April 26, 2016, New York, NY – The opening of PEN American Center’s annual World Voices Festival in New York City was met with a protest Monday evening focusing on the call for PEN American Center to reject Israeli government funding for the festival due to Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights and freedom of expression. Also on Monday, PEN International expressed “concern” over the festival’s Israeli government funding, saying it would develop guidelines “regarding funding from countries with a poor record on freedom of expression.”
Over 16,500 individuals, including 200 literary figures, have signed a letter calling on PEN American Center to reject Israeli government funding. Letter signers include Pulitzer Prize-winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford and Alice Walker, National Book Award-winner Louise Erdrich, Booker Prize-winner Michael Ondaatje, and writers and activists Angela Davis and Cornel West. In promotional materials for the World Voices Festival, PEN listed the Israeli Embassy among the festival’s “Champions,” and as a sponsor of at least one panel. Outside the World Voices Festival’s opening event Monday evening at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in lower Manhattan, 15 human rights advocates distributed flyers to event attendees highlighting the letter to PEN, and held signs saying “PEN Drop Israeli Government Sponsorship” and “Israeli government is not a Champion of Free Expression.” The response from attendees was generally supportive.
On Monday, PEN International, the organization’s global hub, expressed a commitment to take action on the issue, which PEN American Center has so far sidestepped. Responding to a request for support in opposing PEN American Center’s acceptance of Israeli government funding, PEN International’s President Jennifer Clement wrote in an email to Adalah-NY, “PEN International shares your concern. At present we are formalizing our recommended guidelines for the world’s PEN Centres regarding funding from countries with a poor record on freedom of expression."
In an April 19 meeting, PEN American Center Executive Director Suzanne Nossel told representatives from Adalah-NY, Verso Books and O/R Books that, while the letter raised “legitimate concerns,” there were diverse views on the issue, and being responsive “may take time and space.” Ms. Nossel asserted, without elaborating, that there is a strong reaction against the word “boycott.” In the meeting, Adalah-NY representatives reiterated that the letter and the Palestinian cultural boycott call explicitly focus on the Israeli government and complicit institutions, and do not aim to block the participation of individual Israeli writers, but rather to eliminate Israeli government funding.
Riham Barghouti from Adalah-NY commented, “Many of the people attending PEN American Center’s opening event last night were supportive of the call for PEN to drop Israeli government sponsorship. PEN international has informed us that they share our concern. All this shows that it’s high time for PEN American Center to join the growing voice of the international community and uphold the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel until Israel ends its violations of Palestinian rights.”
The controversy comes as the Israeli government is intensifying its crackdown on Palestinian journalists and writers. According to emailed information from the Palestinian prisoners rights organization Addameer, Israel has currently imprisoned 18 West Bank journalists, seven since the beginning of 2016, including the prominent journalist Omar Nazzal. The Israeli government has also held Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in prison and under house arrest for the last six months.
The letter, originally sent to PEN American Center by Adalah-NY on March 29, 2016, calls on PEN to honor the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel by refusing “sponsorship by the Israeli embassy or any complicit Israeli institution for the 2016 World Voices Festival and for future PEN American Center activities.” Ninety-five of the signers are PEN members, PEN awardees or participants in PEN’s World Voices Festival. 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. Twenty-four writers, poets and translators have provided public statements explaining why they signed the letter to PEN, including 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.
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.
Photos of the Monday night protest at PEN’s World Voices: https://adalahny.org/photo-gallery/1405/photos-pen-world-voices-festival-2016-opening-night