PEN’s double standards over Israel boycott

Suzanne Nossel (via Flickr)

Amidst a campaign aimed at convincing PEN American Center to reject Israeli government funding for its annual World Voices Festival that began this week, the literary group and its director Suzanne Nossel have displayed glaring double standards in their approach to cultural boycotts.

When challenged about why the group has accepted funding from Israel, Nossel reportedly told Palestine solidarity campaigners earlier this month that there was a strong reaction to the word “boycott” among her PEN colleagues.

But PEN American Center has publicly advocated that the tactic be used in certain situations.

Just last week the organization tweeted out a letter, signed by PEN American Center, urging singer Enrique Iglesias to cancel his upcoming concert in Azerbaijan.

The Spanish star was urged to protest against human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, including the jailing of journalists.

Similarly, PEN American Center signed a letter to several country leaders in 2015 asking them to make their participation in the inaugural event of the European Games that were scheduled to take place in Azerbaijan contingent on the release of eight journalists and five human rights activists.

While the letter stated it was not seeking a “public boycott” of the event, it did actually recommend a boycott.

It asked the UK and Ukrainian governments to refrain from sending a “high-level delegation” to the games if the prisoners in question were not released.

Adviser to Hillary Clinton

Nossel has not been averse to calling for boycotts in a personal capacity, either.

In 2006, for example, she warned that Iran was “about as frightening a rogue state as can be imagined.” To support that assertion, she noted that Iran was “hostile to the United States.”

Writing on Democracy Arsenal, a website that she founded, Nossel suggested a “sports boycott that would exclude soccer-crazed Iran from the World Cup, akin to what was done for apartheid South Africa and [Slobodan] Milosevic’s Serbia.”

Along with running PEN America, Nossel is what certain media describe as a “volunteer adviser” on human rights to Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign.

Nossel was also a senior figure in the State Department when Clinton was secretary of state.

After leaving the State Department, she headed Amnesty International’s US branch.

Under Nossel’s leadership, Amnesty ran an ad campaign portraying the US-led invasion of Afghanistan as beneficial to that country’s women.

Journalists detained

More than 200 prominent literary figures and 16,500 other individuals have signed a letter criticizing PEN American Center for accepting Israeli sponsorship.

The Asian/Pacific/America Institute at New York University recently canceled its event at the World Voices Festival, scheduled for Friday.

The panel, titled “The Language of War,” was to have featured the poets Solmaz Sharif, Jennifer Tamayo, and Jennifer Hayashida.

All declared their support for boycotting the festival because it had accepted funding from the Israeli government.

The pressure on PEN American Center appears to have been effective. Jennifer Clement, president of its parent organization PEN International, recently promised to address criticisms raised by Adalah-NY, a New York-based group advocating a boycott of Israel.

“PEN International shares your concern,” Clement stated. “At present we are formalizing our recommended guidelines for the world’s PEN centers regarding funding from countries with a poor record on freedom of expression.”

PEN American Center has also broken its silence over recent human rights abuses by Israel.

On Thursday, PEN American Center issued a statement asking the Israeli government to explain why it has jailed the Palestinian journalist Omar Nazzal.

He has been placed in administrative detention – detention without charge or trial – after Israel arrested him in the past week at the Israeli-controlled crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank.

Nazzal was traveling to a meeting of the European Federation of Journalists in Bosnia.

The PEN statement also expressed concern about the detention and prosecution of Palestinian writer Dareen Tatour, who was arrested and charged with “incitement to violence” for a poem that she wrote calling for resistance to Israeli brutality.

Ru Freeman, a novelist who has been campaigning for PEN to cease accepting Israeli sponsorship, told The Electronic Intifada that this week’s statement was made “under enormous pressure” from Palestine solidarity campaigners and the wider public.

“But ​two ​questions remain,” Freeman added. “First, ​will PEN now speak also for ​the many other journalists and writers ​– and we can provide them with a list – whom​ ​Israel has detained​? And second, how can a statement about a government’s​ ​denial of ​the ​freedom ​of speech for writers and journalists be reconciled​ ​with taking money from ​that same government for a festival that​ ​​is supposed to celebrate​ ​free speech​?​”

At least 19 Palestinian journalists are currently being held in Israeli custody and more than 40 Palestinian journalists have been detained since October 2015.

Israel has, for instance, held 25-year-old Palestinian journalist Samah Dweik since 10 April, charging her with “media incitement” based on what she has posted on Facebook.


This week, the US-funded think tank Freedom House changed its ranking of Israel from “free” to “partly free.”

The reason given for the demotion was the increasing influence of Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper, Israel Hayom, which features a growing portion of government-paid content not clearly identified as such to readers.

Freedom House notably excludes from its criteria for its rankings Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – despite the fact that Israel exercises the authority to arrest, imprison and kill Palestinian journalists.

In contrast, Reporters Without Borders does consider Israel’s treatment of those journalists, and consistently ranks Israel in the bottom tier of its world press freedom index.




It's much better that those who want to boycott PEN walk away.
Perhaps a rival PEN without double standards?


While in agreement with what I take to be your disgust over the hypocrisy of Nossel and her team at PEN, to simply walk away without a fight would cede full control of the organization to her clique. Mobilization of members, who on the whole oppose the high-jacking of a worthwhile association, may be the preferable route at present. It could prove very hard to found, fund and promote an alternative group. PEN only achieved a degree of influence after decades of relative obscurity.

Nossel was ejected from Amnesty due to both internal opposition and public criticism, and a concerted effort would make her position untenable in PEN. The problem isn't PEN per se, but a hostile takeover by US government apparatchiks. They can be most effectively resisted from within, where they are plainly unwelcome.


Just reading the names PEN and Suzanne Nossel combined gave me shivers and bad associative memories. So she still is Exec Director of the US PEN? Any simple click*1 confirmed: not fit to lead any Freedom or Human Rights organisation at all.



for pete's sake, nossel is a former employee of the us state department ... what else can we expect than for her ... ?

Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

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.