The following speech was delivered on June 25. The Jerusalem Prize honors literary achievement in the field of freedom of the individual in society. –The Editors
I wish to thank you for this honor and for allowing me to join the distinguished list of authors who were past recipients of the Jerusalem Prize. The awarding of this prize in recognition of my work as a writer also cites my activities in defense of civil rights. As a past president of International P.E.N., the association of writers from around the world committed to the defense of the freedom to write, I have visited many countries with various political systems, at times to try to get writers out of jail, at other times simply to reinforce local P.E.N. centers in their struggle, quite often, to continue to exist. To tell the truth, I never wanted to spend time away from my desk, but it may be that as a Jew of a certain generation I was unable to forget the silence of the 1930s and ’40s, when Fascism began its destruction of our people, which for so long met with the indifference of the world. Perhaps it is because I have tried to do something useful to protect human rights that I know how hard it is to make good things happen. At the same time, my experience tells me that most people by far continue to believe in justice and wish it to prevail.
Because I have at least a sense of the many terrible contradictions in Israel’s situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians, I am also conscious of my distance from the day-to-day realities. So I am not going to lecture or try to persuade. The fundamentals of my views are simply that Israel has the right to exist, and the Palestinians likewise, in a state of their own. With the expansion of settlements I have witnessed, initially with surprise and then with incredulity, what seemed a self-defeating policy. I am not going to pursue conflicting arguments with secondhand knowledge, but merely to say the obvious–that the settlement policy appears to have changed the very nature of the Israeli state and that a new birth of a humanistic vision is necessary if the Jewish presence is to be seen as worth preserving. To put it perhaps too succinctly–without justice at its center, no state can endure as a representation of the Jewish nature.
I might fill in some of the background of these views, because this background is what provides the stark contrast for me with the present tragic situation. I have not been without some small experience with political Israel. I was invited to attend the Waldorf dinner in 1948 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s recognition of the State of Israel, which was the first and for a time her only international acknowledgment. The very idea of a nation of Jews existing in modern times was hard to imagine then. It was almost as though a scene out of the Bible were being re-enacted, but this time with real people smoking cigarettes. Imagine! Jewish bus drivers, Jewish cops, Jewish street sweepers, Jewish judges and the criminals they judged, Jewish prostitutes and movie stars, Jewish plumbers and carpenters and bankers, a Jewish president and parliament and a Jewish secretary of state. All this was something so new on the earth that it never dawned on me or, I think, on most people, that the new Israel, as a state governed by human beings, would behave more or less the same as any state had acted down through history–defending its existence by all means thought necessary and even expanding its borders when possible. In 1948, from the prospect of New York at any rate, the very idea of a Jewish state was defensive, since it was under almost perpetual attack. It existed at all as a refuge for a people that had barely escaped a total genocidal wipeout in Europe only a few years earlier. And so it was, I think, that the predominant sense of things at that Waldorf celebration was that, having passed out of the control and domination of others, the time had come for Jews to act normal.