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What are the antisemitism claims linked to Annie Ernaux?

Suzanne Cords
October 11, 2022

The 2022 laureate for the Nobel Prize for literature has supported the anti-Israel boycott movement, BDS, on many occasions. Is Annie Ernaux antisemitic or simply a vocal critic of Israel's policies?

Annie Ernaux
Nobel Prize winner Annie ErnauxImage: Christoph Hardt/Future Image/imago images

Just a few days after being showered with praise for winning the Nobel Prize for literature, French author  Annie Ernaux is now making headlines for her "dark side," as German tabloid paper Bild put it. News magazine Spiegel also reports on accusations of antisemitism, based on an initial article in the Israeli Jerusalem Post, which reveals Ernaux's closeness with the BDS movement.

An acronym for "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions," the BDS movement aims to put Israel under international pressure to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

BDS activists accuse Israel of colonialism and compare it to South Africa during apartheid. They are therefore trying to isolate the country economically, culturally and politically.

Those who accuse BDS of being antisemitic point to statements of leading activists who deny Israel's right to exist, such as: "Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine," said BDS co-founder, Omar Barghouti.

One of the most prominent supporters of the movement is Roger Waters.

Ernaux supports BDS views

The Jerusalem Post reports that in 2018, Annie Ernaux signed a letter with 80 other cultural figures stating that the Israeli state was represented too positively in the French media. "It is a moral obligation for any person of conscience to refuse the normalization of relations with the State of Israel," the letter said.

Barbara Vinken
Barbara Vinken: Ernaux cannot be called antisemiticImage: Elmar Kremser/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

Again, in May 2019, Ernaux and more than 100 other French artists signed a letter demanding a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest, taking place in  Tel Aviv that year. They called upon French TV broadcasters to abstain from airing the popular competition.

Two years later, Ernaux signed "A Letter Against Apartheid," in which Israel was compared to South Africa's apartheid regime. The letter denounced Israel's politics in the Gaza strip as well as Israeli attacks on Arabs and Palestinians. In its article on the Nobel Prize-winning author, the Jerusalem Post claims that the letter does not give proper background on who initiated tensions that led to fierce fighting in May 2021.

BDS has a wide network

Ernaux's political views, including her close support for BDS, are not a secret in France, says Barbara Vinken, professor for French literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. In France, people accept her views as freedom of opinion.

"But one needs to probably also think that in other countries, the BDS has more support than it has with us [in Germany], also among intellectuals. We in Germany have a special position because of our history, and rightly so. It is clear that we are extremely sensitive towards this issue."

The Jerusalem Post also accuses Ernaux of supporting the call for the pardon for Georges Abdallah, a Lebanese communist, who murdered an American officer and an Israeli diplomat. A BDS letter about Abdallah's case, which Ernaux also signed, describes the murdered persons as "active Mossad and CIA agents" and Abdallah as "committed to the Palestinian people and against colonization."

But beyond Ernaux, a French-Jewish union for peace also stood for Abdallah at the time, Vinken told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. The campaigns "were definitely supported by a really broad and also Jewish public," she said.

Mirna Funk
Mirna Funk is critical toward Ernaux's support of the BDS movementImage: Anna Rose

'No indication of antisemitism' in her works

According to Vinken, Ernaux is condemning Israeli politics in the Palestinian territories; in principle, she stands for an opinion that can evoke popular agreement. There is no reason to accuse the author of antisemitism, Vinken says.

"There is nothing in her work indicating antisemitism," the literature professor said. To turn a public personality's statements against a certain policy into a "death sentence" is unacceptable, she added, referring to the negative press Ernaux has received in Germany and Israel over the last days.

Berlin-based author Mirna Funk has a different opinion, though. The Jewish writer considers BDS to be unambiguously antisemitic. "And I also find people supporting the BDS politically dangerous," she told DW.

Funk is not alone in her opinion. The German Bundestag has also decided in a May 2019 resolution that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel is antisemitic.

Anyone receiving the Nobel Prize and stepping into the public limelight must also accept that people will engage with their political position, argued Funk: "The same happened with [Peter] Handke."

The Austrian author, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2019, expressed solidarity for Serbia during the Yugoslavian conflict and according to critics, trivialized the war crimes perpetrated by Serbian forces.

Ideologies of the suppressors and the suppressed

Like many BDS supporters, Ernaux's political positions are linked to her own background. She grew up in a small place in Normandy, where her parents ran a village shop. Ernaux was the first in her lower middle-class family to complete university.

Until her retirement, she worked as a teacher and used her free time to write about her life: Poverty during her youth, her unwanted pregnancy and her abortion, which was illegal at the time. She also wrote about her sister, who died as a young child, before Annie was born.

Ernaux was always committed to the causes of the left.

"In leftist ideology, one assumes that every relationship, whether personal or political, is based on power relations between the suppressors and the suppressed," Mirna Funk said. The problem between Palestinians and Israelis is therefore interpreted this way too. "From the Palestinian side, one has understood for decades how to stylize the Palestinian as the underdog and that has functioned wonderfully well in the leftist sphere."

Boycotting Ernaux is not an option

Nevertheless, Funk would still read Ernaux's books. "Even if Ernaux supports BDS, I am not in favor of boycotting [her]. I think it is very, very important to separate artistic performance from the artist herself."

Annie Ernaux wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Ernaux is a BDS supporter, but one must make a distinction between artists creating work that is independent of their political positions and artists who are directly producing propaganda material, Funk emphasized.

"Ernaux has not published books on Israelis and Zionists and Jews, but about her own world," Funk said. "Still, one needs to consider that she represents political positions, which can be criticized. But that is the multi-dimensionality of every person. And I think it is very important to be able to tolerate that contradiction."

Among her various political stands, Annie Ernaux applauds the courage of Iranian women currently protesting the regime and also condemns Putin's war on Ukraine.

Reacting to her prestigious award, Ernaux said that she saw it as an invitation to continue her struggle against injustice worldwide: "To get the Nobel Prize means to continue my responsibility," she stated, adding that she felt responsible to be open towards the path the world may take.

This article was originally published in German. It was translated by Manasi Gopalakrishnan.

Update: The article was modified on October 12, 2022, after its publication, to include a quote by a BDS co-founder, and now specifies which conflict is referred to in "A Letter Against Apartheid."