New York, NY, April 20, 2016 – A delegation from Adalah-NY, O/R Books and Verso Books held an impromptu meeting with PEN American Center Executive Director Suzanne Nossel on Tuesday regarding the call for PEN to reject Israeli government sponsorship of the World Voices Festival due to the Israeli government’s human rights abuses and suppression of Palestinians’ freedom of expression. The meeting took place in the PEN American Center office in Manhattan after the delegation delivered a letter signed by 12,500 people that called on PEN to reject Israeli government sponsorship for the annual festival, which begins April 25 in New York City. The letter was accompanied by statements from more than 20 literary figures explaining why they signed the letter to PEN.
Though the delegation had not asked for an appointment in advance, Ms. Nossel agreed to meet. While waiting in the reception area, the delegation picked up hard copies of the program for the 2016 World Voices Festival that lists the Israeli Embassy among the “Champions” of the festival supporting writing and free expression.
Ms. Nossel told the visitors that she had read the statements by writers explaining why they believe PEN should reject Israeli government sponsorship. She said the letter and statements raised “legitimate concerns” and that the points were “not lost on her,” and she said there are diverse views on the issue. Ms. Nossel added that being responsive “may take time and space.” When John Oakes from O/R Books suggested that PEN supporters might fundraise to cover the costs of Israeli writers/participants so that PEN could return the money to the Israeli government, Ms. Nossel said PEN cannot consider returning the money, and asserted that there is a strong reaction against the word “boycott.” She did not elaborate on that point.
Allison Brown from Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel commented, “PEN’s public statements have been misrepresenting our letter, as well as the Palestinian cultural boycott call, as restricting the freedom of expression of Israeli writers. We explained again and in person that we are not calling for a boycott of individuals, but of the Israeli government and complicit institutions. We hope that PEN now has a more accurate understanding of the Palestinian boycott call and will not return again to that same argument.”
John Oakes of O/R Books said, “I’m of course disappointed in the response: it seems to me that if the funds were to be replaced, there’d be no harm to PEN, its audience or the participating authors. In fact, it would mark a wonderful coming-together of people united in asserting a commitment to civil liberties. The question here is really whether PEN will continue to allow its good name to be used as a cover by an aggressive regime that makes a practice of defying international law. It would be great if a public discussion on the cultural boycott of Israel were to take place in the coming weeks.”
Phan Nguyen of Verso Books explained that "PEN cannot claim freedom of expression as a defense, as it granted the Israeli government the status of 'Champion' strictly on the basis of financial support for the festival.”
Patrick Connors from Adalah-NY added, “Ms. Nossel acknowledged that we were right to press our case, and we will continue to do so in the hope that PEN will listen to these many members and writers, and will ultimately do the right thing and return the Israeli government funding.”
The letter to PEN has been signed by writer and activist Angela Davis, Pulitzer Prize–winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford and Alice Walker, and National Book Award–winner Louise Erdrich. Writers who provided statements explaining their support for the letter to PEN include Eileen Myles, Fanny Howe, Geoff Dyer, Tom Sleigh, Randa Jarrar, Susan Abulhawa, Deborah Eisenberg, Laila Lalami, Russell Banks, Marilyn Hacker, and past PEN English Board President and Vice-President Gillian Slovo and Kamila Shamsie.
Participants cancelled a World Voices Festival event on The Language of War, saying they “stand in solidarity with this boycott call,” and five World Voices participants have withdrawn from the festival.
PEN American Center, the Festival organizer, is a US branch of the writers’ freedom of expression organization PEN International.In 2015, over 200 writers wrote to PEN American Center criticizing the organization’s decision to give a freedom of expression award to the magazine Charlie Hebdo due to its racist content. Controversy has also arisen in past years over Israeli government sponsorship of PEN’s World Voices Festival.