as a public intellectual, Said lends his name to a wide variety
of causes. He speaks out against injustice as a matter of
universal principle, not just for his own people. Bearing
this in mind, let us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag,
another public intellectual of great reputation, known for
a variety of works down the years including the early books
of the Sixties, Against
Interpretation and Trip to Hanoi, later works
on photography and disease, plus the more recent novel The
Volcano Lover and, in 1999, another novel, In
America, given the National Book Award the following
can pretty much gauge a writer’s political sedateness and
respectability in America by the kind of awards they reap,
and it is not unfair to say that the literary and indeed grant-distributing
establishment certainly deems Sontag safe. Aside from the
recent National Book Award, she got a National Book Critics
Circle Award in 1977, was appointed in 1979 a member of the
American Academy, and in 1990 received the liberal imprimatur
of a five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship
from the MacArthur Foundation, which once contemplated giving
a fellowship to Said but apparently desisted after furious
protests from one influential Jewish board member.
Sontag’s been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001,
twentieth recipient of the award since its inauguration in
1963, and the second woman to be so honored, the first being
Simone de Beauvoir. The award, worth $5,000, is proclaimedly
given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual
in society, and is presented biennially at the Jerusalem International
Book Fair. Past recipients of the Jerusalem prize include
Bertrand Russell, Jorge Semprun, Isaiah Berlin, Mario Vargas
Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, J.M. Coetzee, and rather bizarrely,
Sontag was selected by a three-member panel of judges, comprised
of the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres and Hebrew University professors
Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres has been quoted as
admiring Sontag’s definition of herself. "First she’s
Jewish, then she’s a writer, then she’s American. She loves
Israel with emotion and the world with obligation." When
notified of her latest accolade, Sontag’s response was, "I
trust you have some idea of how honored and moved, deeply
moved, I am to have been awarded this year’s Jerusalem Prize."
is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony,
which will be held within the framework of the 20th
Jerusalem International Book Fair. One news report remarked
that "According to book fair director Zev Birger, events
which have blighted tourism in recent months have not adversely
affected the publishing world. ‘It’s business as usual,’ he
said, noting that checks and hotel reservations were coming
dwell on the familiar currency of international literary backslapping?
I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards.
American intellectuals will be brave as lions concerning the
travails of East Timoreans, Rwandans, Central American peasants,
Chechens. But for almost all of them the Palestinians and
their troubles have always been invisible. The intellectuals
know well enough that to raise a stink about Israeli’s appalling
treatment of Palestinians down the years is to invite drastic
it could scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political
writer. But there was an issue of the late 1990s on which
she did raise her voice. Along with her son David Rieff, Sontag
became a passionate advocate for NATO intervention against
Yugoslavia or, if you prefer, Serbia. (To put in a good or
even a balancing word for the Serbs was of course another
rare event in American intellectual life, where almost all
liberals became, like Sontag, enthusiastic advocates of NATO’s
May 2, 1999 Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times,
Are We In Kosovo?", urgently justifying NATO’s intervention.
"Of course, it is easy to turn your eyes from what is
happening if it is not happening to you," she wrote.
" Or if you have not put yourself where it is happening.
Imagine that Nazi Germany had had no expansionist ambitions
but had simply made it a policy in the late 1930’s and early
1940’s to slaughter all the German Jews. Do we think a government
has the right to do whatever it wants on its own territory?
Maybe the governments of Europe would have said that 60 years
ago. But would we approve now of their decision? Push the
supposition into the present. What if the French Government
began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving
the rest out of Corsica . . . or the Italian Government began
emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees
. . . or Spain decided to apply a final solution to its rebellious
Basque population…Is it acceptable that such slaughters be
dismissed as civil wars, also known as 'age-old ethnic hatreds.'"
Sontag is obviously not entirely unaware that there is a country
from which more than a million refugees have been expelled.
In 1973 she actually made a film in Israel, "Promised
Lands," made in October and November of 1973 after the
Egyptians crossed the Suez canal in the Yom Kippur war. Back
then, Nora Sayre gave it a politely damning review in the
New York Times: "Throughout the ideas and the
people and the machines of war are examined from a distance,
as though everything had been observed through some kind of
mental gauze. The Israelis particularly those in robes
are filmed as if they were extremely foreign or exotic.
Also, Israel seems like a nearly all-male country, since few
women appear and none have been interviewed. There are a few
sympathetic words for the Arabs, but their existence seems
shadowy and abstract almost as bloodless as the statues
in a wax museum devoted to Israeli history."
surely now Sontag has had time to reflect more deeply on real
Israeli Jews, and on real Palestinians. Through the 1990s
it became a lot harder than in earlier years for American
intellectuals to claim that they did not know what was happening,
or were in ignorance of how Palestinians have been treated.
The subject became legal tender, even if the currency remained
severely limited in fungibility.
Sontag has always been appreciative of irony. Does she see
no irony in the fact that she, relentless critic of Slobodan
Milosevic, (upon whose extradition to face trial in its Hague
Court as a "war criminal" the US is now conditioning all aid
to Yugoslavia,) is now planning to travel to get a prize in
Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials
as a war criminal are robust and indeed undisputed by all
people of balanced and independent judgement. To resurrect
a tired phrase, Sharon really does have the blood of thousands
of Palestinians and Lebanese upon his hands.
Sontag sense no irony in getting a prize premised on the author’s
sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where
the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly repressed? To
dramatize her support for multi-ethnic Sarajevo, she actually
produced a play in the beleagured city a few years ago. Imagine
what bitter words she would have been ready to hurl at a writer
voyaging to the Serb portion of Bosnia to receive money and
a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising
her commitment to freedom of the individual, and poo-pooing
"events that have blighted tourism."
here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which
Sharon declares Israel’s absolute and eternal control, and
whose latest turmoils he personally provoked by insisting
on traveling under the protection of a thousand soldiers to
provoke Palestinians in their holy places. Can there be a
more flagrant and disgusting pretensions to all those invocations
to toleration and diversity Sontag and the others put forth,
accompanied by their strident demands for NATO to drop its
bombs on the Serbs?
Sontag plan to raise the issue of Palestinians in her acceptance
speech? I would like to think so, but somehow I doubt it.
She’ll scurry in and scurry out, probably hoping not to attract
too much attention. When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer
was offered the Jerusalem prize a number of years ago, she
declined, saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid
society to another. But to take that kind of position in the
United States would be a risky course for a careful (and by
a less obliging token) a cowardly intellectual. Of course,
Said knows he lives in a glasshouse, yet he had the admirable
effrontery to throw his stone.
© 2001 Alexander Cockburn
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
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