When the prize awarded to Palestinian author Adania Shibli for her novel “Minor Detail” was “suspended” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in mid-October, PEN Berlin criticised the decision. In the words of its spokesperson Eva Menasse: “No book becomes different, better, worse or more dangerous because the news situation changes. A book is either worthy of a prize or not.”
Now another literary prize has been “suspended”: the Peter Weiss Prize, awarded by the city of Bochum to the British-German writer Sharon Dodua Otoo. She is accused of having signed two statements by “Artists for Palestine UK”. In a “statement on the Sharon Dodua Otoo/Peter Weiss Prize”, the chairwoman of Bochum’s culture and tourism committee, Green politician Barbara Jessel, admits: “The literary work we examined did not reveal any antisemitic tendencies. Nor was there any indication in the 60-page dossier on the 16 nominated writers that Otoo could be antisemitic”. Rather, the writer had convinced the nine-member jury “with her biography, her fight against discrimination and her work”.
However, the suspension of the prize is now being justified on the grounds that Artists for Palestine UK calls for the liberation of Palestine “by all means”. According to Jessel, this means “standing behind the Hamas massacres of 7 October 2023”.
But neither of the two calls signed by Otoo contains the phrase “by all means”. The current one calls for a ceasefire and describes Israeli actions against Hamas in Gaza as “collective punishment”. The much older appeal, issued years before 7 October, calls for a “boycott of Israel”: In it, the signatories, including Otoo, pledge to boycott the state of Israel with themselves, i.e. their own visits or performances, and not to accept any fees or royalties from it.
Eva Menasse, spokesperson for PEN Berlin, said: “PEN Berlin is fundamentally opposed to any politically motivated boycott of art and culture. The BDS approach is wrong and incompatible with the values of the PEN Charter. But it is equally wrong to turn this misguided approach against its supporters. In light of the increasing number of cases in recent weeks, we strongly remind cultural institutions in Germany of their duty of care towards recognised artists. There is no entitlement to literary prizes. However, publicly withdrawing a prize that has already been awarded is such a reputational blow that it must not become routine. A distinction must continue to be made between the author and their political convictions on the one hand and a prize-worthy artistic achievement on the other. This was also the view of the Swedish Nobel Committee when it awarded the prize to Peter Handke. The snooping around for opinions on petitions undermines freedom of expression and artistic freedom and makes neither the State of Israel nor the Jews living in Germany any safer”.
PEN Berlin. We stand by our word.