Disruptions at two recent awards galas have pushed public division over the Israel-Hamas war into the arts world, a sector long considered at the forefront of challenging those in power, but which also depends on money from the powerful that artists wish to hold to account.
When protesters climbed the stage at Monday’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala holding signs reading “Scotiabank Funds Genocide,” some members of the audience booed, while others walked out as the protesters were escorted from the room. And before Wednesday’s U.S. National Book Award ceremony, sponsor Zibby Media withdrew after hearing that many finalists would declare their opposition at the event for Israel’s assault on Gaza – as 20 authors went on to do.
Since the Giller protest, which protesters and artists alike have said referred to the bank’s $500-million stake in the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems Ltd., three people in their early-to-mid 20s have been arrested. The charges included obstructing or interfering with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.
More than 1,500 people, largely authors and members of the publishing industry, have since signed an open letter calling for the charges to be dropped, supporting a ceasefire, and to “ask that our institutions treat Palestinian civilians with the same concern and humanity” as the more than 1,000 Israelis who have been killed or injured and the 220 captured in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.
The Giller is Canada’s most prestigious fiction prize, and the signatories include Monday’s winner Sarah Bernstein, past winners Omar El Akkad and Sean Michaels, and former jury members including Casey Plett and Waubgeshig Rice.
Mr. El Akkad won the 2021 Giller for his novel What Strange Paradise. In an interview, he said that he signed not out of frustration with the prize, “which has quite obviously changed the entire trajectory of my career,” or its organizers. “This is about my firm belief that dissent is a fundamental aspect of art. If we’re going to celebrate it on the page but condemn it in real life, then we’re not engaged in literature – we’re engaged in role-play.”
In a statement, Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch said that the protesters had shown “disrespect to Canadian authors, and their literary achievements that were made throughout the year.”
But the novelist Farzana Doctor, who was one of the letter’s authors, told The Globe and Mail that it “was important to me, and to all of us who signed the letter, to express that we do not feel it was disrespectful. … The disruption was uncomfortable, but over 12,000 people in Gaza have been killed in the last six weeks; as artists, as humans, we need to listen.”
November is a high season for arts and literature awards. The Sobey Art Award will be handed out on Saturday at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Writers’ Trust of Canada will unveil numerous annual prize winners next Tuesday in Toronto.
Asked how they might respond to any similar protests, the Writers’ Trust declined to comment, while National Gallery spokesperson Josée-Britanie Mallet said that “as always,” it would take “necessary precautions to ensure the safety of its guests.”
The 2023 Booker Prize, chaired by two-time Giller winner Esi Edugyan, will be handed out Nov. 26 in London. Ms. Bernstein’s Study for Obedience, which won this year’s Giller Prize, is also a finalist. A Booker spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about anticipating protests.
At the U.S. National Book Awards last Thursday, 20 finalists took the stage to declare their opposition for Israel’s assault on Gaza and to call for a ceasefire, “to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, particularly children,” finalist Aaliyah Bilal said.
The statement came after publisher Zibby Media pulled its sponsorship of the awards after its chief executive said she got wind of the authors’ plans to, in her words, “promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda.” (Another sponsor, Book of the Month, opted not to attend.)
Corporate sponsorships help grease the wheels of the arts, especially in Canada, and corporate-sponsored awards have long been the norm: “As working artists, we are reliant on these institutions for our livelihood,” the open letter states.
Scotiabank declined to comment directly on the Giller protest, and said in a statement that the Elbit stake was part of a number of funds managed by its subsidiary 1832 Asset Management that it has purchased on the secondary market since 2013. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators also staged a sit-in at the company’s Toronto headquarters Friday.
Ms. Plett, the 2022 Giller jury chair and a past nominee for her short-story collection A Dream of a Woman, told The Globe that “The choice for individual artists is always (if they’re lucky enough to make such decisions) to what degree they want to play ball with those power-and-money-holders to further their careers and work.”
While Scotiabank’s investment in Elbit means that “stakes are heavier,” Ms. Plett said, she added there may be little way to resolve that tension. And, Ms. Plett added, “Knowing these galas, it sounds like attendees were, at best, mildly inconvenienced by the protesters. I can’t muster much sympathy for anyone who thinks the right reaction is to throw those protesters in jail.”
Mr. Michaels, who won the 2014 Giller for Us Conductors, said in an e-mail that, “As a novelist, a Jew, a mere human being, I still try to find a way to hold competing thoughts at the same time: abhorrence for atrocities committed by both Hamas and the state of Israel; solidarity with activists protesting the banks that fund weapons-makers; deep concern over rising antisemitism and Islamophobia; a desire for peace and freedom in Palestine/Israel; and also support and appreciation for [Giller organizers] the Rabinovitch family, who are ardent, generous and have always strived to do the right thing. We can disagree without hating one another.”