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EXCLUSIVE: Kamila Shamsie stripped of German literary prize over support for BDS

British-Pakistani author tells MEE jury for Nelly Sachs Prize, awarded by city of Dortmund, has 'bowed to pressure', after decision to award her prize is reversed
A photo of Kamila Shamsie published by Dortmund city council on the day it announced she had been awarded the Nelly Sachs Prize. (Mark Pringle)

A German city has reversed its decision to hand a literary prize to the novelist Kamila Shamsie because of her support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The British-Pakistani author was announced as the winner of the Nelly Sachs Prize, named after a Jewish poet and Nobel laureate and organised and funded by the city of Dortmund, on 10 September.

But in a statement on Wednesday, organisers said the jury had reversed its decision to honour Shamsie, and that the 2019 award would not be handed to any author, with the next winner to be announced in 2021.

"With its vote for the British writer Kamila Shamsie as the winner of the Nelly Sachs Prize 2019, the jury honoured the author's outstanding literary work.

"At that time, despite prior research, the members of the jury were not aware that the author has been participating in the boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014," the statement said.

Kamila Shamsie condemned the decision in a statement sent to MEE by email, and said she was saddened that the jury had bowed to pressure.

"In the just-concluded Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex up to one third of the West Bank, in contravention of international law, and his political opponent Benny Gantz’s objection to this was that Netanyahu had stolen his idea; this closely followed the killing of two Palestinian teenagers  by Israeli forces - which was condemned as ‘appalling’ by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process," she said.

"In this political context, the jury of the Nelly Sachs prize has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a non-violent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government.

"It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression; and it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust."

Shamsie told MEE that she asked Dortmund’s city council to include her statement in their official press release, but they refused.

German city reviewing prize for UK author Kamila Shamsie over support for BDS
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The Nelly Sachs Prize is a biennial award given to a writer whose work celebrates "tolerance, respect and reconciliation", with winners receiving 15,000 euros ($16,500) in prize money.

In May, the German parliament passed a motion condemning the BDS movement as antisemitic. It accused BDS of utilising "patterns and methods" used by the Nazi movement during the Holocaust.

The BDS movement, which was founded in 2005 by Palestinian activists, responded by accusing Germany of "complicity in Israel's crimes of military occupation, ethnic cleansing, siege and apartheid".

Aamer Hussein, a British-Pakistani storyteller and novelist and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, told MEE that he is totally in agreement with Shamsie's principled stand.

"She has always been a writer and public intellectual of exemplary integrity, honesty and moral courage, and I am quite frankly amazed that any prize should be withdrawn from a writer for her defence of human rights," Hussein told MEE.

"However, the loss is ultimately theirs, not hers," he added.

Last week, Dortmund city council announced that the jurors were rethinking their decision followed a post on the right-wing Ruhrbarone political blog about Shamsie's support for BDS.

Ruhrbarone has previously been accused by pro-BDS activists of calling for a "genocide against Palestinians" after tweeting an image in November which called for Gaza to be transformed into an open-cast mine with the hashtag #IsraelUnderFire. The tweet was subsequently deleted.