Renowned British author Ian McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom
of Society at the opening event of the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair on
Sunday night at the International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma).
a speech that celebrated the power of the novel to construct a new reality,
McEwan expressed some controversial political opinions that angered a few
attendees, and elicited one boo from the audience in the middle of his
Opinion: The prize of democracy
Ian McEwan joins left-wing protest in Sheikh Jarrah
“There are some similarities between a novel and a city,” McEwan,
author of 11 novels including Atonement, The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers,
and Chesin Beach, told the crowd of 200.
“A novel is not merely a book of
pages and a cover, but a particular kind of mental space, a place of
investigation into human nature. A city is not only an agglomeration of streets
and buildings, it is also a field of dreams,” he said.
individual and imaginary, have a real struggle for their right to
self-realization,” continued McEwan.
“The novel was born out of curiosity
about and respect for the individual and a sympathetic desire to inhabit the
minds of others,” he said, adding that a single novel has the power to reshape
minds on both sides of a conflict.
McEwan said he had received criticisms
of “varying degrees of civility” after he announced his decision to accept the
Jerusalem Prize in late January. Some pro-Palestinian groups denounced his
decision publicly in England’s leading newspapers.
“They told me,
whatever I believe about literature, I can’t escape the politics, and I sadly
must concede this was the case,” McEwan said.
He noted that the award
itself, which honors the freedom of the individual in society, “sits a little
awkwardly with the current system in Jerusalem.”
But he added that he
preferred to come and engage with both Israelis and Palestinians than to refuse
to accept the prize. On Friday, McEwan joined famous Israeli writer David
Grossman at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah protests by leftists in east
Israeli poet Michal Govrin (Snapshots
, Hold Onto the Sun
of the jurists who chose McEwan for the award, applauded his courage to attend
despite the pressure.
His speech was a “good beginning about how to write
about Jerusalem in different ways, because writers have the ability to imagine
Jerusalem differently from politicians,” she said.
But others were
angered by McEwan’s comparisons, including the way he equated Hamas shooting
rockets from Gaza with Jews continuing to build in east Jerusalem and the
“I think he had an understanding of the bigger picture,”
said Aya, a Jerusalem resident who has attended many of the book fairs. “But
some of the ways he rationalized things were exaggerated.”
Prize, considered Israel’s highest literary prize for a foreign writer, was
presented by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. The ceremony was also attended by
President Shimon Peres, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, and some of the
600 authors, editors, publishers, and agents attending this year’s
The biennial fair is open to the public free of charge and runs
from Sunday through Thursday. Hundreds of publishers showcasing their newest
books. Dozens of authors will give lectures throughout the fair, and a daily
children’s hour will take place at 4 p.m. A full list of events is available at www.jerusalembookfair.com
Livnat used the opening ceremony of the fair
to announce a new initiative of the Culture and Sport Ministry to dedicate half
a million shekels to translating 10 Israeli books into English and other
languages each year. The books will be chosen by a committee. The NIS 500,000 is
already budgeted, so Livnat said the translations would start
Mayor Nir Barkat said he was honored that Jerusalem was able
to host such a prestigious literary event. He added that much of the city’s
ability to inspire artists and writers is drawn from its many conflicts, but
that those same artists and writers have an ability to influence the
“Culture enables more people to find the common denominator,”
he said. “Books serve bridges between cultures allowing us to promote tolerance
and allow us to recognize differences and similarities.”
with the mayor’s assessment, though he did have one complaint about the
“All I can say that Jerusalem lacks is small talk,” he
“There is no small talk in Jerusalem. It is the most intense place
that I have ever set foot.”