Jerusalem, Sarajevo & Susan Sontag
Author: Ammiel Alcalay
Uploaded: Tuesday, 05 June, 2001
The Bosnian sub-theme of this comment on the situation in Palestine, a version of which appeared in Dani (Sarajevo), makes it particularly relevant for inclusion on the Bosnian Institute website.
The Israeli public is well aware of the prestige and importance given to the Jerusalem Prize, awarded at the International Book Fair. As many of the most prominent publishers in the world gather in Jerusalem, the event takes on enormous political, cultural and public relations significance. Without directly saying it, the event itself gives the world a message: culture is triumphant, despite what you read in the newspapers, Jerusalem is under our control.
This year's recipient, Susan Sontag, is well known for her novels, cultural and social essays, writings on photography and, over the past decade, as one of the most prominent public cultural figures speaking to the world about the genocidal war against Bosnia. Although her theater productions in the besieged city of Sarajevo, as well as her frequent visits to the city during the war, were often turned into media events, these acts of solidarity were greatly appreciated by Bosnian citizens.
In accepting the Jerusalem Prize, Sontag enters into an ethical dilemma: which citizens, residents, non-residents or refugees of Jerusalem will consider her visit an act of solidarity or a betrayal of principles? Current Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, one of the three judges for this year's Prize, had this to say about Sontag: ‘First she's Jewish, then she's a writer, then she's American. She loves Israel with emotion and the world with obligation.' Certainly Bosnians and Americans need no introduction to Susan Sontag. But perhaps more needs to be said about a country (not referred to as a dictatorship), where generals serve as Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers serve as judges of literary awards given out at an International Fair held in an occupied and disputed capital.
Political activists in Israel urged Sontag not to accept the Jerusalem Prize or, if she does, to at least use it as an opportunity to make a strong statement about the wholesale violation of Palestinian human rights perpetuated through Israeli policies on collective punishment, land confiscation, house demolition, freedom of movement, academic freedom and a host of other issues. Ironically, the strongest statement has come from The Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, an umbrella group representing nine major Israeli and Palestinian women's organizations. In a letter addressed to Sontag, the Coalition wrote: ‘We would like to draw your attention to the fact that your acceptance of the prize, and your presence in Jerusalem at the ceremony, is a tacit legitimization of the occupation, and of Mayor Olmert's brutal policies against Palestinian residents of this city. You would also be causing a serious setback to the feminist movement and to the Israeli civil rights movement as a whole.'
Surely one of the most successful products of America's consent manufacturing machinery is the almost sacred status given Israel and Zionism in the media and intellectual discourse. Although there are many different nuances, this sacred status relies on the denial of one very basic fact: the creation of the State of Israel produced the destruction of Palestine. One can say almost anything about any subject or place under the sun, but when it comes to uttering this fact, almost everyone shuts their mouth. Prominent American intellectuals who dare pronounce it (and explore all the foreign and domestic issues emerging as a consequence of this fact), can be counted on the fingers of one hand and would include, most significantly, figures such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.
While there is no real conspiracy, the attitude of consensus works precisely the way good propaganda is supposed to work - it appears completely natural and any deviations from the norm seem outrageous. For example, it is entirely natural for a Jewish person born in Kiev or Brooklyn to step off a plane at Ben Gurion airport and take up Israeli citizenship based on claims to an ancestral homeland that they have had no contact with for generations or, in some cases, millennia. But it is outrageous and unimaginable for a Palestinian Arab person actually born in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa or one of over 400 villages wiped off the face of the map even to be granted a visitor's permit to see the sites of their childhood. As for the actual Palestinian right of return, that is simply a taboo subject.
Invitations to Jerusalem for international festivals or gatherings of one kind or another, the granting of prominent awards such as the Jerusalem Prize, all help to ‘manufacture consent', to domesticate and ameliorate any deeper critique by appearing open and liberal. Surely Susan Sontag acutely understands the responsibilities that come with the privilege of public exposure, with the opportunity to make one's voice heard. By coming to Sarajevo during the siege, she used this privilege to help focus the world's attention on the plight of a besieged city and the unspeakable horrors being perpetrated against civilians. In Sarajevo, Sontag managed to dictate how she was perceived to the media by using her identity as a writer and citizen as an example.
By going to Jerusalem, Sontag allows herself to be fit into a preordained scheme in which the message of freedom is delivered in the context of severe military repression of a civilian population. In addition, she will be accepted and greeted, first and foremost, as an American Jew, placing herself directly in the perverse hierarchy of Israeli privilege, exclusivity and victimhood. All of this this should sound very familiar to Sontag, having critiqued the machinery of Serbian nationalist ideology and propaganda so accurately. To not resist the imposition of such an identity in this context, and all the implications that go along with it, would represent a true lack of intellectual courage. Such courage was admirably displayed by Nadine Gordimer a few years back when she refused the Jerusalem Prize, stating that she saw no need to go from one apartheid state to another. (That Gordimer showed an absolute lack of judgement in her text lauding Emir Kusturica's prize at the Cannes Film Festival is another story, for another time.)
To get back to the subject: let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Susan Sontag doesn't believe in universal principles but chooses selectively amongst peoples and causes. So the Palestinians, with their lost homeland, their refugees, their besieged camps, their beleagured and corrupt leadership, their resistance, their tenacity, their suffering and their humanity, just don't matter. And what about the Israelis, with their abduction of the nuclear technician Mordekhai Vannunu and the inhuman conditions of his incarceration for over a decade as a prisoner of conscience, with their bulldozers and live ammunition fired at their own citizens, with policies of torture, eviction, expulsion and demolition condoned by its highest courts, with their Women In Black demonstrating against the occupation for years and years, they don't matter either. It's as simple as that.
But what about the Bosnians, for whom Sontag has already displayed such courage and integrity? Would she care to remember then Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres's spineless, demagogic, and opportunistic stance regarding Israel's policy towards the war in Bosnia? Watching Israeli TV or reading Israeli newspapers from 1991 to 1995 was no different than watching or reading Serbian nationalist propaganda. Moreover, denial of who was perpetrating the crimes in Bosnia was not simply a question of public opinion but official government policy that extended to recognition of Serbia and the sale of weapons.
After all, there is a monopoly on genocide and victimhood in Israel, stretching even to its politically expedient arrangement with Turkey in consistently refusing to recognize officially the Armenian victims of genocide. Should this, too, be condoned?