Wednesday, January 26, 2011

McEwan Awarded the Jerusalem Prize

Ian McEwan has been awarded the Jerusalem prize for literature, an honor awarded biennially to writers whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society. The first winner in 1963 was the philosopher Bertrand Russell and other recipients include Simone de Beauvoir, JM Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa.

On 26 January 2001, Ian McEwan published this letter in The Guardian:

Israel critics should respect my decision

I write in response to the letter you published from the British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP), which I have read with care (Letters, 24 January). I have my own concerns about Israel and the situation of the Palestinians, which is worse than ever. The recently published leaks to al-Jazeera/the Guardian are depressing, the present outlook for negotiations is bleak. Many Israeli writers feel this way too. But BWISP and I disagree on what one should do. I'm for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides. There are ways in which art can have a longer reach than politics, and for me the emblem in this respect is Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – surely a beam of hope in a dark landscape, though denigrated by the Israeli religious right and Hamas. If BWISP is against this particular project, then clearly we have nothing more to say to each other.

As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir -- I hope BWISP will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as they do themselves. Their "line" is not the only one. Courtesy obliges them to respect my decision to go to Jerusalem, as I would theirs to stay away.

Ian McEwan