Human rights advocates welcome the decision by PEN America to hold PENâ€™s annual World Voices literary festival without funding from the Israeli government.
The decision followedÂ a campaignÂ and a callÂ supported by leading literary figuresÂ asking the organization to reject Israeli government sponsorship. PEN America accepted Israeli government support for the World Voices Festival four of the previous five years, and despiteÂ writersâ€™ oppositionÂ in 2016. The leading US free expression and literary organization announced its program last week for the May 2017 World Voices Festival in New York.
PEN America did not, however, offer a reason for the absence of Israeli government support for World Voices in aÂ February 2017 email exchangeÂ with Adalah-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Since March 2016 over 240 well-known writers, poets, and publishers haveÂ signed onto a callÂ for PEN America to reject Israeli government support. They include Susan Abulhawa, Nicole Aragi, Russell Banks, Angela Davis, Carl Dennis, Junot DĂaz, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Naomi Klein, Laila Lalami, Lucy Lippard, China MiĂ©ville, Eileen Myles, Michael Ondaatje, Claudia Rankine, Wallace Shawn, Raja Shehadeh, Gillian Slovo, Ahdaf Soueif, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Jacqueline Woodson. Twenty-two writersÂ explained in more detailÂ why they had supported the call. Over 17,000 other concerned individuals had also joined the call.
PEN International, the organizationâ€™s global hub, has criticized the Israeli government in the past for “the killings and the reported deliberate targeting of certain journalists, media organizations, and their infrastructuresâ€ť and â€śthe practice of administrative detention against journalists and other writers.”
In aÂ February 8 emailÂ to Adalah-NY and JVP, PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel wrote regarding World Voices, â€śOur support this year will come from contributions from a variety of private funders, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Poland.â€ť Ms. Nossel explained, â€śEach year, our sources of funding for the Festival change depending on a wide range of factors.â€ť In a February 17 follow-up email Ms. Nossel added, â€śOur approach to this centers on discussion and deliberation rather than formal policies.â€ť
Allison Brown from Adalah-NY explained, â€śPEN Americaâ€™s decision not to accept Israeli government support in 2017 is a victory for Palestinian rights, and for the Palestinian-led BDS 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. For example, Israel has heldÂ Palestinian poet Dareen TatourÂ in prison or under house arrest for 16 months for a poem, and has jailed Palestinian journalists like Mohammed Al-Qiq and Omar Nazzal without charges or trial.â€ť
Shalva Wise, JVP Artist Council Coordinator, commented, â€śDespite 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. 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. PEN America cannot mobilize actions against the Trump administrationâ€™s repressive policies with one hand, and burnish the image of other repressive governments with the other.â€ť
At least one Israeli writerÂ is participatingÂ in the 2017 World Voices Festival. In line with the Palestinian boycott callâ€™s support for freedom of expression, letter signers called for the rejection of Israeli government support, and not for barring the participation of individual Israeli writers.
After PEN America dismissed the initial appeal from writers to reject Israeli government support, human rights advocates protested at the World Voices opening event in April 2016. Adalah-NY, JVP and writers then continued collecting signatures to the letter, including at several PEN America events this winter. With the 2017 festival approaching, Adalah-NY and JVP asked for an emailed update from PEN America on the status of Israeli government funding.
2017 marks the first time in recent years that PEN America did not list the governments supporting the festivalÂ on the World Voices website. PEN America had accepted Israeli government support for World Voices inÂ 2012,Â 2013,Â 2015Â andÂ 2016Â â€“ making the Israeli government, with the French government, the most frequent governmental sponsors of the World Voices Festival between 2012 and 2016.
Adalah-NY and JVP support the global movement forÂ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)Â to pressure Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law and fully recognize the Palestinian peopleâ€™s right to live in full equality in their homeland.
Letter to PEN America with Signatories:Â /web-action/1450/tell-pen-america-don-t-partner-israeli-government
Email Exchange between PEN America and Adalah-NY/JVP,Â February 2017:Â /document/1460/email-exchange-between-pen-america-and-adalah-ny-jvp-february-2017
Chris Carlson is a student of religion at Mount Mercy University, United States, and has been a regular volunteer with the IMEMC since 2013. He assisted in providing extensive coverage of the 2014 Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip and continues, into the present day, with the issues at hand. He can be reached via email at c h r i s @ i m e m c . o r g.