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Playwright Arthur Miller Receives Jerusalem Prize and Challenges Israeli Occupation Policy

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2003

Playwright Arthur Miller, the author of such plays as “Death of a Salesman” and “After the Fall,” was awarded the Jerusalem Prize on June 26 during the International Book Festival in Jerusalem.  

Though he could not attend the event, he videotaped a speech which criticized Israeli policies in the occupied territories and argued that the country needed to rediscover its Jewish principles if it were “to restore its immortal light to the world.”  

He declared: “I’ve thought for a long time that this kind of fierce nationalistic anger had to end in self destruction in Israel, just as it would anywhere else, and that it would be disturbing to the country and Jews if one just decided not to mention it, if one believes as I do that it’s literally destroying the identity of Israel in the eyes of the world, and in its own eyes.”  

Though he considered turning the prize down, The Jerusalem Post (July 4, 2003) reports that, “He decided to accept it in part because he wants to have a platform for delivering a message he believes needs to be heard.”  

Miller said that, “I hesitated about it, and then I thought, that might make it appear that I think the Palestinians are totally right and the Israelis are totally wrong. I think both sides have to sit down and look at what they’re doing. Otherwise we’ll have what we’ve got now, where they both think they’re absolutely right. So I thought maybe a speech that mediates between the two positions, or the two attitudes, could be of use.”  

He opposes the settlement policy, he says, because, “It seems to me to be provoking an unnecessary conflict. This was a political issue, it seems to me, and not a military issue, and they made it into a completely military situation. And as such it cannot be solved. For every shot fired there’s another shot coming the other way, and this can go on forever, which is what it seems to be doing.”  

Miller expressed the view that when organized religion ties itself to nationalism, the result is prejudice and violence: “The tendency of any nationalism to either degrade or demonize those who don’t belong to it is very repulsive. I don’t care who you are, but it’s almost universal. If you`re not one of us, you’re less than one. And that way lies war, discrimination, snobbery.”  

In his speech, Miller described Israeli settlement policy as self-defeating, suggesting that Israel wanted to turn the clock back to when it was acceptable for nations “to expand beyond their natural borders. He declared: “The fundamental of my views are simply that Israel has the right to exist, and the Palestinians likewise, in a state of their own. With the expansion of settlements I have witnessed, initially with surprise and then with incredulity, what seemed a self-defeating policy ... the settlement policy appears to have changed the very nature of the Israeli state and that a new birth of a humanistic vision is necessary if the Jewish presence is to be seen as worth preserving. To put it perhaps too succinctly - without justice at its center, no state can endure as a representation of the Jewish nature.”  

Miller concluded: “A nation’s history does count a great deal in determining its future. Jewish history is extremely long and is filled ... with an obsession with justice. It is a terrible irony that, in a sense, the State of Israel today is being attacked by those wielding visionary ideals that were born in the Jewish heart. It is time for Jewish leadership to reclaim its own history and to restore its immortal light to the world.”  

Miller expressed the hope that Israel would become “a peaceful, progressive society like any other,” but that it had become the very opposite: “An armed and rather desperate society at odds with neighbors, but also the world.”  

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, an ultra-Orthodox politician, said that Miller was a “universal dramatist” who had reached his peak more than 50 years ago, and attacked him for sitting on a “literary Olympus tens of thousands of kilometers from here to voice criticism.”  

The Forward (July 11, 2003) notes that, “Lupolianski’s speech was panned by several critics as needless antagonism in a place where a guest was being honored by a book fair, and by extension the city. One guest described the mayor’s response as ‘nationalistic garbage.’ Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli writer on the prize jury, was quoted as saying, ‘It was the jury that awarded the prize and not the mayor, who I don’t suspect is a very literary man. It was a pity the event was so political; it would have been better to speak about the plays.”  

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