Literary Prize Rescinded for U.K. Writer Who Backs Boycott of Israel

By Michael W. Chapman | September 25, 2019 | 5:28pm EDT
Author Kamila Shamsie.
(Getty Images)

British Pakastani writer Kamila Shamsie was awarded the 2019 Nelly Sachs Prize in literature -- named after Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) -- by the German city of Dortmund, but then the city withdrew the prize after learning that Shamsie supports the BDS movement against Israel.

Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin and fled to Sweden with her mother in 1940 because of Nazi oppression. The war and the Holocaust greatly affected her physically and mentally. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. The Nelly Sachs Prize (and 15,000 euros) is awarded to writers whose work seeks to improve cultural relations between peoples. 

The Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a "Palestinan-led movement for freedom. justice and equality," according to its website. BDS claims that Israel discriminates against Palestinians and the movement calls upon all nations to boycott Israel, divest from Israel, and impose sanctions on Israel. In May, the German Parliament voted to condemn the BDS movement as "anti-Semitic."

Poet Nelly Sachs receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966.  (Getty Images)

The author Kamila Shamsie, 46, is a Muslim and "has refused to allow her works to be published in Israel," according to The Times of Israel

The prize was awarded to Shamsie on Sept. 10 and then rescinded on Sept. 18, after the prize-jury learned of her support for BDS. 

"With its vote for the British writer Kamila Shamsie as the winner of the Nelly Sachs Prize 2019, the jury honoured the author's outstanding literary work," said the prize-jury in a statement.  "At that time, despite prior research, the members of the jury were not aware that the author has been participatingin the boycott measures against the Israeli governmentfor its Palestinian policies since 2014."

"Kamila Shamsie's political positioning to actively participate in the cultural boycott as part of the BDS (Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions) campaign against the Israeli government is clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award and the spirit of the Nelly Sachs Prize," said the jury.  "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," reported the jury. "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."

In response to the jury's action, Shamsie said, "In the just-concluded Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex up to one third of the West Bank, in contravention of international law, and his political opponent Benny Gantz’s objection to this was that Netanyahu had stolen his idea; this closely followed the killing of two Palestinian teenagers  by Israeli forces -- which was condemned as ‘appalling’ by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process."


"In this political context, the jury of the Nelly Sachs prize has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a non-violent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government," said Shamsie.

"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," she said, "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."

On Sept. 23, The London Review of Books published an open letter in defense of Shamsie and the BDS and critical of Israel. "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?" reads part of the letter. "Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries."

The letter is signed by several hundred liberal/left writers, artists and intellectuals. 

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