Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel among Canadian writers urging Israel to halt evictions
It was decades ago, but Carmen Aguirre vividly recalls first learning of the struggles faced by many Palestinians.
“I was seven,” the Vancouver writer and actress told the Straight in a telephone interview. “I come from a family of Chilean refugees. We arrived in Canada in the early ‘70s as political refugees. And one of the strongest memories I have arriving here was of the local Palestinian community welcoming us and doing a lot of solidarity work with us.
“That’s when it became clear to me, as a small child,” Aguirre continued. “As far as I’m concerned, the Israeli state is a racist state acting against the Palestinians.”
Aguirre, who stars in the Showcase series Endgame, is among more than 90 prominent Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood who have signed a letter that calls on Israel to permanently halt two impending eviction actions.
The first concerns a strip of the Southern Hebron Hills called Masafer Yatta, an area of the occupied West Bank where Israel has been trying to create a vacant “firing zone” since the early 1970s. About 1,000 Palestinians residents face the prospect of forced relocations.
The second initiative the writers are speaking against is the so-called “Prawer Plan”. It proposes moving Arab Bedouin populations in the Negev desert (in Israel proper) out of villages the state describes as “unrecognized” and into government-designated townships. The plan would involve the relocation of 20,000 to 70,000 people.
“The actions planned are manifestly unjust, and will gravely damage Israel’s international reputation,” the letter states.
Across the country, notable authors attached to the letter are Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance), Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negros), and John Ralston Saul, who is the president of PEN International. A complete list can be viewed here.
Signatories from western Canada include Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Hiromi Goto, Fred Wah, George Bowering, Steven Heighton, and Dr. Gabor Maté.
Another name on the letter is Yann Martel, author of the bestselling novel Life of Pi.
On the phone from Saskatoon, Martel said he felt the need to speak on these issues specifically because the Palestinians affected are especially vulnerable.
“This is a precarious population on the margins,” he explained. “And morality has no boundaries. If something is unjust in another country, it is still unjust. And I figure, if I can do something about it, why not?”
Martel said that it’s the nature of Israel’s actions as “an injustice so obvious” that caught the writers’ attention.
“Everybody in the Middle East has been there for a thousand years and right now, one group is dominating and disregarding the basic fundamental rights of these people,” he said.
Martel urged people to learn about what is happening.
“If other groups want to get involved, there’s no reason why it should be limited to writers,” he said. “If the plumbers of Canada want to rise up, that will be great too.”
The letter’s signing was organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, a non-profit established in 2002. The project was inspired by a similar letter signed by 21 Israeli authors (though that document only concerns the Southern Hebron Hills firing zone).
Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, dismissed the letter as “political theatre”.
“The letter that they are signing onto doesn’t reflect either the complexity of the issue, nor does it give a balanced presentation of the debate and thought and due diligence that has gone into the proposed plan,” he said in a telephone interview. “What I do take issue with, are those who would sign onto something without really appreciating the whole situation, and weighing in in a way that really reflects uninformed and incomplete understanding of the situation.”
Joan MacNeil, a senior policy analyst at Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, countered Fogel’s criticisms, noting that the names on the letter are generally not associated with political activism.
“The vast majority of the signatories are not people who usually sign petitions,” she said. “They are people who are very careful about what they say publicly and what they do. They are not people who just sign anything.”
Aguirre maintained that Israel’s plans for the Hebron Hills fire zone and the Nejev Bedouins amount to nothing less than “ethnic cleansing”.
“It’s not about Israelis or Palestinians, it’s about justice,” she said. “Just like the apartheid movement in South Africa, it was not blacks against whites; it was oppressed people defending themselves against an oppressor.”