Over 250 writers including Sally Rooney, Jeanette Winterson and George Saunders have thrown their support behind novelist Kamila Shamsie after a German literary prize was rescinded due to her support of an Israel boycott.
The €15,000 Nelly Sachs prize, awarded earlier this month for work that “builds bridges between societies”, was withdrawn last week over Shamsie’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Explaining their decision, the jury said Shamsie’s prize was awarded for her “outstanding literary work” but they had not been aware at the time of her stance on the boycott which was “clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award”.
They said: “The cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity. Kamila Shamsie’s work is also withheld from the Israeli population in this way.”
But, in an open letter published in the London Review of Books, hundreds of writers including former Nelly Sachs winner Michael Ondaatje, Noam Chomsky, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy and JM Coetzee said they had learned of the decision with “dismay”. They said the decision would “punish an author for her human rights advocacy”.
The letter asks: “What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression, and the freedom to criticise? Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.”
In a statement on the decision, Shamsie branded it “a matter of great sadness". She added: “It is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.”
The Nelly Sachs Prize, named after a Jewish poet, is given every two years by the German city of Dortmund.