Free expression group PEN America gets sponsored by apartheid Israel

Suzanne Nossel speaks at PEN’s gala dinner in New York this week. (Pen American Center/Flickr)

Literature fans who respect Palestinian rights will have been disturbed to find Israel listed among sponsors of this week’s PEN World Voices festival in New York.

The “embassy of Israel” was named on the festival’s sponsors page as a “patron” and also appears on an individual events page as a fully-fledged “sponsor.”

Some of these events, and the festival more broadly, feature a number of prominent supporters of Palestine, including writer and academic Teju Cole, novelist and Armenian heritage campaigner Nancy Kricorian and Palestinian poet and academic Nathalie Handal. This suggests that the festival had not been entirely transparent with participants about its financial relationships.

Cole and Kricorian’s events, the web pages of which had no direct links to the Israeli embassy, had already taken place before The Electronic Intifada was alerted to the sponsorship issue. Handal, who had originally been scheduled to appear at the sponsored event, disappeared from the listing yesterday.

The festival’s organizers did not respond to a request for comment.

Charlie Hebdo award

American PEN, a division of the international literature and freedom of expression organization, has recently attracted controversy over a gala dinner it held on Tuesday.

Six “table hosts” for the dinner — renowned authors Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi — all withdrew from their roles in protest at plans to award French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with a special award.

A further 200 of PEN American Center’s 4,000 members were also said to have signed an open letter stating that the award overstepped the line between “staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” Those who signed include internationally famous authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz.

Peter Carey, in an email interview with The New York Times, condemned both the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year but also the agenda which the magazine itself espoused, saying; ”A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Director’s pro-Israel influence

The Israeli sponsorship of the World Voices festival suggests views at PEN’s America Center which extend beyond a Western liberal reification of “freedom of speech” over basic values of responsibility and anti-racism.

The association with Israel seems to stem from the appointment of Suzanne Nossel as the executive director of PEN American Center last year. Nossel had previously attracted controversy during her brief stint as head of Amnesty International’s US office. Before that, as her whitewashed biography on the PEN America website puts it, she worked for the US State Department and the US mission to the United Nations and served as a board member of Human Rights Watch.

As a classic example of the “revolving door,” Nossel has brought the influence of the US government to the nongovernmental organizations in which she works — the same groups which have often provided the selective arguments about human rights with which Washington justifies its wars.

She has also been a staunch supporter of Israel. In 2005, for example, she wrote in Dissent magazine that “Longstanding US perceptions of the UN membership as anti-Western, unprincipled, motivated by petty biases, and dominated by a herd mentality stem largely from— and are given continuing basis by —the body’s history of anti-Israel conduct … Israel became something like the proverbial friendless kid in a schoolyard, always attacked and in need of constant help.”

While working for the State Department in 2011 she reasserted her views, saying: ”At the top of our list is our defense of Israel, and Israel’s right to fair treatment at the [UN] Human Rights Council. This is the most challenging issue we face.”

And in 2012, she rejected the Goldstone report, the findings of a UN investigation into Israel’s slaughter in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, saying that the paper put “the most negative possible spin that you could put on Israeli behavior … It draws a series of inferences about Israel’s motives and behavior that are simply not supported by the facts … We do take exception to that.”


Nossel’s stint with Amnesty International’s US office was the subject of considerable criticism from human rights and justice campaigners, including at The Electronic Intifada, where David Cronin commented that “she had been a deputy assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton. Under Nossel’s leadership, Amnesty whitewashed the invasion of Afghanistan by hosting a conference praising NATO’s ‘progress’ in that country. The guest of ‘honor’ at that event was Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state who declared that killing as many as 500,000 children in Iraq by depriving them of essential medicines was a price worth paying.”

She is said to have “resigned unceremoniously” after protests from Amnesty staff and donors about the organization’s support for the US invasion of Afghanistan during her leadership.

It is therefore unsurprising that her switch to PEN American Center has also attracted severe condemnation. One PEN member, Chris Hedges, a veteran journalist, canceled his appearance at a PEN event and resigned from the organization with a letter which accused Nossel of failing to oppose Israeli abuses as well as torture and extra-judicial killing by the US and its allies. Going on to call Nossel “utterly unfit to lead any human rights organization,” Hedges said:

This appointment makes a mockery of PEN as a human rights organization and belittles the values PEN purports to defend. I spent seven years in the Middle East, most of them as the Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times. The suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the plight of those caught up in our imperial wars in countries such as Iraq are not abstractions to me… I hereby resign from PEN. I will wait until the organization returns to its original mandate to defend those who are persecuted, including those within the United States, before returning to the organization.

Other critics have pointed out that, just as Amnesty’s failure to support US whistleblower Chelsea Manning while under Nossell’s control, so has PEN America on her watch.

The PEN Charter affirms the necessity for freedom of expression and thought. But members also “pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds.”

Under Nossel, it appears, PEN America sees Israel as a state to be defended despite its repression of Palestinian expression and rights, while those who confront the US government’s warmongering are met with silence and a cold shoulder.




It's no secret that Israel has been steadily gaining input and position in NGOs and literary and political groups and using those positions to exert influence toward positions favoring Israel. It's been part and parcel of a deliberate campaign to cement into place support for Israel, especially in the USA and western countries.


I liked Sarah's article, and agree. However, I must register an objection to tarring human rights NGOs as "the same groups which have often provided the selective arguments about human rights with which Washington justifies its wars." This is simply not correct. All you have to do is peruse the reports and condemnations offered by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to see otherwise. As Sarah rightly notes afterwards, Nossel's role and leadership of Amnesty USA was "the subject of considerable criticism from human rights and justice campaigners, and Amnesty staff resigned over her policies while there. So why cast broad-brush doubts on human rights groups generally when it's her policies that are problematic? I would condemn Amnesty USA primarily for being stupid enough to hire her in the first place!


Why was it "stupid enough to hire Nossel" when her Amnesty International, you claim, did nothing wrong? Now Nossel pops up at NGO PEN, secretly accepts money from Israel and again uses her one-sided arguments as policy -- those from her Obama-govt job no less, as I have described in my 14:23 comment below. And you claim there is no selectiveness?

For uneven language by HRW, where Nossel has not been active (as far as we know), I will link to a January 2009 post where the blogger notes that *for a change*, HRW uses even language for both parties because well one party cannot be left unmentioned this time (HRW did select a sanitized language for this occasion).


Very important perspective, not covered anywhere else that I have seen. This person's history as a persistent defender of Israel, no matter what, even against the Goldstone report, disqualify her as a human rights defender in any NGO.


​The Charlie Hebdo controversy and apparent Israeli diplomatic support in the form of moneys of a gala affair to raise funds for PEN are separate issues I wouid say, as is whether or not Ms. Nossel's past Governmental or semi-goverenmenat postions automatically disqualify her as Executive Director , which is a managerial position & not to be confused with the PEN presidency. What the "intifada" site does is to perform an act of extreme guilt by association, although I would have certainly disagreed with some of Ms. Nossel's actions prior becoming executive director, at least as portrayed by Intifada. Best as I can tell accepting Israeli support for PEN is not on the same order. I expect PEN would also have accepted support from the PLO, if not from Hamas, but who knows. I am ex-officio Executive Committe 70s & during my time these matters would have been discussed and agreed upon uinder those auspices. http://analytic-comments.blogs...


So PEN secretly accepts money from a government and aligns with that government's PR, but gratuitously you disconnect that from the issue. Then you 'conclude' that this site is creating "guilt by association". You could start a magicians show in Las Vegas. (This while you disagree with "some" of Ms. Nossel's "prior actions" - aren't you a bit overly specific here?).

Nobody said Nossel's earlier positions "automatically" disqualify her for an NGO post. You are inventing this 'argument' yourself (aka a strawman). It is her *deeds* both in govt and in AI that show that Nossel practices a policy unfit for an NGO. Now at PEN she does the same. She is not just serving coffee as you suggest.


is, who hired Nossel for PEN? And why? What on earth qualifies her for this position?


Quite obviously Susan Nossel was extremely qualified, at least from her managerial exerience, to oversee the administration of PEN. The executive committee, however it is constituted these days, this link ougth tell you
will have made that decision after considering other candidates.


"Quite obviously Susan Nossel was extremely qualified, at least from her managerial exerience, to oversee the administration of PEN." How do you know this?

Why not: "The PEN hiring committee was mislead while sleeping, and had not noticed her earlier political activities and duplicity. Meanwhile Nossel was shoehorned into this post by politically driven manipulators, including herself". Proof for this mismanagement is that six out of 60 table hosts pulled out after discovering her 'managing' the Award. Also, accepting money from a government was kept secret. Estranging 200+ members of your organization, by being secretive at that, should make the committee scratch their heads, after waking up.


I dont see the point in replying since my other replies are being censored, e.g. see below. But I';ll give it one more try. However the imputation that the likes of those listed below are dunces asleep at the wheel merely shows me your misguided attempt to make Ms. Nossel responsible for a decision that was reached by the board.
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Executive Vice-Presidents
John Troubh
Ron Chernow
Victoria Redel

Maria Campbell

Roxana Robinson

Susan Bernofsky
Anne Burt
Morgan Entrekin
Wendy Gimbel
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
Claudia Menza
John Oakes
Christian Oberbeck
Tess O'Dwyer
Hannah Pakula
Walter Pozen
Theresa Rebeck
Susanna Reich
Hamilton Robinson, Jr.
Esmeralda Santiago
Elissa Schappell
Rose Styron
Annette Tapert
Lynne Tillman
Monique Truong
Danielle Truscott
Davis Weinstock

General Counsel
Leon Friedman General Counsel

(​As to "blasphemy forbidding governments", fortunately I can only say Muslim governments are the only ones, except possibly the "Holy Sea" in whose small actual domain you probably ought not to. And but for certain Christian and Hebraic fundamentalists, the overwhelming majority of "vigilantes" are , currently, Muslim too. Thus Ms. Nossel's experience in political world and in government, I would hold, is of great benefit to PEN, although, as I have mentioned before, her position is administrative, not that that becomes a muzzle, as it evidently has not. Incidentally, THE NEW REPUBLIC has an interesting piece by Jeet Heer on the aesthetic quality of the CH cartoons.​)


As if Saudi royals are not the best pals of USA (Zionists).
As if "experience" in getting money from Zionist colonizers is just OK, esp for "freedom of speech".
Zionist colonizers of Palestine not only murder Palestinians for speaking against Zionist colonization, but also have a state censure of media (official).
USA ruler are persecute free speech (by wistleblowers, for ex) 24/7
But I got it - it is "Muslims" who are to blame. Not imperialist war criminals, not Zionists, not their local lackeys.


Again you are injecting your own ideas for PEN's arguments: "I can only say Muslim governments are ...", "the overwhelming majority". (btw, what exactly is "Muslim governments"? With all this, I'm glad I don't have to read and understand your "censored" posts).

Suzanne Nossel wrote the letter (I linked to in my 14:23 post) herself, arguing in the "I" (1st person) form. Also, back to this article: it is explicitly her job to inform the invited writers (like Nathalie Handal) about the State of Israel's involvement. In keeping this secret, Nossel was misleading and duplicit to all PEN members.


In the recent, well-published PEN-Award controversy, Suzanne Nossel replied in writing to one opposing writer and PEN-member (Deborah Eisenberg). In an off-topic reply, Nossel explicitly refers to her time and policy at the US Foreign Office. She described how she was after the blasphemy-forbidding governments -- Muslims only that is:

"We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. Such assaults come both from governments and from vigilantes, and they are not acceptable in either context. [...]. I worked on this issue for more than 18 months as an official of the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. At the time, certain delegations, led by Pakistan, were waging a powerful global campaign to try to secure an international treaty banning the so-called defamation of religion."

I note that she zooms in on "the Muslim world" (In itself a bigoted concept and approach, this for the US adminitration). She says she imported a policy directly from the US govt (now it is an argument for this awarding Charlie Hebdo, straight from the Clinton office!). She stresses that Charlie Hebdo is awarded to get rid of blasphemy-laws (but of one religion only). Her mix-up of governments and 'vigilantes' does not apply to the CH situation at all (for *her* case, unless she wants to implicate the French govt.). And note that this topic of blasphemy is not referred to in Eisenberg's original letter at all.

So, when moving to PEN she took her old anti-Muslim-only agenda and used it for the CH Award. CH was not in it, it was the desecration of Korans in Guantanamo (SN, was that free speech too?).


I am in favor of a state of Israel and in favor of democracy centered sustainable human rights


The state of Israel is not in keeping with democratic principles. The state of Israel is not in keeping with basic human decency and therein lies the conflict in your post.

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.