The HyperTexts

Margaret Atwood discusses "The Shadow Over Israel"

with a brief intro by Michael R. Burch

As an editor, publisher and translator of Holocaust poetry, I have worked for decades to encourage everyone to say "Never again!" to the horrors of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing was a horror when it was practiced on Native Americans forced to walk the Trail of Tears. Ethnic cleansing was a horror when it was practiced on Jews, Gypsies and other victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was a horror when it was practiced during the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa. Ethnic cleansing remains a horror whenever we find it being practiced anywhere in the world. And ethnic cleansing remains a horror when Israel practices it against Palestinians today.

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
—Michael R. Burch, "Epitaph for a Palestinian Child"

Margaret Atwood has formally opposed Israel's eviction of Palestinians and Bedouins by signing an open letter addressed to Israeli and Canadian leaders. Dr. Gabor Mat้, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, calls such evictions "nothing but ethnic cleansing" and says "One thing I've learned is you don't be quiet when things happen that shouldn't happen."

You can read Margaret Atwood's article "The Shadow Over Israel" below. As she points out, Israel's horrendous treatment of Palestinians "haunts everything" in the region, and a brutal military occupation that denies writing paper and pizza to innocent children and their mothers can only be seen by the equality-loving people of the free world as being incredibly unfair, cruel, petty and vindictive. Jimmy Carter made a similar observation when he saw children in Gaza being denied coloring books and crayons. How can an advanced nation like Israel be so petty, so vindictive, so cruel?

You can also read a poignant letter written by Palestinian students who live in Gaza, imploring Atwood to take a firm stand against what they called "the brutal, hermetic, medieval siege that Israel is perpetrating against us, the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip."

The Shadow Over Israel
by Margaret Atwood
June 2, 2010

"Until Palestine has its own 'legitimized' state within its internationally recognized borders, the Shadow will remain."

This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.

The Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage,
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
Climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Recently I was in Israel. The Israelis I met could not have been more welcoming. I saw many impressive accomplishments and creative projects, and talked with many different people. The sun was shining, the waves waving, the flowers were in bloom. Tourists jogged along the beach at Tel Aviv as if everything was normal.

But … there was the Shadow. Why was everything trembling a little, like a mirage? Was it like that moment before a tsunami when the birds fly to the treetops and the animals head for the hills because they can feel it coming?

"Every morning I wake up in fear," someone told me. "That's just self-pity, to excuse what's happening," said someone else. Of course, fear and self-pity can both be real. But by "what's happening," they meant the Shadow.

I'd been told ahead of time that Israelis would try to cover up the Shadow, but instead they talked about it non-stop. Two minutes into any conversation, the Shadow would appear. It's not called the Shadow, it's called "the situation." It haunts everything.

The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israeli's own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.

The attempts to shut down criticism are ominous, as is the language being used. Once you start calling other people by vermin names such as "vipers," you imply their extermination. To name just one example, such labels were applied wholesale to the Tutsis months before the Rwanda massacre began. Studies have shown that ordinary people can be led to commit horrors if told they'll be acting in self-defense, for "victory," or to benefit mankind.

I'd never been to Israel before, except in the airport. Like a lot of people on the sidelines – not Jewish, not Israeli, not Palestinian, not Muslim – I hadn't followed the "the situation" closely, though, also like most, I'd deplored the violence and wished for a happy ending for all.

Again like most, I'd avoided conversations on this subject because they swiftly became screaming matches. (Why was that? Faced with two undesirable choices, the brain – we're told – chooses one as less evil, pronounces it good, and demonizes the other.)

I did have some distant background. As "Egypt" at a Model U.N. in 1956, my high school's delegation had presented the Palestinian case. Why was it fair that the Palestinians, innocent bystanders during the Holocaust, had lost their homes? To which the Model Israel replied, "You don't want Israel to exist." A mere decade after the Camps and the six million obliterated, such a statement was a talk-stopper.

Then I'd been hired to start a Nature program at a liberal Jewish summer camp. The people were smart, funny, inventive, idealistic. We went in a lot for World Peace and the Brotherhood of Man. I couldn't fit this together with the Model U.N. Palestinian experience. Did these two realities nullify each other? Surely not, and surely the humane Jewish Brotherhood-of-Manners numerous in both the summer camp and in Israel itself would soon sort this conflict out in a fair way.

But they didn't. And they haven't. And it's no longer 1956. The conversation has changed dramatically. I was recently attacked for accepting a cultural prize that such others as Atom Egoyan, Al Gore, Tom Stoppard, Goenawan Mohamad, and Yo-Yo Ma had previously received. This prize was decided upon, not by an instrument of Israeli state power as some would have it, but by a moderate committee within an independent foundation. This group was pitching real democracy, open dialogue, a two-state solution, and reconciliation. Nevertheless, I've now heard every possible negative thing about Israel – in effect, I've had an abrupt and searing immersion course in present-day politics. The whole experience was like learning about cooking by being thrown into the soup pot.

The most virulent language was truly anti-Semitic (as opposed to the label often used to deflect criticism). There were hot debates among activists about whether boycotting Israel would "work," or not; about a one-state or else a two-state solution; about whether a boycott should exclude culture, as it is a bridge, or was that hypocritical dreaming? Was the term "apartheid" appropriate, or just a distraction? What about "de-legitimizing" the State of Israel? Over the decades, the debate had acquired a vocabulary and a set of rituals that those who hadn't hung around universities – as I had not – would simply not grasp.

Some kindly souls, maddened by frustration and injustice, began by screaming at me; but then, deciding I suppose that I was like a toddler who'd wandered into traffic, became very helpful. Others dismissed my citing of International PEN and its cultural-boycott-precluding efforts to free imprisoned writers as irrelevant twaddle. (An opinion cheered by every repressive government, extremist religion, and hard-line political group on the planet, which is why so many fiction writers are banned, jailed, exiled, and shot.)

None of this changes the core nature of the reality, which is that the concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble. Once a country starts refusing entry to the likes of Noam Chomsky, shutting down the rights of its citizens to use words like "Nakba," and labelling as "anti-Israel" anyone who tries to tell them what they need to know, a police-state clampdown looms. Will it be a betrayal of age-old humane Jewish traditions and the rule of just law, or a turn towards reconciliation and a truly open society?

Time is running out. Opinion in Israel may be hardening, but in the United States things are moving in the opposite direction. Campus activity is increasing; many young Jewish Americans don't want Israel speaking for them. America, snarled in two chaotic wars and facing increasing international anger over Palestine, may well be starting to see Israel not as an asset but as a liability.

Then there are people like me. Having been preoccupied of late with mass extinctions and environmental disasters, and thus having strayed into the Middle-eastern neighbourhood with a mind as open as it could be without being totally vacant, I've come out altered. Child-killing in Gaza? Killing aid-bringers on ships in international waters? Civilians malnourished thanks to the blockade? Forbidding writing paper? Forbidding pizza? How petty and vindictive! Is pizza is a tool of terrorists? Would most Canadians agree? And am I a tool of terrorists for saying this? I think not.

There are many groups in which Israelis and Palestinians work together on issues of common interest, and these show what a positive future might hold; but until the structural problem is fixed and Palestine has its own "legitimized" state within its internationally recognized borders, the Shadow will remain.

"We know what we have to do, to fix it," said many Israelis. "We need to get beyond Us and Them, to We," said a Palestinian. This is the hopeful path. For Israelis and Palestinians both, the region itself is what's now being threatened, as the globe heats up and water vanishes. Two traumas create neither erasure nor invalidation: both are real. And a catastrophe for one would also be a catastrophe for the other.
From the Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood's latest novel:

God must have caused the Animals to assemble by speaking to them directly, but what language did He use? It was not Hebrew, my Friends. It was not Latin or Greek, or English, or French, or Spanish, or Arabic, or Chinese. No: He called the Animals in their own languages. To the Reindeer He spoke Reindeer, to the Spider, Spider; to the Elephant He spoke Elephant, to the Flea He spoke Flea, to the Centipede He spoke Centipede, and to the Ant, Ant. So must it have been.

And for Adam himself, the Names of the Animals were the first words he spoke – the first moment of Human language. In this cosmic instant, Adam claims his Human soul. To Name is – we hope – to greet; to draw another towards one's self. Let us imagine Adam calling out the Names of the Animals in fondness and joy, as if to say – There you are, my dearest! Welcome! Adam's first act towards the Animals was thus one of loving-kindness and kinship, for Man in his unfallen state was not yet a carnivore. The Animals knew this, and did not run away. So it must have been on that unrepeatable Day – a peaceful gathering at which every living entity on the Earth was embraced by Man. 

How much have we lost, dear fellow Mammals and fellow Mortals! How much have we wilfully destroyed! How much do we need to restore, within ourselves! 

The time of the Naming is not over, my Friends. In His sight, we may still be living in the sixth day. As your Meditation, imagine yourself rocked in that sheltering moment. Stretch out your hand towards those gentle eyes that regard you with such trust – a trust that has not yet been violated by bloodshed and gluttony and pride and disdain. 

Say their Names. 
Let us sing.

Gaza students to Margaret Atwood: reject Tel Aviv U. prize
by Palestinian Students' Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel

The following open letter to Canadian author Margaret Atwood was issued by the Palestinian Students' Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel on April 4, 2010:

Dear Ms. Atwood,

We are students from Gaza representing more than 10 academic institutions therein. Our grandparents are refugees who were expelled from their homes in the 1948 Nakba. They still have their keys locked up in their closets and will pass them on to their children, our parents. Many of us have lost our fathers, some of us have lost our mothers, and some of us lost both in the last Israeli aggression against civilians in Gaza. Others still lost a body part from the flesh-burning white phosphorous that Israel used, and are now permanently physically challenged. Most of us lost our homes, and are now living in tents, as Israel refuses to allow basic construction materials into Gaza. And most of all, we are all still living in what has come to be a festering sore on humanity's conscience – the brutal, hermetic, medieval siege that Israel is perpetrating against us, the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Many of us have encountered your writing during our university studies. Although your books are not available in Gaza – because Israel does not allow books, paper and other stationary in – we are familiar with your leftist, feminist, overtly political writing. And most of all, we are aware of your strong stance against apartheid. You admirably supported sanctions against apartheid South Africa and called for resistance against all forms of oppression.

Now, we have heard that you are to receive a prize this spring at Tel Aviv University. We, the students of besieged Gaza, urge you not to go. As our professors, teachers and anti-apartheid comrades used to tell us, there was no negotiation with the brutal racist regime of South Africa. Nor was there much communication. Just one word: BOYCOTT. You must be aware that Israel was a sister state to the apartheid regime before 1994. Many South African anti-apartheid heroes, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have described Israel's oppression as apartheid. Some describe Israeli settler-colonialism and occupation as surpassing apartheid's evil. F-16s, F-15s, F-35s, Apache helicopters, Merkava tanks and white phosphorous were not used against black townships.

Ms. Atwood, in the Gaza concentration camp, students who have been awarded scholarships to universities abroad are prevented every year from pursuing their hard-earned opportunity for academic achievement. Within the Gaza Strip, those seeking an education are limited by increasing poverty rates and a scarcity of fuel for transportation, both of which are direct results of Israel's medieval siege. What is Tel Aviv University's position vis-a-vis this form of illegal collective punishment, described by Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as a "prelude to genocide?" Not a single word of condemnation has been heard from any Israeli academic institution!

Participating in normal relations with Tel Aviv University is giving tacit approval to its racially exclusive policy towards Palestinian citizens of Israel. We are certain you would hate to support an institution that upholds so faithfully the apartheid system of its state.

Tel Aviv University has a long and well-documented history of collaboration with the Israeli military and intelligence services. This is particularly shameful after Israel's bloody military assault against the occupied Gaza Strip, which, according to leading international and local human rights organizations, left over 1,440 Palestinians dead and 5,380 injured. We are certain you would hate to support an institution that supports a military apparatus that murdered over 430 children.
By accepting the prize at Tel Aviv University, you will be indirectly giving a slight and inadvertent nod to Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This university has refused to commemorate the destroyed Palestinian village on which it was built. That village is called Sheikh Muwanis, and it no longer exists as a result of Israel's confiscation. Its people have been expelled.

Let us remember the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "If you choose to be neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." As such, we call upon you to say no to neutrality, no to being on the fence, no to normalization with apartheid Israel, not after the blood of more than 400 children has been spilt! No to occupation, repression, settler colonialism, settlement expansion, home demolition, land expropriation and the system of discrimination against the indigenous population of Palestine, and no to the formation of Bantustans in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip!

Just as every citizen knew that she or he had a moral responsibility to boycott apartheid in South Africa after the Sharpeville massacre, Gaza 2009 was the world's wake-up call. All of Israel's academic institutions are state-run and state-funded. To partake of any of their prizes or to accept any of their blandishments is to uphold their heinous political actions. Israel has continually violated international law in defiance of the world. It is illegally occupying Palestinian land. It continues its aggression against the Palestinian people. Israel denies Palestinians all of the democratic liberties it so proudly, fictitiously flaunts. Israel is an apartheid regime that denies Palestinian refugees their right of return as sanctioned by UN resolution 194.

Attending the symposium would violate the unanimously-endorsed Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This call is also directed towards international activists, artists and academics of conscience, such as you. We are certain that you would love to be a part of the noble struggle against the apartheid, colonization and occupation that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for the past 61 years, a struggle that is ongoing.
Ms. Atwood, we consider you to be what the late Edward Said called an "oppositional intellectual." As such, and given our veneration of your work, we would be both emotionally and psychologically wounded to see you attend the symposium. You are a great woman of words, of that we have no doubt. But we think you would agree, too, that actions speak louder than words. We all await your decision.

Margaret Atwood signs on to Canadian letter opposing Palestinian evictions

by Philip Weiss on July 16, 2013
for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

Yesterday we posted a letter from more than 70 Canadian writers calling on Israel and Canadian leaders to stop the eviction and relocation of several Palestinian communities in the West Bank and the Negev. The letter is gathering speed. Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) and John Ralston Saul (Voltaire's Bastards) have signed on too.

Margaret Atwood and John Ralston Saul have added their names to a list of 90 writers who have signed an open letter to Israeli and Canadian leaders. The letter asks Israeli leaders to halt the imminent "firing zone" evictions of 1,000 Palestinians from the Southern Hebron Hills, and the Prawer Plan for the forced displacement of 20,000-70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from the Negev. Yann Martel (The Life of Pi), Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes), Guy Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman's Boy), Nino Ricci, Rohinton Mistry and Jane Urquhart are also among the additions to an impressive list of well-known Canadian writers.

Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Vincent Lam, Lisa Moore, Lorna Crozier, Alberto Manguel, George Bowering, Edeet Ravel, Patrick Lane, Sheila Heti, Kyo Maclear, Dr. Gabor Mat้, Michel Tremblay and Canada's current Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah are among the best known of the original signatories. Dozens of nominees or winners of the Governor General's literary awards, the Giller Prize, the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and other honours, including the Order of Canada, figure in the list. (See text of letter and full list of signatories below.)
"It's nothing but ethnic cleansing," said one of the signatories, Gabor Mat้, in an interview with Postmedia News last week. Mate is a Jewish Canadian and Holocaust survivor, and said that personal conviction compelled him to co-sign the letter. "One thing I've learned is you don't be quiet when things happen that shouldn't happen," Mat้ added in his interview with Postmedia.

"These writers' compassion and clear-mindedness are refreshing at a time in which Canadian politicians seem to have abandoned all principles, especially when determining Middle East policy," says CJPME President Thomas Woodley. CJPME points out that Canadian politicians are almost always silent when Israel violates international law by confiscating Palestinians' land and establishing Israeli-only "settlements" in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPT). CJPME is appalled that a spokesman for Foreign Minister John Baird last week dismissed the Prawer Plan as an "internal" Israeli matter.

"Given the sheer numbers of people slated for forced displacement – 20,000 to 70,000 – it's tragic that Canadian leaders are acquiescing to such cruelty," adds Woodley. The Israeli arguments that they are dislocating the Bedouin "for their own good" are reminiscent of similar arguments once made for placing Canadian aboriginal children in residential schools.

The European Parliament and various Israeli human rights groups, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, have urged the Israeli Knesset to reject the Prawer Plan. B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence (a veterans' group) and ACRI, as well as internationally prominent Israeli writers such as David Grossman (To the End of the Land) and Amoz Oz have energetically opposed the evictions of Palestinian villagers from the Southern Hebron Hills (oPt) to make way for an Israeli firing zone.

Professional journalists wishing to interview CJPME representatives and some of the signatories to the Canadian writers' open letter may contact Patricia Jean at 438-380-5410 for further details.

About CJPME – Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) is a non-profit and secular organization bringing together men and women of all backgrounds who labour to see justice and peace take root again in the Middle East. Its mission is to empower decision-makers to view all sides with fairness and to promote the equitable and sustainable development of the region.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

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