Last month, the German city of Dortmund decided to rescind the Nelly Sachs Prize—named for a Jewish poet and dramatist who received a Nobel prize in 1966—which it had recently awarded to the Anglo-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie. The judges reconsidered because of Shamsie’s vocal and longstanding support for the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS). The decision provoked fulmination from Shamsie and a letter signed by 250 indignant writers and published at the London Review of Books website. Howard Jacobson comments:
A cultural boycott, however, imposed by teachers on teachers, thinkers on thinkers, writers on writers, is a monstrous absurdity. The absurdity is self-evident when Shamsie explains her refusal to allow her work to be translated into Hebrew because she is unable to find an Israeli publisher “who is completely unentangled from the state”—who acts, in other words, not by the lights of its own “freedom of conscience and expression,” but by hers. . . .
To the familiar self-righteousness of boycotters, Shamsie adds the overweening vanity of the wounded novelist. A writer has to estimate herself highly indeed to consider the withholding of her words a sanction. Should I turn out to be wrong on this, and not being able to read Shamsie indeed brings the Israeli administration to its knees and opens the gates to a peaceful, flourishing Gaza, I will be the first to apologize. But if books can have this effect in their absence, only imagine what their effect might be if they are read. . . .
To the 250 signatories to the letter, though, I say this: Israel in the eyes of many of you is an anathema, and has been an anathema since the moment of its creation. But might not you, before seizing the pretext of a literary prize to express this view yet again, have paused to consider the nature of that prize, the person after whom it’s named, and the poetry she wrote? One of Nelly Sachs’s most renowned poems is O die Schornsteine—Oh, the chimneys—which begins:
O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air—
Israel in this poem is not the country whose politics, alone among nations, stirs artists to silence other artists. As an idea, as a memory, as a tragedy and as an aspiration, it is the fragile casing of the Jewish people’s spirit. [This] poem should remind all those to whom compassion, conscience, and conciliation are said to be dear of the fine tracery of connections that binds a people and its history, an idea and a place. Understand that and you may still go on with your campaign; but it should not surprise or alarm you that a prize named after the author of O die Schornsteine has decided it must hold those bonds sacred.