Letter to PEN American Center: Don’t Partner with Israeli Government

Israeli government is no “Champion” of freedom of expression

To PEN American Center:

We, the undersigned, including participants at PEN World Voices Festival, ask the Festival to reject support from the Embassy of Israel. The Embassy of Israel is listed among the “Champions” of the World Voices Festival, and as a sponsor of a panel.

Given PEN American Center’s mission of supporting freedom of expression, it is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept sponsorship from the Israeli government, even as it intensifies its decades-long denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people, including the frequent targeting of Palestinian writers and journalists.

In 2011, PEN International criticized Israel’s detention of Palestinian writer Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh. In 2014, Israel launched a 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip that left over 2100 Palestinians dead – including 500 children – and displaced a fourth of the population. During the assault, PEN International condemned “the killings and the reported deliberate targeting of certain journalists, media organizations, and their infrastructures” in Gaza by the Israeli military. PEN International called in 2016 “on the Israeli authorities to end the practice of administrative detention against journalists and other writers,” including the hunger-striking journalist Muhammed al-Qiq. Nonetheless, both Palestinian and international journalists and writers face heightened levels of repression by the Israeli government.

In 2015 Israel denied Palestinian American novelist Susan Abulhawah entry into Palestine, and African American writer Kristian Davis Bailey was racially profiled, arrested and harassed by Israeli authorities when he attempted to visit Palestine. All these incidents are part of a broader pattern of Israel’s systematic repression of Palestinian artists and cultural workers as well as the suppression of voices supportive of Palestinian rights.

Within Israel, Palestinian and Jewish artists say that their freedom of expression is increasingly limited. A proposed new law would make “government cultural funding contingent on the recipient’s ‘loyalty’ to the Jewish state.” Israel’s “Nakba Law” prohibits funding for activities marking the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, deterring Palestinians and Israeli Jews from commemorating their history. According to Human Rights Watch Israel’s anti-boycott law, which makes it a civil offense for people or groups to advocate boycotting Israel, violates “the rights to freedom of expression and association, and punishes advocacy urging businesses to respect international law.”

Since 2005, Palestinian civil society has called on people of conscience around the world to engage in a peaceful campaign of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning (BDS) Israel in order to force it to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians now living under Israeli military occupation, as unequal citizens within Israel, or as refugees, denied their right to return to their homeland. The union representing Palestinian writers, the General Union of Palestinian Writers, actively supports this boycott call.

We appeal to PEN American Center to honor this boycott call and refuse sponsorship by the Israeli embassy or any complicit Israeli institution for the 2016 World Voices Festival and for future PEN American Center activities. Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli government amounts to a tacit endorsement of its systematic violations of international law and Palestinian human rights, including the right to freedom of expression for writers and journalists. This is not, we emphasize, a call to boycott individual Israelis or to deny their freedom of expression. Rather, it is a refusal to conduct business as usual with a state that routinely denies Palestinian freedom of expression with impunity.

As with South Africa, where an international boycott played a crucial role in bringing an end to apartheid, we call on PEN American Center not to partner with the Israeli government or other complicit institutions until Israel fulfills its obligations under international law and fully recognizes the Palestinian people’s right to live in full equality and freedom in their homeland.