Literary festivals have caved to the anti-Israel cranks

A handful of petulant activists and C-list celebs have dealt a hammer blow to Britain’s cultural life.

Jake Wallis Simons

Topics Culture

Want to read spiked ad-free? Become a spiked supporter.

I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to draw up a list of the top 10 bastions of pro-Israel, pro-fossil-fuel establishments in Britain, literary festivals would be furthest from my mind. Yet they have become the latest target of that small band of activists who tend to view Israelis as baby-eaters and Hamas as lovable rough diamonds, and who think the worst crime one could ever commit in this country would be to drive a diesel car.

Yesterday, The Times reported that investment-management firm Baillie Gifford is preparing to withdraw its sponsorship from all book festivals following a furious backlash from a group called Fossil Free Books. Last month, the Hay Festival cut ties with Baillie Gifford after several high-profile attendees withdrew in protest against the sponsor. The reason? Two per cent of the Baillie Gifford portfolio is invested in businesses related to fossil fuels. According to The Times, that tainted smidgen includes ‘stocks such as supermarkets which sell petrol’. About four per cent, the activists claim, is found in ‘companies with direct or indirect links to Israel’s defence, tech and cybersecurity industries’ (although the link to the Jewish State, according to Philippe Sands KC, the lawyer representing the Palestinians at the International Court of Justice, is ‘tenuous’).

Talk about being easily triggered. If this is the bar for boycotts, wait until the folks at Fossil Free Books find out where some of the chips in their iPhones are made, or the Intel processors in their laptops. Yes, they too are made in Israel, the sole liberal democracy in the Middle East. Wait until they discover what ‘intifada’ actually means, when it arrives – God forbid – on a leafy street near them.

But why the literary festivals? These are places where people in late middle-age get sozzled on warm white wine and queue to get their books signed by authors in corduroy trousers. Destroying them accomplishes… what exactly? Will it stop people driving cars? Will it get rid of the Jews?

It will not. Rather, it will further choke the windpipe of free expression in this country, as well as dealing a hammer blow to the already ailing books industry and dumbing us all down even more egregiously. (Perhaps if there were more literary festivals to attend, I wouldn’t be mixing my metaphors.) The punters who frequent these things are pretty liberal to begin with. What benefit comes from depriving them of their intellectual life?

I suppose they are an easy target. Show me a book festival and I’ll show you a host of self-obsessed sub-celebrities and C-list public figures desperate to make some kind of impression on the world, often via the medium of virtue-signalling. Among those boycotting this year’s festivals was Charlotte Church, fresh from hilariously leading a 100-strong choir in a beatific rendition of ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. There was Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, who distinguished herself, if you recall, by producing a report declaring that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was ‘not overrun by anti-Semitism’. She was rewarded for this with elevation to the House of Lords. There was also Nish Kumar, a man who identifies as a comedian, who is achingly right-on and has argued that the British press has a ‘pathological’ and ‘bizarre fixation’ with the ‘transgender community’. The usual suspects, in other words.

These activists only know how to tear things down. It’s not like they are proposing anything to replace Hay, Edinburgh or Cheltenham. They are impoverishing our culture simply for the sake of some crankish ideological fixation.

But the true problem is not a handful of idiots at Fossil Free Books and their vacuous celeb outriders. The problem is cowardice. Imagine if the literary festivals had responded to this display of mass cretinism and bullying by simply flipping the metaphorical bird, or at the very least, maintaining a dignified silence. The whole thing would have blown over. What would Church and Co have done then? Go on a hunger strike? There is no shortage of substandard celebrities and low-grade public figures waiting to fill those vacated vegan Hush Puppies.

Taking a stand would not have been difficult. In fact, the headlines would probably have been full of praise. A new generation of writers committed to freedom of thought would have been inspired. And the festivals would continue to revel in the cash from the likes of Baillie Gifford. Other organisations, from universities to political parties, would have been emboldened, in turn, to withstand the petulant wrath of the phoney radicals and stand up for their principles. Eventually, the activists would get the message and give up. Society would change for the better.

If only! All across Britain, millions of people are crying out for celebrities, politicians and organisations of prominence to show a bit of backbone and stop capitulating to the mob. It’s the anniversary of D-Day this week, for heaven’s sake. Isn’t it time we found a tiny bit of courage?

Jake Wallis Simons is a journalist and the author of Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What To Do About It.

Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

Melanie Phillips and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation


Wednesday 26 June – 8pm to 9pm BST

This is a free event, exclusively for spiked supporters.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today