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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Over 100 Writers, Including Pulitzer Winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford, and Alice Walker, and Award-Winning Author Louise Erdrich, Call on PEN American Center to Reject Israeli Government Sponsorship

PEN Refusing to Drop Sponsorship, According to a Letter to its Members

Media Contact:

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.


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 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.



Rudy said...

Good step in the right direction.

Chuck Olroski said...

Agreed, Rudy!

In W. Jackson Bate, "Samuel Johnson, A Biography," part I, The Formative Years, the author asserts, "One of the first effect he (S.J.) has on us is that we find ourselves catching, by contagion, something of his courage. As Aristotle said, courage is first among the human virtues because without it we are not very likely to practice the other virtues."

I deeply regret that key sectors of American intelligentsia, including internet journalism, failed to summon the courage and rally behind Cynthia McKinney and Paul Craig Roberts on the matter of fully investigating 9/11.

As a result, Americans are passionately voting in presidential primaries today, and they are still being clobbered by the same (contagious) red hot cinders which facilitated WTC-7's self-destruction.

Thank you.

Thank you all, including Mr. Bate!

LJansen said...

Thank you, Linh and all the other signatories to this letter. Sticking your heads above the parapet is causing Israel, stubborn colonizer that it is, to begin the process of transformation to a regime of equal rights for everyone who lives in the area (and those Palestinians who yearn to return).


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.