May 07, 2021
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'It Is Not Awarded By The State Of Israel'

Amitav Ghosh on his refusing to refuse the Dan David Prize: 'I do not believe in embargoes and boycotts where they concern matters of culture and learning.' These, he argues, 'must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state'.

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'It Is Not Awarded By The State Of Israel'
'It Is Not Awarded By The State Of Israel'

Ever since Amitav Ghosh's name was announced--jointly with Margaret Atwood-- for the Dan David Prize, headquartered at Tel Aviv University, Israel, there have been some protests and campaigns, asking him to decline the prize, reminding him about his withdrawing The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth Prize competition in 2001. "I am not a person who seeks out controversy," he had told us in 2001, and he underlined the same today when we asked him why a private e-mail of his was doing the rounds of email-lists and some websites instead of a formal public statement from him: he did not wish it to become a big public issue, he said, and offered the following version of the statement:


Thank you for your message. I have received many others in relation to the Dan David Prize, which I am sharing with Margaret Atwood.

To begin with let me say that I am appalled by the enforced isolation of Gaza, by the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and by the intransigence and extremism of the present government in Israel. My sympathies go to all of those who have suffered, and are suffering, in this long and destructive conflict.

However I think it is of paramount importance to note that this prize is awarded by a university in conjunction with a private foundation: it is not awarded by the state of Israel. I would like to state clearly that I do not believe in embargoes and boycotts where they concern matters of culture and learning. On the contrary I believe very strongly that it is important to defend the notion that institutions of culture and learning must, in principle, be regarded as autonomous of the state. Or else every writer in America and Britain, and everyone who teaches in a British or American university, would necessarily be implicated in the Iraq war, and by extension, in Israel’s actions in Gaza and Palestine. Similarly every Indian writer and academic would also be complicit in the actions of the Indian government in areas of conflict. And if we don’t defend this principle how will we defend the rights of dissent of those who are employed in universities – especially, for instance, in times of war, when reasons of state can be cited to create an explicit complicity?

Against the advice of some activists, I went to Burma/Myanmar in 1996/7 when I was researching my book The Glass Palace. I am convinced that by going there, and writing the book I did something that was, in some small way, useful; staying away would have achieved nothing. I travelled to Sri Lanka in 2001, to deliver a lecture during one of the worst periods of the conflict; I have been ‘guest of honour’ at a book fair in a Gulf country where millions of my compatriots live and work in conditions of helotry, without any civil rights and religious freedoms. Many areas of my own country, India, are racked by violent conflicts.

I do not see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional, that it requires the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically-minded members of that society. Is it really possible to argue that there is in that country such a unique and excessive malevolence that it contaminates every aspect of civil society, including private foundations and universities? Let me remind you of something that Sari Nusseibeh once said:

"If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals... If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach."

I have always felt that exceptionalism has been a major problem for the rest of the world in relation to both the US as well as Israel. How then can I now take an exceptionalist position myself?

I also do not believe that a boycott of Israel would serve any useful tactical purpose at this time.  For more on this, please see here

Some have mentioned my action in relation to the Commonwealth Prize. I would like to point out however that I did not turn that prize down; I withdrew my book from the competition because I disagreed with the specific mandate of that prize and did not wish to see my work placed within that framework. Not for a moment would I have considered severing my connections, such as they are, with Britain and the British literary or academic worlds.

So I am afraid this is an issue on which we must agree to respectfully disagree.

Amitav Ghosh


Also See: Margaret Atwood's response to similar requests


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