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

22 responses to “The Dan David Prize Speech, and the Context

  1. Aaron Keeler

    Was the ‘context’ section given as part of the speech itself, or is it an addendum to the speech transcript?

  2. Linda Wheatley-Irving

    Well, I for one was really hoping that ALL of the recipients of the Dan David prize would bow out. I fully support the BDS programme, realizing that it has to be comprehensive in order to work, and also realizing that if and when it works, it will “work itself out of a job.”

    I don’t think that it is so easy to separate government and private initiatives in Israel, especially when a (state-funded) university is involved. And if the prize really is a private initiative, why couldn’t the prize reception have been moved to a country that has not been placed under BDS by so many groups and individuals in the world?

    Israel is rather desperate to burnish its image in the rest of the world these days, and to be seen as a “normal Western country” [that happens to be located in the Middle East]. But “normal Western countries” do not kill or injure thousands of civilians or annihilate tens of thousands of farm animals, as in the month-long orgy of slaughter that was “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza during Dec. 2008 – Jan. 2009. Prominent foreigners who show up in Israel to accept prizes help to push that nasty image away, and replace it with something more Toronto-ish.

    I know that you will never have the time to research the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as thoroughly as you research your books, but please at least make a start, perhaps with Helena Cobban’s blog and the Kairos Document on Palestine (the one that has caused so much scandal to Stephen and the Harperites). Then I think you will be vastly less hopeful about what George Mitchell (or Obama in person) can accomplish, given the political climate that has prevailed in Israel and America for the past few decades, and perhaps a little more cautious in the future about accepting such problematic “prizes.”

    –from Linda, a long-standing student of ME history and politics

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  4. steve smith

    What do you mean by saying that Writers “don’t have armies, and can’t retaliate.”?

    Indeed, the entire IDF is dedicated to giving you a safe podium from which you are now retaliating against the Palestinians who have asked you to stand with them against the army that has dispossessed them.

  5. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    Rather than linking to the apartheid state’s Jerusalem Post, you may like to read some serious analysis (see above).

    And you seem to think that this is all about you. Are we supposed to weep because your noble souls have been subjected to a campaign ‘ordering’ you not to go to the apartheid state? You have spat upon the request of PACBI (Palestinian civil society) to boycott. I presume you would also have scorned the boycott of apartheid South Africa – or are some racisms and colonial settler states better than others.

    But you’ve heard all this beffore and I won’t waste my time on you. A shame that you have to try to drag down the novel form with you. We still have our John Bergers, Ahdaf Soueifs and Muhammed Hanifs, thank God.

    Do you have any plans to deliver your heroic speech amid the ruins of Gaza? Or perhaps in the refugee camps of Lebanon?

    why it’s apartheid:

    • melinda huntley

      Your analysis of Ms. Atwood and Mr. Gosh’s statement is right on! In the light of the flotilla tragedy I wonder if Ms. Atwood or Mr. Gosh have been changed by that? This Canadian is ashamed of Harper’s carte blanche acceptance of Israel. Let’s hope things change soon.

  6. Elly

    In case some of your readers have not seen examples of letters sent to you and Amitav, here are two that eloquently and respectfully ask you to heed the BDS call:

    An Open Letter to Margaret Atwood from students in Gaza: Don’t Stand on the Wrong Side of History:

    An open letter to Amitav Ghosh from fifty intellectuals:

  7. ryan

    ah, lay off, ya dweebs. i don’t think anyone can reasonably accuse ms. atwood of doing this thing thoughtlessly. “please at least make a start”? puh-leeze.

    if you can’t recognize that some issues are bigger than borders, probably you should read more books. i recommend starting with “Oryx & Crake”.

  8. Heather

    I am truly disappointed of you Mrs. Atwood. There is nothing more to say about someone who accepts a gift from a country that was established based on Blood and on going efforts to expel the native people. sounds familiar ha?

  9. Karen G

    Thank-you so much for accepting the Dan David prize and more so, for having the courage to come to Israel and accept it. I was in the audience today at the symposium, and I was inspired. Please continue to place literature above politics.

  10. Joy Arbor

    I read the blog post and the comments earlier today, and they just made me sad. I totally support Atwood and other writers’ decisions not to boycott Israel because I believe in the power of dialogue, engagement, and connection to make change.

    I normally wouldn’t bother providing a comment here, but while I see the points made by the commenters above — and they do make valid points, I couldn’t just let them speak for all of us. They do not.

  11. steve smith

    We see that 10% of any prize money is handed out by the Dan David foundation to notable post graduate students the world over in the name of the prize recipient. According to the foundation these awards are given out without regard to “gender, race, religion, nationality, or political affiliation”.

    A quick overview of past scholarship awards seems to indicate that of the 200 or so Scholarships awarded over 10 years (most directly for the University of Tel Aviv or other Israeli Universities) but only 1 Arab has received the award: 0.5%. This even though 20% of the population of Israel are Israeli-Arabs.

    I ask, what guarantees did Ms. Atwood seek from the Dan David foundation to ensure that her prize money was given out without bias?

    We know for a fact that any Israeli settler living in the West Bank is an Israeli citizen, and would be able to attend courses in Israel. On the other hand, Palestinians also living in the West Bank are generally subject to a total travel ban in Israel, and as such would almost certainly not be able to accept an award scholarship, since they would not be allowed to attend.

    I also ask, what guarantees did Ms. Atwood ask to ensure that Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be able to reside in Israel so that they could enjoy the fruits of her success, if they were lucky enough to win such a scholarship, given in her name?

  12. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    there has been dialogue, engagement and connection to Israel for sixty two years, to the extent of silencing the palestinian narrative, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Now Israel has created enough facts on the ground to erase a two state solution yet refuses to stop defining itself as a state for Jews rather than a state for the people who live in it. It occupies Syrian and Lebanese territory. Every few years it destroys the infrastructure of Lebanon. Every few years it massacres its captive (and in Gaza starved) Palestinians wholesale. It is the single biggest factor in the expanding conflict between the West and the rest. It’s time for a different kind of engagement.

    • melinda huntley

      I agree with you totally and am disappointed that Amitov Gosh and Margaret Atwood chose to receive this award, their staying away from Israel would have been a powerful statement by two fine writers. I read their statement and it rings hollow to me, at some point you must make a choice! Life is politics and Israel is fast becoming a fascist state.

  13. Ergon

    Would you accept a prize from an IRANIAN University, Ms. Atwood?

  14. Ergon

    Or from a South African during the time of apartheid?

  15. Lily Kay

    Rationalizing about an imperative to connect with writers at all times, wherever they may be rings hollow. Israeli intellectuals of conscience themselves are taking the heat as they call for the academic and cultural boycott – will you not then stand with them?

    See Gideon Levy on Neve Gordon

    It is not too late to return the prize.

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