An Open Letter to JK Rowling
Thank you for not caving into pressure to boycott Israel.
By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Dear JK Rowling,
Like millions of people around the world, I’d like to thank you for bringing the magic of Harry Potter into our home. We’ve thrown Harry Potter birthday parties, sewn countless Harry Potter Purim costumes and even – the night before our son’s eleventh birthday – forged an acceptance letter to Hogwarts for him in green ink. You created a world where everyone has the choice to be great.
Now you’ve chosen to stand up for what’s right in a different context – to defend Israel from those who would boycott her – and I’d like to extend a huge thank you.
The pressure on you to join the boycott has been enormous. In February 2015, over 700 British writers, film-makers, playwrights, architects, musicians and other cultural figures wrote an open letter – published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper – excoriating the Jewish state, pledging “we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, run masterclasses or workshops” anywhere in Israel.
Since then, pressure to boycott Israel has grown. On October 27, 2015, another letter appeared in the Guardian, this time signed by 343 academics, who promised never to accept invitations to visit Israeli schools, participate in conferences with Israeli universities, “or otherwise cooperate” with Israeli academics.
These letters never mentioned nor condemned the daily terror that Israelis live with. They didn’t mention the recent wave of knifings and stabbings that have killed and injured scores of Israelis in recent weeks. Instead, they offered a simplistic narrative in which Israel is always in the wrong and deserving of scorn.
I imagine that as Britain’s best-known author you were asked to sign these letters too. Perhaps you felt pressure to conform to fashionable thinking and vow to have nothing to do with the Jewish state. But instead, you – along with over 150 other British writers, artists and media personalities – made a declaration of your own, pledging to resist all calls for a cultural boycott of the Jewish state.
“Israelis will be right to ask why cultural boycotts are not also being proposed against – to take random examples – North Korea and Zimbabwe, whose leaders are not generally considered paragons by the international community” you and your fellow artists declared. Instead, as you wrote in your October 23, 2015 letter, “Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.”
One of the things I’ve always liked best about your books is the way you describe what it’s like to feel pressured to follow the crowd, and how you celebrate those who resist and think for themselves.
In your Harry Potter series, the Ministry of Magic and The Daily Prophet mock Harry’s warnings that Voldemort has returned to power; it’s a brave few who make the decision to stand up for what’s right and back Harry. Perhaps that’s why you – and many other British cultural figures, including author Fay Weldon, two-time Man Booker prize winner, Hilary Mantel, and author and Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz – are willing to say no to knee-jerk anti-Israel sentiment, and take a look at the real Israel.
That means looking at Israel and seeing a vibrant democracy in which all citizens – regardless of ethnicity or religion – have a vote. That means seeing a country in which the current Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) is served by 17 Arab MKs (out of a total of 120). In which 28 MKs are women. It means seeing a country in which Arab citizens have served as Supreme Court Justices, as Ambassadors, as television personalities, university lecturers, government ministers, and soldiers.
It means seeing a country in which Emile Habibi, an author and Knesset member, won the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest cultural honor, for Arabic literature, in which Rana Raslan, an Israeli Arab, was crowned Miss Israel, and in which 19 year old Lina Makhoul, an Israeli Arab from Acre, was crowned the best singer in Israel on the popular Israeli TV show “The Voice”.
Looking at Israel means realizing that Israel boasts dozens of newspapers in many languages and enjoys a free, open and privately-owned press. It means seeing that Israel has the greatest number of museums per capita in the world, that it’s second in the number of books published each year per capita, that Israel has the highest concentration of high-tech start-ups anywhere in the world after the US, that many of the items we use every day – including computer chips, cell phones, voicemail, Windows operating systems, pacemakers, instant messaging, and drip irrigation – were all developed thanks to Israeli technology.
Taking a look at Israel as it really is – unswayed by biased calls to boycott her – means seeing a country that in 2015 ranked fourth best in the world to raise children. That ranked first in the world this year as a destination for quality medical care. That ranked eleventh in the world according to the annual World Happiness Report. It means seeing a country that – despite daily calls to wipe it from the face of the earth, despite constant threats of terrorism and attack – manages to remain open, democratic, committed to human rights and opportunity for all its citizens.
After signing your pledge not to boycott Israel, you took some flak for your decision. But you refused to back down, insisting “the sharing of art and literature across borders constitutes an immense power for good in this world” and “reminds us of our common humanity. At a time when the stigmatization of religions and ethnicities seems to be on the rise, I believe strongly that cultural dialogue and collaboration is more important than ever before and that cultural boycotts are divisive, discriminatory and counterproductive.”
In the ensuing storm about your stance never to boycott Israel, you made some pretty strong statements criticizing Israel’s government. Frankly, a lot of Israelis are offended by your criticism. You seem to place much of the blame for Palestinian terrorism not on the relentless incitement in Palestinian textbooks, mosques, TV, and newspapers which has created an atmosphere of bloodlust in which ordinary people have picked up butcher knives to kill Jews — but on Israel instead.
I almost didn’t write this letter because some of your statements seemed too close to those of your fellow artists who bash the Jewish state. But re-reading your letter made me pick up my pen, too. You said no to cultural boycotts of Israel. No to singling out Israel alone among the nations as somehow deserving of scorn. You could have easily sat back and done nothing.
Instead you took a stand and opposed them, stating clearly and publicly that you will not boycott Israel. That was brave.
I think Albus Dumbledore expressed it best: “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”
JK Rowling, you’ve made the choice to stand by what is right, not what is easy. For that, I thank you. And I invite you to come visit Israel to see firsthand the reality of this amazing country which will further inform your opinions about Israel and its policies.
About the Author
Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor. It has been praised as “life-changing”, a modern classic, and used in classes and discussion groups around the world.
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