Ian McEwan - Tomer Appelbaum - Feb. 20, 2011
Ian McEwan accepting the Jerusalem Prize in the capital on Feb. 20, 2011. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
Text size

British novelist Ian McEwan, this year's recipient of the prestigious Jerusalem Prize, used the opening of the the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair last night to sharply criticize Israel's policies of "confiscation, land purchases, and expulsion in East Jerusalem," and a national policy that grants a "right of return to Jews but not to Arabs."

Speaking at the capital's Binyanei Ha'uma convention center, and in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Culture Minister Limor Livnat and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, McEwan delivered an acceptance speech that was greeted with polite but tense silence.

At the same time, the 62-year-old McEwan, whose 11 novels include "Atonement" and "Amsterdam," said he felt "somewhat overwhelmed" to have been judged worthy of the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded every two years to a writer whose work deals with the "freedom of the individual in society" - as long as he or she agrees to travel to Israel to pick it up.

"I couldn't escape the politics of my decision," said McEwan, referring to the pressure brought to bear on him since the prize was announced a month ago, to bow to the international boycott campaign against Israel. He added that he had come in order "to learn and to engage." McEwan noted his amazement at how "the matzav" - using the Hebrew word for "the situation" - seems to be "always pressing in" here, declaring that "when politics enters every last corner of existence, something has gone profoundly wrong."

The fair, which has taken place every two years since 1963, offers a forum for publishers and writers both from around the world and Israel. This year, some 600 publishers from 30 countries are represented in Jerusalem, including, for the first time, a delegation from Angola, it was announced at the opening ceremony.

The fair will be open to the public starting today and continues through Friday morning; admission is free. Aside from the hundreds of stands belonging to publishers and retailers that fill the convention center - which visitors can stroll past and get lost among - there will also be a number of special events featuring guests, including a variety of conversations between Israeli and foreign writers at the Literary Cafe (McEwan, for example, will be talking with Israeli novelist Meir Shalev this evening at 8 P.M. ). There will also be a program for visiting editors from 16 different countries, including China and South Korea.

Peres, Livnat and Barkat also addressed the invited audience at the opening ceremony, with the mayor acknowledging that Jerusalem "has conflict, big-time." He boasted of the city's "pluralism" and "openness," and of his conviction that the "renaissance of arts" taking place in the capital is acting to "mediate tensions."

Minister Livnat announced the establishment of a new NIS 500,000 fund to finance the translation of 10 or more works of Hebrew literature each year into English and other languages. She also expressed support for a proposed law that aims to guarantee the ability of "writers, artists and publishers to live in dignity," by limiting the extent to which new titles can be discounted during the first years after their publication.