• The Hub

    News, Notes, Talk

    Canadian writers call on Scotiabank to divest from Israeli arms manufacturer.

    Dan Sheehan

    April 4, 2024, 3:04pm

    “We refuse to let our work distract for even a second from the filthy business of war. To use language that will be familiar to a bank: it’s not worth it. We won’t be bought. There isn’t a book or a film or painting here that is worth the slaughter of a single civilian there.”

    –Noor Naga


    A group of Canadian writers, artists, and film makers have banded together to demand that major arts funder Scotiabank divest from Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems.

    Last Tuesday, March 26, a coalition of culture workers and activists—including representatives of Film Workers for Palestine, Writers Against the War on Gaza, Artists Against Artwashing, and CanLit Responds—gathered in the rain around the corner from Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto to announce the launch of No Arms in the Arts, a multi-pronged campaign targeting programs sponsored by the Canadian financial institution (which include the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most high-profile literary award, as well as the Hot Docs Film Festival and the Toronto Biennial of Art).

    Despite quietly selling almost a fifth of its shares in the last quarter of 2023, Scotiabank remains the largest individual foreign shareholder of Elbit Systems stock. As Israel’s biggest arms company, Elbit produces 85% of the Israel Defense Force’s land-based equipment as well as 85% of the drones used by the Israeli Air Force. In operations in Gaza and the West Bank, Elbit’s drones have been reportedly involved in multiple incidents involving civilian deaths.

    In the last six months, the Israel Defense Force has killed over 31,819 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as well as 382 Palestinians in the West Bank.

    Elbit has been a primary target of the BDS movement, and of pro-Palestine demonstrations around the world, for years, resulting in a number of major financial and investment organizations (as well as national pension funds) divesting their interests in the company. In 2009, the Government Pension Fund of Norway’s ethical council decided to sell the fund’s stocks in Elbit due to the company’s supply of surveillance systems for the Israeli West Bank barrier. At a press conference to announce the decision, Minister of Finance Kristin Halvorsen stated plainly, “We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law.”

    No Arms in the Arts arrives on the heels of numerous protests at Scotiabank offices around Canada, as well as a highly-publicized demonstration disrupting the Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony in Toronto in November. In the days following that ceremony, more than 1,700 Canadian writers signed an open letter expressing support for the protestors and calling for the criminal charges filed against them to be dropped.

    Two of those signees, Noor Naga and Thea Lim—whose novels If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English and An Ocean of Minutes were both finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize—made impassioned speeches at the March 26 launch of No Arms in the Arts.


    Here is what they said:


    “I’m here today because two years ago, my novel was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is worth $100,000. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I understood what this meant. Where this money comes from. What this money is for. We often talk about literature as being inherently political. We talk about the power of language to oppose violence, to name the oppressor, to decenter empire, and when all else fails, to bear witness to injustice. But we also must talk about the book as an object—and the writer as a body—that can be sanitized, commodified and defanged by money.

    Writing is not a solitary profession. We are not just doodling on a page for our own pleasure. In its essence, we write for one another, to ask the difficult questions and to make the threads connecting us visible. The more platform and volume we are given, the more we owe our voices to the silenced and the oppressed. We write on behalf of those who cannot speak and those punished for their speech. Writing is a social exercise and demands the highest ethics. At least, at the very least, it demands that our art is not produced, distributed, consumed or celebrated at the expense of human life. Really, this is the bare minimum.

    At this stage during the active genocide of Palestinian people, what this means for CanLit is that we have a responsibility to ask ourselves and each other: Why is Scotiabank funding the arts? What does it mean that Scotiabank is both the largest foreign shareholder in Elbit Systems and responsible for the largest Canadian award for Fiction?

    We are not so naïve as to think any financial institution is genuinely interested in championing literature. And actually we don’t need them to. It’s Scotiabank that needs us for the optics. Weapons are not a good look, but books? Books are life-affirming. You have to be alive to read and write them. But we don’t need our banks to invest in the arts at all. What we need from them is a commitment to ethical investments. What we need from our banks is that they do not simultaneously fund and profit off an ongoing genocide. We are not asking Scotiabank to lower its stake in Elbit Systems by 80 million as it has quietly tried to do in response to public pressure. We are demanding that the entire 500 million dollar stake is gone. We want a total divestment from Elbit Systems and the arms trade. Until then, as writers and artists across Canada, we refuse to participate. We refuse to let our work distract for even a second from the filthy business of war. To use language that will be familiar to a bank: it’s not worth it. We won’t be bought. There isn’t a book or a film or painting here that is worth the slaughter of a single civilian there. Let alone 30,000 civilians. This is not how we value art.”

    –Noor Naga



    “I’m glad to be here with you all today. Since last October I’ve been working with other authors, artists, and my neighbours to form a critical mass, to say it can’t be business as usual in a genocide, and certainly not in CanLit, when lead sponsors like Scotiabank invest in genocide, and then invest in us to wash away their complicity. And I often wonder: why am I doing this? Why risk relationships and connections I have worked for years to create, alienate people, alienate literary organizations, especially the ones who gave me my career, and to whom I am still grateful? Is there not a more agreeable way to show solidarity?

    The truth is, sometimes, being an artist, being a writer, is embarrassing. We are constantly aware our work has little to no financial value, which in our culture’s eyes might translate to no value at all. And because the precarity of our work has conditioned us to chase what little bits of livelihood we can, we might feel like, who cares what writers have to say? Who cares what artists have to say? And certainly people who don’t agree with what we are doing right now will say just that.

    But here today, we remind each other that the arts industries are nothing without artists. This meager platform of ours actually has great weight, if we stand together and recondition ourselves to find meaning in our collective power. Our prizes, our festivals, will not be worth anything without us, if we will not participate until our funders cease mingling art with Israel’s arms manufacturing. Because if I do not show solidarity with Palestine at this moment, while Palestinians are starving, are being bombed, and are being shot, with weaponry that is tied to arts funding that I have received, then everything I have ever written: whether it was a piece of cultural criticism about the white gaze, a silly tweet about micro aggressions, or the whole novel I wrote about trying to maintain your humanity within a dehumanizing system: it has no meaning. It’s meaning is evacuated if I do not stand up now. If your work is about human rights, racism, marginalization of any kind, if it is concerned with power, who has it, who doesn’t, or even if the art you make is simply about the beauty and the worth of life, then if we don’t stand up now, all the words we’ve written are empty.

    I wish to take back my art, to say to our funders, no, you cannot take away its meaning. And what I have learned these past few months since the disruption of the Giller gala to spotlight Scotiabank’s investment in Elbit, and the author campaign to push for Scotiabank’s divestment from Elbit, is that it actually works when artists stand together. It actually isn’t embarrassing to be an artist after all. We do have power, and we know our collective power will work. Our collective refusal to collude with genocide by accepting funding tied to arms manufacturing will work, and it will work because it already has.”

    –Thea Lim

  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

    %d bloggers like this: