John Berger is gone; he passed away on January 2, 2017. A great silence has now entered the world. There are few, if any, people today like Berger, who across the span of his life wove together in his creative and critical work aesthetic sensibility and political commitment that never succumbed to the cynicism of success or the apathy of the pessimist, even as he witnessed countless cruelties. While writers, artists and intellectuals came to be increasingly disengaged from politics in the latter half of the 20th century, Berger continued to sustain and expand the range of his commitments to the dispossessed and exploited, the refugee and the worker, the artist and the poet. A quiet and reserved observer, Berger saw the violence of modernity in our time, and also the possibilities for a different future. His art, fiction, essays and translations represented the quotidian brutalities of capitalism, and also the extraordinary beauty of resistance, that persistent struggle to overcome injustice.
At the center of Berger’s more explicit political commitments was Palestine. He was a co-translator of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and wrote compelling essays about his visits to Occupied Palestine. In 2006 he published what is referred to as The Berger Letter, endorsing the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. It reads in part:
As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist apartheid)….
Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change…
What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.
In these dire times, John Berger’s voice will be greatly missed.