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At-Home with Gila Svirsky

2 April 2001
Subject: Letter to Susan Sontag


The Israeli newspapers recently announced that famed author Susan Sontag was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Literature. I would like to share with you the letter (drafted by Yehudit Keshet) that the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace just faxed to Ms. Sontag.

Gila Svirsky

Dear Professor Sontag:

The Coalition of Women for a Just Peace represents nine major Jewish and Palestinian women's organizations in Israel, which have joined together to work for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our principles, reprinted in full below, call for an end to the occupation and a just peace with the Palestinians, as well as the full participation of women in the peace negotiations.

Over the years, many of us have followed your struggle for human and women’s rights. We have considered ourselves your disciples in feminist theory and practice, and have eagerly read your literary works, regarding you as a leader and mentor. For this reason, we were surprised and disappointed to learn that you have agreed to accept the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, to be awarded by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

This prize recognizes not only your outstanding literary achievements but also your activities on behalf of human rights. You may not be aware that Israel is engaged in a wholesale violation of the most basic human rights (freedom of speech, movement, employment, education, health, and housing) in the West Bank and Gaza. You may not know that both Mr Peres and Mr Olmert have been, and continue to be involved in major breaches of human rights whether at the policy level or on the ground. For instance, Mr Olmert has instituted a policy of home demolitions in Jerusalem and has developed the practice of revoking citizenship from Palestinian residents of the city, which in turn denies them the right to health, education and other basic services. He plans to build yet another Jewish settlement in the heart of the Palestinian village of Abu Dis. Such a settlement will serve no purpose other than to try Palestinian patience and expropriate more Palestinian land and water. These abuses and violations are documented by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations and have been the subject of ongoing protest.

We would like to draw your attention to the fact that your acceptance of the prize, and your presence in Jerusalem at the ceremony, is a tacit legitimisation of the occupation, and of Mr Olmert’s brutal policies against Palestinian residents of this city. You would also be causing a serious setback to the feminist movement and to the Israeli civil rights movement as a whole, which is fighting an uphill battle to expose the suffering and despair of the Palestinian people under the occupation and is trying to galvanize Israeli public opinion on the side of reason and humanity.

Professor Sontag, we would like to take the liberty of suggesting that you not come to Jerusalem and publicly explain that you cannot, in the circumstances, accept this prize. We have already seen a slight easing of some of the collective punishments against the Palestinians as result of the protests of the European Community and the US State Department. Many Israelis were also affected by the refusal of the renowned soprano, Emma Kirkby, to carry out a planned concert tour here, a refusal accompanied by a declaration of opposition to the continuing occupation. Alternatively, may we suggest that you use the podium of receipt of the prize to express your condemnation of the ongoing occupation and human rights violations by Israel of Palestinian land and its residents.

The role of artists and intellectuals as leaders and shapers of public opinion can be of inestimable value not only in the short term, but also in a historical perspective. We hope and trust that your voice too will be raised in protest against a cruel and unjust occupation.

The Coalition of Women for a Just Peace

Constitutents of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace:
Women in Black
Bat Shalom of The Jerusalem Link
Engendering the Peace
Mothers and Women for Peace (formerly 4 Mothers Movement to Leave Lebanon)
NELED: Women for Coexistence
New Profile: For the Civil-ization of Israeli Society
TANDI: Womens’ Democratic Movement
WILPF - Womens’ International League for Peace and Freedom
Checkpoint Watch

Principles: Coalition of Women for a Just Peace

  • An end to the occupation.
  • Establishment of the state of Palestine side by side with the state of Israel based on the 1967 borders.
  • Recognition of Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states.
  • Israel must recognize its share of responsibility for the results of the 1948 war, and find a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
  • Opposition to the militarism that permeates Israeli society.
  • Equality, inclusion and justice for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  • Equal rights for women and for all residents of Israel.
  • The full involvement of women in negotiations for peace.
  • Social and economic justice for Israel’s citizens, and integration in the region.


Discrimination in Jerusalem Under Mayor Ehud Olmert

The city of Jerusalem runs several coexistence programs for Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, but on the basic issues of municipal obligations to its residents, Mayor Olmert demonstrates blatant discrimination against Arab Jerusalemites:

Unequal service provision to the Jewish and Arab sectors of the city: While Arabs comprise 30% of the population of Jerusalem, they benefit from only 5% of the city budget. This glaring discrepancy is evident in poorly paved streets, garbage collection in very few neighborhoods, insufficient classrooms, lack of preschool programs, and neglect in many other areas.

Expropriation of Arab lands for Jewish residents: More than a third of the land once owned by Arabs in Jerusalem was forcibly expropriated for the construction of 39,000 housing units on them – every single one for Jews. New housing for Arabs is still woefully inadequate – the housing density is twice as high for Arab than Jewish residents of Jerusalem.

Insufficient construction permits for Arab residences: When Arab Jerusalemites apply for permits to expand their living quarters or construct new homes, their requests are invariably denied or reduced to minimal amounts, while Jewish applications are judged by objective criteria. As a result, Arabs build homes without permits, and then the city demolishes these homes under the guise of “illegal construction.”

Stripping Arab Jerusalemites of residency permits: In what has been termed “silent transfer” by local and international human rights observers, the Interior Ministry in cooperation with the Jerusalem municipality has revoked the residency status of Arab residents in an attempt to reduce the number of Arab residents of Jerusalem. It is estimated that several thousand Arab Jerusalemites have been forced to leave their homes as a result of this policy.

In short, the municipality of Jerusalem, under Mayor Ehud Olmert, engages in discrimination and political manipulation to deprive Arab Jerusalemites of their fundamental rights.

At-Home with Gila Svirsky

Letters from Jerusalem, 2001
Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
Resources and Links

© 2001 Gila Svirsky, Coalition of Women for a Just Peace.

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