'If you control judiciary, might as well be Stalinist 1930s'

Protests are altering Israel’s trajectory, says Handmaid’s writer Margaret Atwood

‘The king’ knows that ‘an awful lot of people think what he is doing is wrong’: At Jerusalem Writers Festival, Canadian author talks judicial reform, Handmaid’s Tale, Netanyahu

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Author Margaret Atwood speaks at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony Thursday, March 16, 2017, in New York. (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Author Margaret Atwood speaks at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony Thursday, March 16, 2017, in New York. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author of the dystopian novel-turned-TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale,” isn’t surprised that hundreds of Israeli women are utilizing the vivid visual themes from the book, dressing in red capes and white caps to appear at the weekly protests against the government.

“You’re seeing it in Israel right now because it is a protest against a proposed totalitarian takeover of a democracy, let’s not call it anything else,” said Atwood, speaking Sunday night in a video conference conversation with Julia Fermentto Tzaisler, artistic director of the 11th Jerusalem International Writers Festival, taking place this week.

“You and your situation right now, what it is is… people trying to seize total power,” said Atwood, whose 1985 dystopian novel is set in a near-future New England in a patriarchal world in which “handmaids” are women forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class.

“If you control the judiciary and just rubber stamp for the government, it might as well be Stalinist 1930s,” she added.

Atwood commented that while she’s seen her fictional handmaids appear at other protests worldwide, including in Texas, Argentina and Ireland, she’s never seen as many as have appeared at the various Israeli protests.

“It could have been a short right out of the television series,” she said. “It’s very choreographed and visual.”

File: Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series attend a protest against the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Fermentto Tzaisler and Atwood discussed whether Atwood’s works had been prescient.

“I’m not a prophet,” said the 83-year-old Atwood. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, no one does, because there is no one future.”

That said, Atwood said that Israel’s current trajectory has already been altered by the protests.

“The people in power, the king, he is going to have to take into account that an awful lot of people in the country think what he is doing is wrong,” said Atwood, apparently referencing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Atwood spoke about dystopias and utopias, saying it has become “less and less possible to write about utopias because people believed in them less.

“But now I think we’re seeing some more positive thinking, that totalitarians can be reversed and we can do a lot about the situation of the planet,” she added, referring to climate change — one of Atwood’s favored topics.

Protests are a form of positive thinking that’s needed if people are going to change anything, she said.

Atwood and Fermentto Tzaisler also touched on social media and its destabilizing elements, while Atwood pointed out that every form of communication technology has been destabilizing.

Jerusalem Writers Festival artistic director Julia Fermentto Tzaisler speaks with Canadian author Margaret Atwood on May 7, 2023 (Courtesy Facebook screen grab)

The ancient Greeks were worried about writing, she said, concerned that it would negate the need to verbally recall their history, while subsequent modernizations, such as the printing press, telegraph, radio, television and other communication devices had their pluses and minuses.

“No communication device has been noble through and through,” said Atwood. “And now Twitter; Elon Musk, how good is that and how much is he adhering to his own principles?”

Atwood’s 53-minute conversation with Fermentto Tzaisler was the first of more than two dozen events being held throughout the four-day Jerusalem Writers Festival taking place at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim complex.

Events are taking place in person with visiting writers as well as online throughout the course of the event.

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