While Palestinians are subject to an unrelenting occupation, for the last two years scholars and students of language and literature at MLA Conventions have exchanged views on the legitimacy of an academic boycott of Israel. Meanwhile an increasing number of world renown authors have individually and collectively announced their solidarity with Palestinians through support of the boycott of Israel.
One of those contemporary injustices that we struggle to remember is the Israeli occupation and the deprivation of Palestinian rights.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen
Recently, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Putlizer-Prize winner in fiction for his novel The Sympathizer, expressed his endorsement of the cultural boycott of Israel. In a statement, Nguyen commented:
Always remember, never forget. These powerful words compel us to think about both the injustices of the past and the injustices of the present. One of those contemporary injustices that we struggle to remember is the Israeli occupation and the deprivation of Palestinian rights. For any of us concerned with justice, the imperative is clear: we must stand with the disempowered and the forgotten against militarism and the state.
Nguyen’s use of the phrase “always remember, never forget” resonates powerfully across contexts. The phrase is often associated with a post-Holocaust discourse of generational responsibility to oppose the evil represented by the Nazis, but for Nguyen “always remember, never forget” connects no doubt more personally to memories of the Vietnam War, which provides another context for grounding his solidarity with the “disempowered” Palestinians and his opposition to Israeli “militarism and the state.” Through this phrase, Nguyen speaks intimately to Jewish and Vietnamese readers who will recognize the associations that he evokes, but he also addresses a general public, appealing to an inclusive notion of political justice that acknowledges the violence experienced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
As David Palumbo-Liu recently reported for Salon, on the occasion of this statement, Nguyen is the fourth Pulitzer-Prize winner–the others are Alice Walker, Richard Ford, and Junot Diaz–to announce an endorsement of a boycott of Israel. Palumbo-Lui documents a growing trend among authors of fiction who “stand with the disempowered” and oppose the Israeli “deprivation of Palestinian rights.”
Especially noteworthy, is a deep concern among authors about Israel’s use of culture to whitewash its violent destruction of Palestinian society. Palumbo-Liu cites for example a letter campaign opposing Israeli sponsorship of the PEN-America World Voices Festival. The letter of protest signed by over 200 authors states: “It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept sponsorship from the Israeli government, even as it intensifies its decades-long denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people, including the frequent targeting of Palestinian writers and journalists.”
Nguyen’s endorsement is a further indication not only of the growing importance of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, but also of its ethical and political appeal for writers who see boycott as the most legitimate means of protesting Israeli injustice. If in the past, novelists, poets, and playwrights avoided taking a position in support of Palestinians for fear that they would be accused of anti-semitism by the supporters of Israel, today more and more writers, like Nguyen, refuse now to be silent and instead stand with the Palestinians. Not surprisingly, as the MLA debates the issue, creative writers are taking the lead by endorsing the call to boycott Israel.