PEN America drops Israel sponsorship

PEN America is no longer accepting funding from the Israeli government, after five years of accepting such sponsorship for the literary group’s annual World Voices festival in New York, the activist group Adalah-NY has learned.

PEN America came under heavy criticism last year for accepting funding from the Israeli government, which jails Palestinian journalists and writers in Israel and the occupied West Bank for their work.

More than 250 writers, poets and publishers, many members of PEN, had signed an appeal urging the group to end the relationship with Israel’s government. They include Wallace Shawn, Alice Walker, Eileen Myles, Louis Erdrich, Russel Bank, Cornel West, Junot Díaz and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

But PEN America refused to end its partnership with Israel for the 2016 festival, stating that as a policy the organization opposes cultural boycotts because they “impede individual free expression.”

Although the signatories had not called for any writers to be prevented from participating in the festival – only that the festival not partner with the Israeli government and complicit institutions – PEN America had in 2015 endorsed a call for a boycott of an event in Azerbaijan because of that country’s human rights abuses.

In response to PEN America’s refusal to end its partnership with Israel, two translators, Omar Berrada and Jen Hofer, withdrew their participation from the 2016 festival.

The news that Israel would not sponsor the 2017 festival was revealed when Adalah-NY, a New York-based group that helped organize the campaign last year, inquired with PEN America’s director Suzanne Nossel if PEN had reached a different conclusion from last year.

Nossel responded with a list of countries supporting PEN, which notably does not include Israel. She offered no explanation for Israel’s absence, writing only that “sources of funding for the festival change depending on a wide range of factors.”

While PEN America offered no reason for why it is no longer partnering with the Israeli government, Adalah-NY welcomed the news.

Adalah-NY’s Allison Brown called the decision a “victory for the Palestinian-led BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement, which calls on institutions to reject cultural partnerships with the Israeli government because Israel attempts to use these partnerships to legitimize its apartheid rule.”

“Despite this victory, the lack of a public statement and a clear explanation by PEN America, or any formal policy, leaves us concerned that PEN America is leaving the door open to future partnerships with Israel and other repressive governments,” Shalva Wise, coordinator of the Jewish Voice for Peace Artist Council, said in a press release from Adalah-NY. “PEN America should put in place a transparent policy prohibiting partnerships with governments like Israel that routinely violate the freedom of expression of writers and journalists.”

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Suzanne Nossel, currently Director of PEN America, is a former U.S. State Department official. The following is taken from her Wikipedia entry.

"Citing her stated positions on the use of military force in what prominent peace activists view as illegal and unjust U.S. aggression, and her position on the government's treatment of U.S. dissidents, protests from these activists[27] have followed Nossel since her appointment and tenure at Amnesty International and upon her selection to head PEN.[28] Organizers from the feminist peace group Code Pink formed a campaign asking Amnesty's board for Nossel's resignation due to Nossel's support of the war in Afghanistan.[29]

Journalist and peace activist Chris Hedges resigned from PEN in protest of Nossel's appointment. Hedges claimed in his resignation letter to PEN that "Nossel's relentless championing of preemptive war—which under international law is illegal—as a State Department official along with her callous disregard for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and her refusal as a government official to denounce the use of torture and use of extrajudicial killings, makes her utterly unfit to lead any human rights organization, especially one that has global concerns." "

She's also on record as saying of Israel, "It's a place where I feel very comfortable and at home."

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Charlotte Silver

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Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.