Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem’s mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: “I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians.”
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there’d been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly–at least in this country–I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I’m glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she’d said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn’t find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
“We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called ‘subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'”
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. “We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war.”
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag’s public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, “What Freedom, What Society?”:
Yesterday evening Jerusalem’s Mayor conferred the “Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society” to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to “shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh” was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.