The Role of Tom Rob Smith in Brand Israel

Tom Rob Smith is grappling with some serious philosophical questions these days. He asks himself what the purpose of fiction is? What the role of the writer in society is?

What prompted the popular writer to go back to his Cambridge roots and rehash this very Humanities 101 debate? Why the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of course!

Tom Rob Smith at the Jerusalem Writers Festival not discussing the ways in which it whitewashes apartheid, and is sponsored by an organization which is responsible for ongoing ethnic cleansing, only minutes away from the premises. (source: The Jerusalem Writers Festival Facebook page)


In the last few days, I’ve been petitioned to boycott the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem. The experience has been intense, although not yet aggressive. I’ve received numerous emails, tweets, messages posted on my Facebook page, sent to my agent, published on various blogs, requesting that I pull out.

Unfortunately, intellectuals often seem to mistake the BDS movement for an (aggressive) intellectual exercise, rather than a movement trying to stop the ethnic cleansing of living people, as we speak.

I’ve been deemed a disappointment. Perhaps for the first time in my life I was conscious that the question I was being asked to address — what is the role of a writer — was no longer a mere abstract intellectual concept. I needed to grapple with it in a real and urgent way. I’m no longer a student in a debate. I’m a writer and the question was being asked of me specifically.

I usually don’t speak in plural, but I’m pretty sure this is common to all BDS practitioners and supporters: While the movement would like to thank Tom Rob Smith for his real and urgent grappling, we- you know, the common people- expect timely, thoughtful action.

Apartheid: Bringing People Together with Liberal Language of Equality and Harmony for All

One might argue that the role of a writer in society is to write, and Smith has written. He has indeed taken action to its full extent, as far as his profession goes. However, I’d like to point out, there’s a trap in the “intellectual professions”, which often leads their occupants to a lot of literary finesse and little revelation. Had I wanted to address the role of the writer, I’d probably quote you some Edward Said:

Everyone today professes a liberal language of equality and harmony for all. The problem for the intellectual is to bring these notions to bear on actual situations where the gap between the profession of equality and justice, on the one hand, and rather less edifying reality, on the other, is very great. ~Representations of the Intellectual, p.94

Unfortunately for us, Tom Rob Smith, even though he “spent a great deal of [his] professional life as an author exploring regimes created by dictators”, has a slight disagreement with Said:

Is this, then, the role of a writer, a brave truth-teller: to stand up to power? Perhaps it might be one role, but surely there are other roles, and many great works of art have no obvious polemic behind them. Indeed, aggressive and explicit political agendas can often be tedious and one-dimensional.

Indeed, all polemics and no artistry makes this explicitly political writer a dull girl. I should try being more pretty and less aggressive, then maybe the top selling newspaper in the country would publish my real and urgent grapplings about questions that weren’t asked and answers I don’t really have. And at the end of a rather meaningless article, which’s research I conducted in the deepest archives of my soul, I can come up with some liberal language of equality and harmony for all:

One of the points presented to me by those advocating a cultural boycott of Israel was that the festival explicitly states that its purpose is to bring writers together from around the world and have them share a stage with Israeli writers. Those demanding a boycott presented this as a negative when it is, surely, the only reason for any literature festival to exist. What other purpose could it serve? More fundamentally, this notion of bringing people together taps into something at the heart of writing itself — writing connects by its very definition… I fear the magic dies as soon as we begin to draw lines around people, grouping readers into categories of those we will and won’t listen to.

I fear Smith, while spinning a straw man, has gotten tangled in the regular pitfalls of BDS opposition arguments. The first thing to point out is the straw man. The BDS movement’s guidelines for cultural boycott, put forth by PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), does not oppose the bringing together of writers with other writers and audiences, nor does it oppose sharing a stage with writers with an Israeli citizenship, or speaking before readers with Israeli citizenship:

[T]he Palestinian boycott call targets cultural institutions, projects and events that continue to serve the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime.

While PACBI admits that

…many of these events and projects fall into an uncertain, grey area that is challenging to appraise,


…the boycott must target not only the complicit institutions but also the inherent and organic links between them which reproduce the machinery of colonial subjugation and apartheid.

To put it simply: Each target is studied. If it’s connected to the state (you know, that little self-imposed colonial power, executing ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population via military rule) by monetary ties, or explicitly used by the state as a whitewashing mechanism, then it’s boycottable.

Why would you boycott it? Well, wouldn’t you feel better in this world knowing that when really bad things are happening, you have an opportunity to work to put it to an end? Or in the least, wouldn’t you like the opportunity not to be “brought together” with those doing bad things, having your namesake used to render said bad things normal?

Identifying the Machinery of Colonial Subjugation and Apartheid

Tyrants desire supreme power — first and foremost over reality — but since that is impossible to achieve and armies cannot be conjured from clouds, they quickly turn their attention to the truth. If they cannot adjust the material world to their whims, perhaps they can control our perception of the world — whether it be to declare that there’s no shortage of food even as farmers boil leather boots for soup or, in the case of my novel, that there’s no crime even as the most heinous crimes are being committed.

This sober observation was made by the same Tom Rob Smith who can’t seem to see what’s happening right next door, through the thicket that is Israel’s propaganda of “artistic and cultural activities in the spirit of dialogue, tolerance and pluralism”, vis-a-vis the Jerusalem Writer’s Festival, held at Mishkanot Sha’ananim, established by the Jerusalem Foundation.

The Jerusalem Foundation, hand in hand with the Jerusalem municipality and settler organizations, is responsible for projects of ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem:

The Jerusalem Foundation has pioneered much of the archaeological discovery and preservation projects including the City of David excavations, the major gates of the Old City Walls, the Tower of David Museum and much more. ~The Jerusalem Foundation Annual Report 2008/9, p. 7]

In recent years, significant parts of the area have been wrestled away from the local population. Public land and property, most importantly the City of David National Park,  has been “privatized” without compensation and handed over to”Elad”, a private ideological settler organization.  Sensitive excavations also have been entrusted to Elad. The municipal and national authorities have encouraged, funded, supported, and protected this process.  Silwan is the pillar of a sweeping and systematic policy and process of gaining control of the Palestinian territories that surround the Old City, designed to cut the Old City off from East Jerusalem, and to connect it to Jewish settlement blocs in northeast Jerusalem and the E-1 area. These plans have a decisive political and international significance because their implementation would further complicate the possibility of arriving at a viable agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. ~ Ir Amim, “City of David- Silwan”

The above sober observation was made by the same Tom Rob Smith who (as has already been established) “spent a great deal of [his] professional life as an author exploring regimes created by dictators”, but didn’t take the time to explore the media he was to published in, which was created by our local dictator’s very wealthy friend, Sheldon Adelson, in a time when the former was busy closing the last door on the semblance of TheOnlyDemocracyInTheMiddleEast™:

Rather than facing the electorate in September, Netanyahu and his hardline rightwing government are expected to comfortably see out the remaining 18 months of his term of office. Not only that, but he will now have the backing of more than three-quarters of the 120-seat Israeli parliament, leading one commentator to crown him the “King of Israel”… it gives him time to entrench moves towards authoritarianism. Netanyahu has been behind a series of measures to weaken the media, human rights groups, and the courts. At the moment his government is defying a series of Supreme Court rulings to dismantle several small Jewish settlements on Palestinian land that are illegal even under Israeli law… An uninterrupted 18 months will allow him to further undermine these rival centres of power. One of the promises he and Mofaz made yesterday was to overhaul the system of government. Netanyahu now has enough MPs to overturn even the most sacrosanct of Israel’s Basic Laws.

The Role of the Brand in Society

To Declare… There Is No Crime Even As The Most Heinous Crimes Are Being Committed ~Boycotts and Books, Tom Rob Smith, Israel Ha’yom, 2012

Not an unbelievable storyline out of a Tom Rob Smith novel, but a cruel reality that Palestinians live with every day. As millions around the world commemorate the Palestinian Nakba and its ongoing aftermath of 64 years, and mass prisoner hunger strikes are the news of the day, Smith sees no wrong with participating in an event sponsored by the Israeli institutions who are the executors, enablers and whitewashers of the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. He sees no wrong in reducing the Palestinian civil society appeal to him- not to participate with these mechanisms of subjugation- to a void, irrational, baseless plea for no less than arbitrary segregation. He sees no wrong in doing so on the oppressor’s propaganda media outlet. He sees no wrong in acknowledging his privilege of celebrity status, but failing to use it in a socially responsible and morally accountable manner. In fact, he thinks it’s rude to do otherwise:

Indeed, it’s quite rude to shake peoples’ comfort zones, when they are enjoying the finer things in life. Capitalism and the destruction it wreaks wouldn’t have come thus far without the politeness of anesthetized civilized people.

Tom Rob Smith is a writer. He chooses to wax lyrically about the hypothetical role of a writer, comfortably failing to see that that isn’t the role he’s fulfilling at all. In Israel’s book, Smith’s role is nothing but a brand name. Another famous face it can adorn itself with, feigning cultural “civility” and business as usual.

And business is booming for the Tom Rob Smith brand in Israel, as his books have been translated to Hebrew and have become best sellers. If I were profiting off of military occupation, I too would probably try not to bite the boot that feeds me. Had Smith chosen to take the role of a writer, instead of a brand, this time around, he may have been able to see the irony of his own words:

Dictators covet a writer’s alchemy — the transformation of words into reality — yet they have no understanding of where fiction draws its power. When writers serve them, the spell is broken, their fiction is maligned; readers smell betrayal in the words.

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