I have long been fascinated by the vanishingly thin veneer of radicalism that certain institutions adopt and discard at will. There are the most obviously transparent cases of this, such as Shell or Nestlé throwing on some glitter for Pride week. There was also the renowned left-leaning newspaper which published editorials denouncing zero-hours contracts and conniving employment practices while in the same week forcing me to take a month off work there unpaid to avoid according to me the rights of a permanent employee (a financially genuinely terrifying situation but one with enough rich, martyred irony to keep me in indignant dinner party anecdotes for several years).
Then there are the more complicated versions, where a nebulous attachment to the idea of the transgressive and radical is put to the test in a revealing way. These tend to be art institutions, whose reputational interests are well served by progressive ideas in the cultural ascension; who cannot only bask in the proxy glow of genuine radicalism (often enshrining iconography from past and therefore safe examples of righteous struggle) but also use it to programme buzzy shows and seasons which will make handy write-ups for lazy reviewers and help them apply for funding.
It is often interesting to note how the arts react when a sudden political or humanitarian crisis occurs – one can feel the panic in the rushed responses that sometimes emerge, desperate to be seen to act in the correct way.
I am thinking of some of the truly absurd decisions taken in the direct aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, during which time an Italian university cancelled and then reinstated a Dostoevsky course, the Cardiff Philharmonic withdrew Tchaikovsky from their programme, and Glasgow film festival removed two Russian films from its running.
Last week I signed a letter objecting to a grossly inappropriate action taken by the Frankfurt Book Fair, which cancelled an award ceremony for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli for her novel Minor Detail, “due to the war in Israel”, said Litprom, the German literary association behind the prize.
Minor Detail is a devastating recounting of the true murder and rape of a Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers in 1948. It is also an elegant, sophisticated, meditative work admired by many critics and writers including JM Coetzee.
To clarify, not that one should have to, Shibli is not pro Hamas, nor has she said inflammatory things about the current devastation in the Middle East. Her crime – a crime which in the eyes of much of the West she shares with every other of her country men and women – is to be Palestinian.
It was an absurd, hateful decision, one which reeks of the self-interested need to appear rather than to be or to do good. Who does this action aid? Is a single Israeli safer as a result? Some, when I shared the open letter online, asked me why I chose to focus on this incident rather than the obviously more urgent and horrifying actual deaths which fill the living hell that is Gaza right now. This is a fair point, I think.
For one thing, although it’s certainly a minor issue by comparison with thousands of dead civilians, it is instructive on the instinctive sympathies of establishment organisations. For another, it’s an arena I do have some actual connection to, given that I am an author and my work like everyone else’s gets sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair, so that I feel more natural authority to engage and highlight and discuss, an authority I have struggled to grasp when commenting on the brutality in general.
And comment has been very much demanded of anyone with a public profile, whether or not they have particular insight.
When the news of the massacre of Israeli citizens emerged I did not post about it. I don’t have an audience because of my political insight, I have one because of my novels and mostly personal and cultural journalism. Many terrible things take place in the world that I don’t publicly comment on; in fact I comment on hardly any of them. Partially this is to do with the fact that my Instagram is a frivolous place made up mostly of my books, food and outfits, and it feels obscene to throw in an infographic or image when it has to do with a situation I have little special knowledge of.
My lack of posting did not mean that I was unaware or untroubled by the carnage. People who know me know how I felt and spoke. I regret that some friends and acquaintances of mine saw me as uncaring due to the absence of public comment, but I understand their hurt and their feeling that I was not sensitive to their pain. That I then some days later began posting about atrocities committed against Palestinians by the Israeli state has, in some cases, furthered this hurt. Why post about those lives lost, and not the Israeli lives lost?
I condemn the killing or hostage taking of civilians, and I would never say they had it coming. I also don’t believe they “had it coming”, whether or not it’s expedient to say so. I would rather be considered a political naif, or idiot, or traitor than say that it’s acceptable or good for any child to be hurt or killed. So be it. I can say, though, that the circumstance that led to their tragedies was caused by the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
I can say also that much of the media seems intent on validating Israel defence minister Yoav Gallant’s judgment of Palestinians as “human animals” and so it is important to counter the lie whenever possible, including in the cultural sphere. This does not mean the civilian victims of the massacre in Israel deserved to be hurt, killed and taken hostage. It’s painful to have to even clarify that point. Some of the victims were actively working against the occupation, and even that stratifying feels obscene.
The fact remains, still, that Palestinian lives seem to mean less than nothing to many in the western world. Dehumanising, racist language and repression of their own speech continue their ongoing agony and erasure which, again, did not begin two weeks ago. That dehumanising, that killing, and that attempt to remove Palestinians from the earth, is not just present but escalating with terrifying speed, and it is worth taking a moment to highlight the fact that being Palestinian is not a sin.
Megan Nolan is a journalist and author