September 24, 2019

Authors protest withdrawal of Nelly Sachs award


Earlier this month British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie was awarded the Nelly Sachs award (which comes with a €15,000 prize). Alison Flood reports for the Guardian that the jury specifically cited writing that “builds bridges between societies.” But just a couple weeks later, the jury withdrew the award after learning that Shamsie supported the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

ICYMI, the BDS movement is working to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

The prize, named after Jewish Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, is awarded biennially to a writer promoting “tolerance and reconciliation,” reports Flood, and considers both the life and work of an author. In a statement, the judges say they were unaware of Shamsie’s participation in the boycotts.

“Shamsie’s political positioning to actively participate in the cultural boycott as part of the BDS campaign a … is clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award,” the jury told the Guardian, continuing:

“The cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity. Kamila Shamsie’s work is also withheld from the Israeli population in this way. This contrasts with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures. The jury regrets the situation in every respect.”

Now, hundreds of authors (including Arundhati Roy, George Saunders, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem, to name a few) have come together to support Shamsie in an open letter published in The London Review of Books, concluding:

What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression, and the freedom to criticise? Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.

And finally, a few words from Shamsie in a statement condemning the decision sent to Middle East Eye:

It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression; and it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.

Amelia Stymacks is the former director of digital marketing at Melville House.