by Alexander Cockburn
of this column will be interested to know that my reproofs of the prominent American writer Susan Sontag, published here just under two months ago, prompted the writer to make what was for her an unwonted attack on Israel's conduct toward Palestinians.
I criticized Sontag for accepting the Jerusalem Prize, whose supposed function is to reward creative dedication to the notion of freedom. I recalled Sontag's constant trips to Sarajevo and asked readers to imagine her gibes at an author traveling to Serbia to get an award from Radovan Karadzic in the name of intellectual freedom.
Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Ha'aretz, Israel's leading daily newspaper, the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean, of course, the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall. Sontag has mostly been quiet on Israel's conduct down the years, though one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert. Back on Feb. 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center.
It began as follows: "We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem." The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Birzeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him.
"We are concerned that the Israeli government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Ha'aretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?" which partly stated:
Yesterday evening, Jerusalem's mayor conferred the 'Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society' to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to 'shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh' was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the prime minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem -- the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end 10 years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person."
This is like describing Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about 50 Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This, too, led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on freedom to anyone.
May 28, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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