Dear Suzanne Nossel and László Jakab Orsós,
It was with great disappointment that we noticed the Israeli government’s support for the upcoming World Voices Festival 2016. Given your mission statement’s opening sentence that PEN American Center works to “ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature,” it is deeply troubling to us to see this partnership with the government of Israel. In the attached letter, signed by 11 organizations and 61 authors, we have detailed our serious concerns with this relationship – concerns shared by such major literary figures as Richard Ford, Angela Davis, Gillian Slovo and many more.
We note that due to what appears to be an html coding error, none of the “Champions” noted on the 2016 World Voices Supporters webpage (http://worldvoices.pen.org/2016-world-voices-supporters) are visible, but they are visible here: http://worldvoices.pen.org/sites/default/files/champions-logo_0.gif. The Israeli Embassy is also noted as a “Champion” for the 2016 Festival in the printed program entitled “PEN World Festival of International Literature.”
We wanted to send you this letter privately at first, as we believe that dialogue on political issues is essential to their just resolution and that PEN American Center should be natural allies with the writers, artists and thinkers currently facing repression in Israel, not supporting the government that subjugates them.
We would appreciate if you could respond to us by April 4th, which is when we would otherwise plan to release the letter publicly.
Ethan Heitner for Adalah-NY
Omar Robert Hamilton for The Palestine Festival of Literature
March 29, 2016
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.
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 (Israeli citizens for BDS)
CODEPINK Women for Peace
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)
The Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest)
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)
US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
Kristian Davis Bailey
Robin D.G. Kelley
Dr. Don Mattera
Susan Muaddi Darraj
Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh
RESPONSE FROM PEN
We are writing because, along with some participants in this year’s Festival, we have received an e-mail from Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. The email asks Festival participants to sign an open letter calling upon PEN to refuse sponsorship support from the Israeli government as a contribution to the PEN World Voices Festival (PWVF). As an activist organization dedicated to freedom of expression, we respect the right of any group to share and advocate for their views. We want to share our approach to the challenging issues raised by the e-mail.
PEN’s mission centers on the defense of creative freedom and the promotion of dialogue that transcends political, social, and cultural boundaries, with the goal of sustaining vital connections between the US and the world. The Festival aims to enable the richest, broadest conversations possible on global issues of shared concern. Societies in which human rights abuse occurs always include liberal voices, and it is part of our work to ensure that those voices are heard as broadly as possible. When confronted with nuanced and complex issues, PEN and PWVF must always fall on the side of maximum protections for free expression. With that guiding principle in mind, PEN does not and cannot subscribe to cultural boycotts of any kind—which impede individual free expression—no matter the cause.
In the dozen years since its founding, PWVF has received funding from many sources, including several dozen governments that have provided individual writers from their own countries with travel and other expenses. This includes the subsidies received for PWVF 2016. The diversity of our funding helps to ensure that programming decisions are our own. It is important to note that national sponsorships of Festival writers do not imply any endorsement of those governments’ policies, and have no bearing on PEN’s free expression advocacy decisions.
As an organization of writers and intellectuals, we recognize that these issues are complex and that individual writers will bring their own perspectives to them. We are happy to discuss this with you further. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions before the Festival, or while you are here with us in New York.
Colm Toibin Jakab Orsos
Chair, PEN World Voices Festival Director, PEN World Voices Festival
PEN America PEN America