In the first weeks of 2019, the award-winning writer had been arranging public appearances the world over to promote his latest work, The Gospel According to Lazarus, in advance of its April release. An old friend, a part-time literary publicist, had taken charge of securing events for Zimler in the UK, and successfully scheduled three appearances in London and Colchester. However, two cultural organisations that were initially “very enthusiastic” about providing Zimler a platform abruptly ended negotiations in extremely dubious fashion “within roughly a week of each other”.
“They asked my friend whether I was Jewish, and when he confirmed I was, they immediately lost all interest. He was distressed, and I was too when he told me. To even ask about my religious faith strikes me as completely outrageous. I’ve run into anti-semitism before, occasionally even holocaust deniers, but it’s never affected my life in this way. It was made clear to him by the organisations they feared my Judaism would alienate Palestinian sympathisers among their clientele and result in protests from anti-Israel activists. I have no affiliation whatsoever with Israel - I’ve not even got family there,” Zimler says.
Despite his shock and upset, the US-born and Portugal-based author decided to keep quiet about his effective deplatforming at first. He tries to avoid confrontation, and would rather not be in the public eye at all unless the attention is specifically related to his literary work - naming either organisation involved would also create “grave difficulties” for his friend’s livelihood, and as a foreigner he didn’t feel entirely comfortable commenting on another country’s affairs.
“I felt it’d be best if I just shut up. I’m no expert on British politics, or British prejudice. Some of my friends there tell me there are huge problems in the Labour party - others say most of what’s being reported is made up or exaggerated ‘fake news’. Some people seem to be experiencing discrimination on a weekly basis, others have never experienced it! Maybe it comes down to who you are and where you live. Still, while it’s difficult to make generalisations, in my opinion - which may not be the most informed - Brexit has seemingly encouraged people to say things they may have thought previously, but weren’t bold enough to give voice to. I know people who lived in Britain for 30 years or more but left because they didn’t feel comfortable there any more. It’s a climate where it’s possible for the first time in a long time to censor writers based on their faith and/or ethnic background,” Zimler says.
Voice of the Voiceless
The author has no regrets about going public, not least because after he wrote an op-ed on his experience for The Guardian, a vast number of people Zimler hadn’t spoken to in years - not all of whom were Jewish - got in touch with him to share their own “horror stories” of being a foreign resident of the UK. For example, a Portuguese teacher told him some parents had pulled children out of her class because she speaks English with a foreign accent. A Chilean he knows who’s lived in the UK for 22 years and is married to a British man has struggled to re-enter the workplace despite having an impressive resume - again, her accent seems to scare off potential employers.
“In the US legal system, when an action is deemed to cause people to hesitate to live their lives freely or exercise a legitimate right for fear of repercussions, it is said to have a ‘chilling effect’. Due to a number of factors, it seems there’s just such a ‘chilling effect’ in Britain presently. But this certainly isn’t unique to the UK of course - all over the world populist politicians are playing the immigrant card, and Neo-Nazism is on the rise, often facilitated at a state-level. In 2017, the Polish government passed a law criminalising public discussion of Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis - violators face up to three years in prison,” he despairs.
Luckily, Zimler’s experience isn’t that important for him personally or professionally in the scheme of things - he’ll continue to write books, and many other countries in the world will continue welcome them, and him, with open arms. He’s far more concerned about other artists born or residing in the UK who may find themselves effectively blacklisted due to fear of repercussions - a reflection of his people-first philosophy, which permeates his literary oeuvre.
“I always endeavour to give voice to people who at various point in history have been silenced by prejudice, bigotry or hatred. I myself have been very critical of the Israeli government, in particular over its construction of Jewish colonies in the occupied territories. I would very much prefer to have a government that seeks to establish peace, limit conflict, and treat all its citizens fairly - not just in Israel, but everywhere. Ironically, I’ve been called a self-hating Jew, but I don’t take those accusations very seriously at all. I completely support those who protest Netanyahu’s policies, wherever they are - but something has clearly gone seriously wrong when cultural organisations become afraid of hosting events for writers,” Zimler concludes.