Writers pull out of PEN festival over Israel sponsorship
Charlotte Silver, EI, Apr 8 2016
A letter signed by more than 100 writers, including Junot Díaz, Richard Ford, Eileen Myles and Rachel Kushner, calls on PEN Pindostan Center to reject support from the Israeli government for its annual World Voices Festival, scheduled for later this month in NYC. The letter, which was first sent privately by the campaign group Adalah NY to festival organizers, was published online on Apr 5. Since its publication, the list of signatories has grown. Organizers say they hope writers will continue to add their names. Referring to several instances since 2011 when PEN International condemned Israel’s acts against writers and journalists, including the arbitrary detention of
Plastelinan Arab writer Ahmad Qatamesh, the administrative detention of journalists like Muhammad al-Qiq and the deliberate targeted killings of journalists and media workers in Gaza in 2014, the letter asks PEN Pindostan Center to fortify its criticisms by declinining sponsorship from the Israeli government. The letter emphasizes that in recent months, Plastelinan and Israeli Arab and Jewish journalists and writers have faced “heightened levels of repression by the Israeli government.”
PEN International, founded in 1921 (as just PEN, “Poets, Essayists and Novelists” – RB), identifies itself as both a human rights and literary organization. It says it was the “first organization to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable.” But its Pindosi affiliate, PEN Pindostan Center, has staunchly defended its relationship with the Israeli government. In a letter disseminated to its members, World Voices Festival chair Colm Tóibín and director Jakab Orsos write:
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 Pindostan and the world.
The organization “must always fall on the side of maximum protections for free expression,” the letter adds. According to PEN Pindostan Center, the funds from the Israeli consulate in NY go only towards travel expenses for Israeli writers who participate in the festival. The Israeli consulate has sponsored individual writers on and off since 2006, PEN Pindostan Center spox Sarah Edkins told EI. PEN’s letter reiterates the organization’s opposition to cultural boycotts, which it first established in 2007, writing that boycotts “impede individual free expression.” Two translators, Omar Berrada and Jen Hofer, withdrew their participation from the festival following PEN Pindostan Center’s response. Alex Zucker, a translator of Czech literature and a member of PEN Pindostan Center, told EI that it was only after he read the response from Tóibín and Orsos that he decided to sign the letter. Zucker said:
The official public response from PEN Pindostan Center failed to engage the questions that Adalah NY was raising. Instead, they just presented a sort of blanket statement against cultural boycott because it impedes individual expression, but Adalah NY’s letter didn’t call for that. The letter was a request for PEN not to take Israeli government money to support the participation of Israeli writers. PEN did not respond to that request.
John Oakes, co-publisher of OR Books, told EI:
I think maximizing freedom of expression would be not taking money from an entity that has participated overtly in suppressing freedom of expression. I think that it’s great that the boycott movement called this to the attention of the literary community, and it’s up to us to act on it. We can bring Israeli writers and we can do it without the money of a bigoted government. The World Voices Festival is a valuable institution. To be able to call yourself a sponsor of the festival is a privilege. The question is does PEN want to give the Israeli government that badge of honour? I think with just a little reflection people will see it’s not a good idea.
PACBI specifically targets cultural products and events that are directly funded by official Israeli bodies and that serve to rebrand Israel’s image abroad. It does not call for a boycott of cultural producers just for being Israeli. In 2005, the Israeli government launched the Brand Israel campaign in an aggressive attempt to burnish the country’s image by promoting its cultural, technological and consumer exports. When Israel’s public image suffered in 2009 after its invasion of Gaza that left more than 1,400
Plastelinans Arabs dead, Arye Mekel, the deputy director general for cultural affairs at Israel’s foreign ministry, told the NYT:
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.
Executive director of PEN Pindostan Center Suzanne Nossel and president Andrew Solomon sent another letter to the signatories thanking them for their opinions. After directing them to PEN Pindostan Center’s 2007 statement against cultural boycotts, they wrote:
We can never hope to achieve unanimity across our ranks, and always welcome dissent and debate.
Nossel began her tenure as executive director of PEN Pindostan Center in 2013, after completing stints at the State Dept and AI Pindostan. During those years she established herself as a stalwart advocate for Israel and Pindo militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shortly after she stepped down from her position as Deputy Asst Sec State under Hillary from 2009 to 2011, Nossel spoke at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, where she discussed how she worked to normalize Israel within the UNHRC. Nossel boasted that during her two-year tenure, the number of resolutions criticizing Israel was reduced from 56% of the country-specific resolutions to 30%, and sessions focusing on Israel were eliminated altogether. Nossel also claimed responsibility for winning the appointment of an Israeli academic to the HRC’s consultative group. Nossel said:
We have worked very closely with Israel on the ‘positive agenda.’ That means bringing Israel’s skills, values and know-how to the UN system in all kinds of positive ways… It was our view that this was part of the normalization process as well and was a piece that could proceed even at a difficult and challenging political moment.
Novelist Ru Freeman, who helped collect signatures, believes PEN Pindostan Center’s close alignment with governments for funding purposes is not appropriate for a literary organization with a mission to promote freedom of expression. Freeman, who recently edited a collection of essays on Plastelina by Pindosi writers, said:
PEN makes it sound like we’re opposed to Israeli writers, but we’re not. We’re on their side. They have to toe a certain line.
In 2015, the Israeli government implemented a law that bars government funding to individuals or organizations who support a boycott of Israel and makes those who do potentially liable for damages. The Israeli anti-boycott law has already had a marked chilling effect on the free expression of Israeli citizens.