It’s nice being the People of the Book, but it’s going to get awfully lonely being the Only People With Books.

The Hay Literary Festival, the most prestigious of its kind in the UK, is going through a controversy that may sound the death knell for any such festival that isn’t as prestigious and well-funded. Which is most of them.

“There is not a queue of people waiting to sponsor pluralistic spaces where ideas can be openly discussed,” Toby Mundy, who runs what used to be known as the Samuel Johnson Prize, told the Telegraph.

Mundy was responding to the news that the investment firm Baillie Gifford would no longer sponsor the Hay festival after a sustained campaign by activists claiming the firm benefits from climate change and “Israeli apartheid, occupation, and genocide.” Mundy knows that Hay will survive, but Baillie Gifford is one of the UK’s most important sponsors of literary events and it is clearly in the crosshairs. Anti-Israel activists, who have been on a tear against literary and other arts events in the U.S., have colonized the British arts now as well.

And down go the dominoes, reports the Telegraph, as these anti-Israel agitators “plan to target all the festivals still to take place this summer, but Edinburgh International Book Festival (taking place in August) has today followed Hay and announced that it will cut ties with Baillie Gifford. Most insiders now expect Baillie Gifford to announce that it is withdrawing its sponsorship from all UK literary events.”

Who needs books anyway, right? The supporters of a Gaza-based totalitarian religious cult can surely be trusted to regulate one’s cultural intake. Sally Rooney and Zadie Smith are fine with it, so everyone else should be, too.

Howard Jacobson does not share Rooney’s enthusiasm to serve as Hamas culture minister. “The idea that anybody can come along and say ‘you can’t read this and you can’t read that’… is a desecration,” Jacobson said. “It’s a desecration of books, it’s a desecration of the idea of literature.”

Baillie Gifford objects that while the company does allow clients to invest in Amazon and Nvidia (oh the horror), “practically every consumer in the developed world is using the services of these companies.”

And therein lies the point. Sally Rooney and Zadie Smith aren’t going to pull their books from Amazon. That would be crazy! I suppose, though, that they can sell more books if they punish others for working with Amazon. Plus, there will always be a place for Sally Rooney in the literary world if she and other already-successful writers can pull up the ladder behind them and make it much harder for the literary scene to flourish. But that kind of self-interest isn’t really the point here. The self-interest at play is the one where writers are afraid of losing their existing careers because of the proliferating “anti-Zionist” blacklists surfacing throughout the arts and entertainment worlds.

Jacobson, meanwhile, wasn’t the only one bothered by the anti-Zionism book burners. “It’s authoritarian,” said novelist Joan Smith.

That’s the same word used by PEN America board member George Packer after an anti-Israel boycott forced the cancellation of the free-speech-promoting literary group’s World Voices festival. “We like to think of writers as courageous individuals who believe in free expression without fetters,” Packer wrote in May. “In practice, they turn out to be no more able to resist the authoritarian spirit than most other people—maybe less. In the Soviet Union, many writers denounced their imprisoned friends without being told to. Here, they check their social-media traffic first.”

Packer also makes a related point about why these boycotts/cancellations are more damaging than they might appear to the untrained eye: “It isn’t a pretty sight when writers bully other writers into shutting down a celebration of world literature—especially when big names with the most expansive free-speech rights in the world take away a platform from lesser-known writers hoping to reach an audience outside their own repressive countries.”

Yet another story last week suggests the social pressure campaigns are starting to mutate into out-and-out ethnic exclusion demands, a remarkably bigoted escalation and one that seeks to enshrine anti-Semitism in the industry’s standards and practices.

Vancouver-based artist Miriam Libicki is a widely celebrated graphic novelist whose works include But I Live, a collection of nonfiction graphic novels about child survivors of the Holocaust. Libicki also has Israeli citizenship and has served in the IDF, and for that she has been “permanently banned” from the Vancouver Comics Arts Festival. After this year’s event, according to the Canadian Jewish News, attendees approached the organizers with their objection to the fact that Libicki was permitted to attend at all.

One flier posted by protesters asked “Where is the safety plan and warning for people stepping foot into the festival?” The festival apologized for allowing an Israeli in the building and groveled that it “fundamentally falls in absolute disregard to all of our exhibiting artists, attendees and staff, especially those who are directly affected by the ongoing genocide in Palestine and Indigenous community members alike. Upon examining these concerns and conducts, this exhibitor will not be permitted to return to the festival.”

This is extraordinary. Describing a ban on Israelis this way (and, yes, it is a ban on Israelis, since the country has universal service requirements) is not only discriminatory but it is also pure incitement. There’s no telling where this will go once these progressive institutions have decided that the presence of an Israeli-American is a threat to everyone’s safety. The authoritarian winds sweeping through the West are going to put liberal democracy on its back while its cultural celebrities cheer.

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