Over 100 Writers Call on PEN American Center to Reject Israeli Government Sponsorship

USACBI is an organizational signatory of this letter, hosted by Adalah NY:

New York, NY, April 5, 2016 – In a letter made public today over 100 writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford, and Alice Walker, and award-winning author Louise Erdrich, have called on the PEN American Center “to reject support from the Embassy of Israel” for PEN’s annual World Voices Festival. The seven-day Festival takes place from April 25 to May 1 in New York City. In promotional materials, PEN lists the Israeli Embassy as among the “Champions” of the Festival, and as a sponsor of one of the Festival’s panels.

The letter asserts, “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.” The letter was sent to PEN privately on March 29 by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, with 62 individual and 11 organizational signatories. The list of signers has since grown to more than 100 individuals.

In addition to Díaz, Erdrich, Ford and Walker, other prominent writers who have signed the letter include Palestinian writer Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh, whose imprisonment without charge by the Israeli government was criticized by PEN International; writer and activist Angela Davis; American writers Russell BanksDeborah Eisenberg and poet Eileen Myles; Palestinian-American novelists Susan Abulhawa and Randa Jarrar; former President and Vice President of English PEN Gillian Slovo and Kamila Shamsie; Egyptian British author Ahdaf Soueif; and South African writers Dr. Don MaterraRonnie Kasrils and Breyten Breytenbach. Thirteen participants at the World Voices Festival have signed the letter, including Laura Flanders, Saleem Haddad, Laila Lalami, Solmaz Sharif, Yuri Herrera, Jordan Camp, Christina Heatherton, Arun Kundnani, Maaza Mengiste, Burhan Sönmez, Francisco Goldman, Jennif(f)er Tamayo, and Linh Dinh. Two other participants signed the letter and withdrew from the Festival.

Author Alice Walker commented, ”I signed the letter because, as a PEN member, I want this organization that is supposed to be a champion of writers’ rights to stand up for Palestinian writers, academics, and students who are suffering under a repressive Israeli regime that denies their right to freedom of expression. The last thing PEN should be doing is partnering with and promoting a government that denies Palestinians basic human rights.”

The letter is the latest effort to expose Brand Israel, a government public relations initiative launched in 2005 that uses cultural productions to distract from Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights. Following a major Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009, the deputy director general for cultural affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained to The New York Times, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits… This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

A few hours after the letter was sent to PEN American Center, the organization emailed some of its members, justifying its decision to maintain Israeli government funding by citing a policy against subscribing “to cultural boycotts of any kind” and the need to “promote dialogue.”

“Even if PEN opposes all forms of boycotts, PEN should have policies and ethical standards in place forbidding partnerships with significant human rights abusers,” said Marilyn Hacker, Recipient of PEN Voelcker Award for Poetry and PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. “On that basis alone, PEN should rule out a partnership with the Israeli government.”

Omar Barghouti, a founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality, added, “We are disappointed and concerned that PEN is choosing to stand with Israel’s repressive government rather than with a civil society initiative for freedom and human rights. PEN’s response avoided the issues we raised. We focused on PEN’s partnership with the Israeli government and explicitly said we are not calling to boycott or deny the freedom of expression of individual Israeli writers. For years, Palestinians have been told to engage in ‘dialogue,’ but the stronger party, Israel, has used ‘dialogue’ as a smoke screen behind which it ramps up repression and denies Palestinians’ their fundamental rights.”

Novelist Ru Freeman, editor of an anthology on Palestine, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, commented, “PEN American Center’s leadership has repeatedly tarnished the World Voices Festival by accepting the sponsorship of an occupying force that oppresses our Palestinian peers, and refused to speak out against that oppression. The board of PEN should recognize that this violates the foundational principles of the organization. PEN has the resources to fund the participation of Israeli writers—which we support—without compromising its principles by associating with an apartheid government.”

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.

The letter follows:

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 lawwould 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.

Initial Signatories

Organizations

Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel in South Africa (BDS South Africa)
Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within
CODEPINK Women for Peace
Jewish Voice for Peace, National (USA)
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)
PEN Palestine
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)
The Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest)
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)
US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

Individuals

Susan Abulhawa – PEN Member
Ammiel Alcalay
Meena Alexander – PEN Member, PEN Freedom to Write, PEN Women’s Committee, PEN Open Book Committee
Sinan Antoon
Anthony Arnove – assisted with PEN World Voices Festival
Kristian Davis Bailey
Moustafa Bayoumi
Max Blumenthal
Breyten Breytenbach
Carmen Callil – PEN Member
Jordan Camp – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Hayan Charara – PEN Member
Amit Chaudhuri
Ken Chen – PEN Awards Committee, PEN Ten Editor, PEN events collaborator
Molly Crabapple – PEN Member
Ramola D – PEN Member
Angela Davis
Junot Díaz
Aaron Dixon
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Geoff Dyer – PEN Member
Jillian Edelstein
Deborah Eisenberg –  PEN Member, 2015 PEN/Malamud Award, 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award
Laura Flanders – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Richard Ford – PEN Member
Ru Freeman – PEN Member
Marilyn Hacker – PEN Member, 2010 PEN/Voelcker Award, 2009 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation
Saleem Haddad – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Nathan Hamilton
Githa Hariharan
Selina Hastings
Christina Heatherton – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Rachel Holmes – Former Trustee of English PEN UK
Andrew Hsiao – Editor of books/authors featured in PEN World Voices Festival, assisted with Festival
Randa Jarrar – PEN Member
Ronnie Kasrils
Robin D.G. Kelley – 2010 PEN Open Book Award
Nancy Kricorian – PEN Member
Arun Kundnani – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Hari Kunzru – Former Board Member of English PEN
Sabrina Mahfouz
Dr. Don Mattera – 1983 PEN Award
China Miéville
Michel Moushabeck
Susan Muaddi Darraj – PEN Member
David Mura – PEN Member
Ed Pavlic – Published with World Voices and PEN Poetry Series, PEN Member
Vijay Prashad
Alexandra Pringle
Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh – Palestinian author, and subject of PEN International alert when administratively detained by Israeli government
Corey Robin
Alice Rothchild
Sarah Schulman – PEN Member
Kamila Shamsie – Former Vice-President of English PEN
Robert Shetterly
Rick Simonson – PEN Member
Gillian Slovo – Former President of English PEN 2010-2013
Ahdaf Soueif – PEN Member
Linda Spalding – PEN Member
Eliot Weinberger – PEN Member
Dave Zirin – PEN Member, 2016 PEN award judge

Additional Signatories

Total: 51
Seven Stories Press
Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Elmaz Abinader – PEN Member
Hosam Aboul-Ela – PEN Member
Evelyn Alsultany – PEN Member
Hala Alyan – PEN Member
Nicole Aragi – PEN Member
Russell Banks – PEN Member
Omar Berrada – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant (has cancelled participation)
Bill Clegg
Patricia Davis – PEN member
Linh Dinh – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Elana Dykewomon – PEN member
Chike Frankie Edozian – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Ben Ehrenreich
Louise Erdrich – PEN Member
Aminatta Forna
Francisco Goldman – Featured 2016 PEN World Voices Participant
Arthur Goldwag
Christian Hawkey
Yuri Herrera – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Jen Hofer – 2016 PEN World Voices Participant (has cancelled participation)
Fanny Howe – PEN Member
Tania James – PEN member
Lawrence Joseph
Fady Joudah
Dr. Mohja Kahf
Brigid Keenan
Porochista Khakpour – PEN Member
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
Amitava Kumar – PEN Member
Rachel Kushner – PEN member
Laila Lalami – PEN Member, 2016 World Voices Festival Participant, 2016 PEN award judge
Aurora Levins Morales – PEN member
Jennifer Mackenzie
Maaza Mengiste – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Panel Moderator
Philip Metres – PEN Member
Eileen Myles – PEN Member
John Oakes – PEN Member, former Board Member
Colin Robinson
Glenn Shaheen
Solmaz Sharif – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Adania Shibli – 2013 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Naomi Shihab Nye
Ian Singleton – PEN Prison Writing Program
Burhan Sönmez – 2016 PEN World Voices Participant
Russel Swensen
Jennif(f)er Tamayo – 2016 PEN World Voices Festival Participant
Alice Walker
Terry Tempest Williams – PEN member
Alex Zucker – PEN member

TO SIGN THE LETTER:
If you are a World Voices Festival participant, a member of PEN, or a published writer and want to add your signature to the letter, please contact us.

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