important collective body of writers, PEN International, also opposes them. You say that in this instance ‘solidarity’ trumps all other considerations. This raises an important question: does my sympathy for someone else’s victimhood require me to subordinate my judgement to theirs, surrendering all my other beliefs and obligations? I cannot see that it does; in fact I cannot see how such a proposition could possibly be defended. Frankly my solidarity in this instance lies squarely with President Barack Obama, who represents, in my opinion, the single best hope for some kind of settlement in the Middle East.

You cite ‘a recent letter addressed to you (by) 50 prominent Indian intellectuals’. I will take this opportunity to address some issues raised by that letter: it may surprise you to learn that  although the letter is formally addressed to me it was never actually sent either to my personal email address or to my website (as was yours). The first I learnt of it was when one of the signatories wrote to me to apologize for having signed it. Nor did any of the other forty-nine signatories, who describe themselves as my ‘friends and admirers’, write to me directly as did many of you. Evidently, despite its form of address the letter was actually intended only for public consumption.

Let me say that if the signatories of that letter had made this an occasion for a continuing public debate over India’s ties with Israel I would have welcomed it. But such was not their intention. So far as I know they have not petitioned the Lok Sabha on this matter, and nor has the issue been raised by the Party with which many of the signatories are affiliated. In other words, this prize is the sole focus of their concern – and that too only because I, a writer, have won it. Zubin Mehta and Prof. C.N.R. Rao, perhaps the most distinguished scientist working in India today, had also won it before me – but distinctions accorded to scientists and musicians are clearly not of equivalent interest (I might add here that the music school in Tel Aviv University carries Zubin Mehta’s name).

You will have seen that the signatories declared that they had no objection to my continuing to travel to Israel or to meet with Israeli friends. In other words their prescription was for me to make a grand public gesture, amounting to an attack on the legitimacy of Israeli civil institutions, while privately continuing to enjoy the benefits of that country’s existence. I don’t know if this accords with your notion of acceptable conduct: to me it smacks of the rankest hypocrisy. In this it is certainly an accurate reflection of a particular view of the world.

The circumstances of a writer and those of a community or campus activist are not the same. Activists focus quite appropriately on methods of collective action; this is perhaps their most effective tool in changing minds. Writers on the other hand work with words, which do not stop at borders: this imposes on them a certain obligation towards their readers. You have seen only one side of the correspondence around this issue – that which has been generated by people whose views you share. I on the other hand have received many letters also from the other side. I reproduce here excerpts from two of these letters (I have omitted names, addresses etc. for obvious reasons):



You speak of encouraging civil society. It is evident to me that the people who wrote me these letters are doing more for Palestine and Gaza than any activist in India or the United States. It would appear that my work has had some influence on them. Is it really possible then for me to say to them: ‘Sorry, various people have instructed me to boycott you so I need to fall in line?’

To me it is evident that Israel, like India and the United States, is riven with dissent and disagreement: there, as elsewhere, polls and election results do not always convey the whole story. While in Israel Margaret Atwood and I spoke about the situation in Palestine and Gaza on every possible occasion: we expressed our outrage at the use of excessive force in Gaza, at the blatant violations of human rights, at the expansion of settlements and so on. We were often cheered and applauded for saying these things and it became evident that most people in our audiences were substantially in agreement with us.

It is common knowledge that the range of debate on matters relating to the Middle East is far more wide-ranging in Israel than in the US – which brings me back to something I said before: that the solution to the problems of Israel, Palestine and Gaza lies in changing American minds. I would like to add that it lies also in changing minds within the American Jewish community, within Israel and within the West Bank and Gaza. The debates around the boycott and disinvestment movements may already have helped to change the minds of many young Americans, including some from the Jewish community. But if you want desirable outcomes rather than dramatic gestures then you will need to balance these movements with efforts to reach out to and engage liberal Israelis, of whom there are many. Otherwise you will run the risk of alienating indispensable allies. Similarly, it is not enough to simply declare solidarity with the people of Palestine: there too there are minds which do not necessarily want to work towards a compromise.

I know that there has been some speculation on whether my decision in regard to the Dan David Prize was influenced by the publishing industry, by the Indian government, or by others: please be assured that no one has attempted to put pressure on me and the decision was mine alone.

Let me conclude by saying that today, more than ever, it is starkly clear to me that the United States is the key player in Israel and Palestine. America is now at a crossroads in regard to these issues, with a President in power who is genuinely committed to advancing a credible peace process. Just as important is the fact that those American lobbying groups that have historically attempted to present the American Jewish community as a monolithic entity are no longer in the ascendant: the emergence of groups like the J StreetPAC ( is a sign of a very welcome change in this regard. These groups are also taking courageous positions within their own communities; they also deserve your support and solidarity.

It is not my place perhaps to advise you on your conduct and your views, but since you took the step of writing to me in this regard I feel I may be excused for reciprocating in kind. This, in any event, is all I have to say on this matter: I thank you for this providing me with this opportunity to address your concerns.


Amitav Ghosh


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Israel, West Bank: What Was Said (1 of 3)

This post is the first in a series of three posts about things people said to me when I was in Israel and the West Bank. These people were not some kind of sinister “official” people, delegated to pull the wool over my eyes, keep me from seeing things or saying things, etc. Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely). I didn’t feel anyone was lying about his or her feelings, though there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating. As for the cold hard facts, some of them are cold and hard (no argument, everyone agrees), but some are fuzzier – you hear different “factual” versions.

The opinions are those of the speakers.

“People” includes:  native-born Israelis; West Bank Palestinians; Israelis who originated in other places, such as the U.S.; non-Israeli, non-Jewish, non-Arab people who are in Israel now (e.g. for diplomatic, NGO, or business reasons,); and, via remote means, North Americans not in Israel, Jewish and not, British not in Israel, Jewish and not. To preclude judgment of the comments because of the affiliations of the commentator (“as in, “They always say that, they don’t mean it,”), I’ll wait a week before tagging them by origin. I won’t name individuals, I said I wouldn’t, and it could be dangerous or unpleasant for them. (I.e., they would get attacked, or worse.) Meanwhile, see if you can guess what kind of person said what.

In general: “ ‘A war of the strong against the weak will always fail.’ ” “There are no stereotypes that fit.” “It’s like a roll that’s stuck in your throat: you can’t swallow it, you can’t cough it up.” “We’re stuck.” “It’s fear. Everyone’s afraid.” “We know where we need to go, we just don’t know how to get there.” “We’re down here and we need to be up  there, but it’s the part in between we can’t seem to do.”

The neighbours: “Everything is so close together here.” “Why can’t they live with their neighbours?” “We used to go there, now we can’t.” “Our kids used to play together.” “It’s a family fight.” “It’s a land fight.” “I would really like to kill them.” “They will always hate us.” “Ordinary people –they are terrified of us.” “We are here, where else can we go, so we need to work out how to live together.” “There’s so many different groups – it’s not just two sides.” “There are a lot of groups in which we work together on the ground for things we both want to achieve. You don’t hear much about them.” “You have to be low profile about working with them because you could get labeled a collaborator.” “There really are spies and collaborators, of course.” “They could help us, we could help them.” “The zero-sum way of thinking – a gain for one is a loss for the other – must go. We need to find something that’s a win for all.”

Change: “Things have to change.” “Things will change soon.” “Things won’t change, it will just grind on in the same way.” “Nobody wants to change unless forced to by events.” “Nobody wants to give up power.” “Western-thinking people think that change has to happen soon, they’re in a hurry, but Eastern-thinking people have a different time frame. They think in thousands of years. They can wait.” “In 1984, no one would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall.” “Who would have predicted the election of a black US. President?” “Things can change in an instant.” “Yes, but not always for the better. Look at 9/11.”

The West Bank division barriers: These are the structures that have been built across the land to keep West Bankers on one side and Israelis on the other. They are fences/walls that sometimes look like the structures in Jurassic Park, only smaller (openwork wire), and sometimes like highway sound barriers.(opaque). They are most often electrified, and there are sensors. There’s a sand strip to show footprints. There are access/patrol roads beside them, and a great many checkpoints. I was told Israelis are not allowed to go to the West Bank (“Too dangerous,” by which is meant the possibility of kidnappings and killings). West Bankers can get into the Israeli side if they have permits. (A big if.) There are usually lineups, sometimes long waits. Foreigners can mostly travel, but unless they are diplomatic they will be questioned at the checkpoints, and sometimes even then. Gaza is a lot more difficult. While I was there, I was told that a writer from The Economist was refused entry.

There has been discussion about what these structures should be called: wall, fence, barrier, etc. “It doesn’t matter what you call them, it’s what they do. They divide, they wall off.” “Palestinians are constantly harassed and humiliated.  They have to travel long distances to get to a place that should take only ten minutes. It’s an everyday thing. It grinds away at them.” “It’s destroyed the beautiful landscape.” “It’s a constant affront.” “It’s a constant pain, a wound.” “They say it’s a security thing, but really it’s part of a land grab. They’re using the settlements and the barriers to divide up the West Bank so that Palestinians can’t have a viable state.” “It’s connected with money: a huge amount of money has gone into it, and they’ve developed technology they can sell and export to other countries.” “Can you imagine what that amount of money could have done if applied to education, to health, to children, to….” “Nobody likes it, but what can you do? I hate to say it, but the suicide bombings have stopped, and Israelis feel safer.” “They’re turning into a police state.”

The peace process: “It’s the first step towards direct talks.” “I wish they hadn’t started with Jerusalem, it’s the hardest.” “They needed to start with Jerusalem, it’s the hardest – they could work out the rest and then it would all fall apart over that.” “It’s just propaganda: they want to delay and drag things out so they can keep on doing their aggressive things.” “We had hopes before, and look what happened.” “We made concessions, but they weren’t reciprocated.” “We’ve tried dialogue, we’re tired.” “We don’t trust them.” “They will just think up some reason for walking out.” “They will do something aggressive to sabotage the talks and then blame the other.” “The word ‘peace’ is tainted.” “The word ‘hope’ is tainted: for each side it just means they hope they will get everything and the others will get nothing.” “We have to stop dwelling on the past: what happened, who did what, how many got killed. We need to start from where we are now.” “People need to admit what happened, they need to apologize.” “Hamas needs to be at the table.” “We should let the grandmothers negotiate. Get rid of the machismo: men feel they can’t back down. Invite some international grandmothers to be facilitators. The grandmothers would work it out. It was the mothers in Northern Ireland…”

“ …we commence, yet again, another effort to reach peace with our Palestinian neighbours. We hope this effort, led by the United States, will lead to direct negotiations and towards a breakthrough for peace. I believe that the majority on both sides –Israeli and Palestinian – want it and are willing to pay the painful price for it. The same should apply on our northern front – the need for peace with Syria. … we understand how vital this objective is, for our people, for our region, and for our world. I sincerely hope we will not miss again another golden opportunity, putting the blame on each other. This requires bold steps from our leaders. With boldness and courage to lead ahead, we can realize this dream!”

Question: (by me): What chances do you give it, out of ten? Answers: From zero to 3 to 5 to 7. (There was a preference for odd numbers.) Nobody went as high as 9, but there were several 7s.

Obama: “At least Obama got them back to the table.” “Obama is inexperienced. He should have put equal pressure on both sides.” “A lot of people hate Obama in this country.” “Obama should listen more to his advisors.” “We’re praying for Obama.” “They think they can count on Obama, and won’t have to do anything themselves.” “Obama isn’t serious.” “Obama is very serious, I have it on good authority.” “It’s like two kids fighting: somebody bigger has to step in and separate them, and make it work.”

Question: (by me): Is the settlement freeze really real? “Yes.”  Even in East Jerusalem?  “Yes.” But: “They aren’t building, but they’re still knocking down houses.” Me: “Why?” (Answers in next post.)

Question: (by me): If you could have a wish granted and remove one thing from the mix that would help to unlock the log jam, what would it be? “Nostalgia.” “Hatred.” “History.” “Fear.” “Fear.” “Fear.”

Coming in next two posts, not necessarily in this order: Environmental concerns and efforts. The shape a solution should take. Military things. Universities, and discussions at. Different kinds of boycotts. Impact of boycotts. Students in Gaza: realistic steps needed to allow them to make use of their scholarships. Deterioration – in Gaza (“de-development.”). Land concerns. Settlements and Outposts. Health concerns. Jerusalem. Freedom of expression. PALFEST. (Palestinian Literary Festival, now in its second year.) Inclusive groups working co-operatively together, and what they are doing on the ground.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

The Dan David Prize Speech, and the Context


By Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood.

AMITAV: Because we are sharing this generous prize, we have decided to give a shared speech.  We both thank you very much for the kind words you have said about us and our writing.

MARGARET: This prize honours, not just individuals, but areas of achievement. This year you’ve chosen to invite two novelists, thus adding the art of the novel to a very distinguished list of many other disciplines, from astrophysics to medicine to music to statesmanship.

AMITAV: One of us comes from India, the other from Canada. Neither country is lacking in historical bloodshed and in present-day inequities.

MARGARET: Neither of us can afford to be self-righteous.

AMITAV: Both of us were urged by some people and groups not to come to Israel on this occasion. We were told that no artist should attend any cultural event here – no matter how hopeful and moderate such an event might be – considering the unequal, unjust, and harsh and dangerous conditions of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories.

MARGARET: When we said that we were very sympathetic but we felt the urgent necessity of keeping doors open — as do several organizations we work with – we were informed that we were deluded, and worse.

AMITAV:  But novelists are stubborn: when young, they refused to give up novel-writing, despite the worried advice of their families. The more we were told to turn our backs, the more we wanted to see — and to speak — for ourselves.

MARGARET: Propaganda deals in absolutes: in Yes and No. But the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates.

AMITAV: Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings.

MARGARET: The public territory the novelist defends is very small, even in a democracy. It’s the space of free invention, of possibility. It’s a space that allows the remembrance of what has been forgotten, the digging up of what has been buried.

AMITAV: Worldwide, novel-writing is under constant pressure, both from political groups who want to co-opt it, and from powerful governments who’d like to silence it. Around the world, novelists have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line. But they continue to write stories.

MARGARET: Perhaps this vocation of ours will soon be obsolete. For coming towards us is a frightening change in our planet. Floods and droughts, deserts and famines and epidemics –will they draw the world into ever more destructive conflicts?

AMITAV: Or will we band together freely in order to help one another, as so many organizations and religious groups and environmentalists and scientists and artists are now doing?

MARGARET: We are both here as an act of good faith, because we believe that there are many people here and around the world who think as we do.

AMITAV: Hope is not out there, apart from us. Like the stories people tell, it comes from within. Like these stories, hope too must be passed on to others. Give up hope, and we are lost indeed.


It’s a crucial time in the Middle East. Proximity talks between Palestine and Israel are resuming right now, brokered by George Mitchell of the U.S.

All who truly want a chance for Palestinian people to be able to live a decent life, to be compensated for what they have wrongfully lost, and for the destruction of their infrastructures – and all those who hope Israelis will be able to live without rocket fire, bombings, and worse – can only wish these talks well, trust that those engaging in them are doing so seriously and in good faith, and hope that a fair and secure two-state solution will finally result.

Meanwhile, we two fiction writers find ourselves in Israel, having been awarded half each of the “Present” section of the Dan David Prize. You may read about the prize here:

It is a prize founded by a private individual, and administered by its own office located at Tel Aviv University. Despite what we have been told by its attackers, it is not one and the same as the State of Israel. This year is the first time this prize has gone to two novelists. It’s worth pointing out here that neither of us is a member of any of the three religious groups that claim this part of the globe as their Holy Land.

We two fiction writers are very small potatoes indeed in the context of the momentous political events now unfolding. But writers everywhere are soft targets. It’s easy to attack them. They don’t have armies, they can’t retaliate. We have both received a number of letters urging and indeed ordering us not to attend, on the grounds that anything connected with Israel is tabu. (Oddly enough, neither the President of Italy, Giorgo Napolitano – winner of the “Past” category for reason and moderation in political affairs – nor the three computer scientists – Leonrad Kleinrock, Gordon Moore, and Michael Rabin – who were awarded in the “Future” category — were targeted by these correspondents.) We have both sent letters to many but not all of the urgers and orderers. (Not all, because in some cases the petitions etc. have appeared online without having been sent to us first.) The letters we have received have ranged from courteous and sad to factual and practical to accusatory, outrageous, and untrue in their claims and statements; some have been frankly libelous, and even threatening. Some have been willing to listen to us, others have not: they want our supposedly valuable “names,” but not our actual voices.

In other words, the all-or-nothings want to bully us into being their wholly owned puppets. The result of such a decision on our part would be – among other things – to turn us into sticks with which to beat other artists into submission, and that we refuse to do. We are familiar with what other artists of many countries have been put through in similar circumstances.

Having read perhaps too many spy thrillers, we have even wondered if some of these hyperbolic correspondents have been agents provocateurs, bent on turning us against the Palestinian people. (As is often pointed out, on the Internet nobody knows who you really are.) Others have styled themselves our friends and admirers, whereas in fact they have never been any such thing. Some have urged us not touch Israelis and their institutions, while themselves continuing to deal with them. Others, once we have stated our positions, have been understanding and helpful, and ready to facilitate meaningful exchanges.  Some have let us know that although they endorse parts of the boycott, they do not endorse the cultural part, considering it a form of censorship. Some have signed public petitions—not shown to us — for which they later –in private letters to us– apologized. Some have ordered us to give the prize money to various parties, including their friends, or else to various Palestinian organizations who would in fact not accept any such gift from us. Some have asked nothing more from us than our understanding and remembrance.

To all we say: We are not against fairness and the creation of a long-overdue Palestinian state. We are not “defying” or “rejecting” anyone just because we cannot endorse a particular tactical formulation, although we understand the pressures that give rise to such formulations. And we do not automatically consider you bad, ignorant, stupid, hypocritical, or vicious because your views of means and ends is not the same as ours.

What then is our position?  It may be summarized by this excerpt from a speech made by Anthony Appiah, President of PEN American Centre, on April 27.

“What you may not know is that both Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh have been subjected to an …offensive urging them to reject the award as part of a campaign of cultural isolation against Israel. The literary community in this country does not speak with one voice on the question of Palestine. But I want to be clear about where the PEN American Center stands on one aspect of this vexed issue. We have to stand, as we have stood from the very beginning, against the very idea of a cultural boycott. We have to continue to say: Only connect.

We have to stick with our founding conviction that writers must reach out across nations. To stand anywhere else would be to betray our history and our mission.”

Both of us are PEN members. Margaret was a co-founder of PEN Canada, and is now an International Vice President. To do as our correspondents demand would be to destroy our part in the work we have been doing with PEN for decades – work that involves thousands of writers around the world– jailed, exiled, censored, and murdered. Writers have no armies. They have no militant wings. The list of persecuted writers is long, ancient, and international. We feel we must defend the diminishing open space in which dialogue, exchange, and relatively free expression are still possible.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

Some Helpful Suggestions on Wind Turbine Farms, I Hope

It’s been riveting to follow the comments on the Wind Turbine Farm postings. The concerns seem to have boiled down to those listed below. Note that these are not my views: I am attempting to summarize the concerns expressed on the Comments.


1. We want green energy, so what are the alternative sources of energy? Aren’t they worse? Coal? (Dirty.) Nuclear? (Hugely expensive, & where to put the waste?) Big dams? (Can be very destructive to ecosystems.) Solar? (This has not been much discussed. There is new cheap tech on the way… but solar tends to be individual houses, & who can afford?)

2. Wind farms in water create fish habitat.

3. Big turbines don’t kill a lot of birds and bats – other things kill more.


1. Wind farms are not that efficient. Europe has not closed any coal-fired plants as a result of having wind.

2.Noisy. (See Health,  #6.)

3. Unsightly. Landscapes have proven mental & physical health & healing benefits. Destroying them visually is going to be very distressing to many.

4. Process: no (or not enough)  environmental assessments have been done.

5. In Lake Erie, toxic sediment disturbance and subsequent distribution of these in the drinking water have not been assessed.

6. Health problems for those in the vicinity. (Much to-ing and fro-ing on this one.)

7. Not democratic to foist this stuff on people with no say-so from them.

8. Some people are making a whole lot of money on the backs of the rural and small-town voters. It’s a cash grab.

9. These things are death to tourism.

Have I missed any?

SOME SUGGESTIONS:  Note: These ARE my views!

Presumably the goal is to neutralize Co2 emissions by substituting carbon-neutral processes for C02-emitting ones, without spending a lot of money the taxpayer can’t afford on things like nuclear plants.

Also: to preserve ecosystems, biodiversity, and landscapes as much as possible.

1. For Co2-neutralizing existing coal plants, see: Calera: This is a tech for neutralizing emissions from existing coal plants:  cheap, scalable, and produces aggregate: thus less need for landscape-destroying limestone quarrying.

2.  See: How about this: towns/townships/ communities that opt for becoming Transition Towns should be able to trade the reduction they achieve for not having windfarms where they don’t want them. Gives people a say. Restores trust.

Returning dead fields — pesticide & herbicide-killed — to life would count: there are a lot of websites that treat the Co2 uptake of organic soils. See also Ch. 4 of eaarth by Bill McKibben. Organic soils are more resistant to the droughts and floods that are predicted. See Soil Association, Farm Forward www,

3. As an interim measure, reduce speed limit on highways by 5 0r 10 Ks: There is a lot of math on this. This measure would also reduce accidents & thus the taxpayers’ health bills.

4.  And it goes without saying that there need to be environmental and health studies in advance of any big turbine placement. This means a code, and examiners who are not in the employ of the turbine farms.

5. The biggest source of Co2 emissions is leaky buildings: heat and cold are generated by burning fuels, then the heat and the cold leak out of the building at a rate of 40%.  See for instance:

Zerofootprint Building Re-skinning:

Re-skinning should count for Transition Town carbon-reduction points.

6. Those who live in cities should be able to do neighbourhood  or single-house reduction, then donate or trade their reductions to help rural communities that might not otherwise be able to collect enough reductions to trade away the turbine farms.

7. Governments and communities need to stop thinking BIG BIG BIG and start thinking small, local, off the grid. For what it’s worth. NB one big energy-trading grid is a lot mote vulnerable to take-down than a lot of small ones.

What do YOU think?


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog