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Pulitzer winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford, Alice Walker join over 100 writers in calling for PEN American Center to reject Israeli sponsorship

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The following press release was sent out by Adalah-NY:

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 Banks, Deborah 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 Materra, Ronnie 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.

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25 Responses

  1. Marnie
    April 5, 2016, 2:31 pm

    What is PEN American Center?
    PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization. PEN International was founded in 1921 in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War. PEN American Center was founded in 1922 and is the largest of the 144 PEN centers in 101 countries that together comprise PEN International.

    I went to the PEN website and checked the FAQ and this was the first one. If this is one of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organizations, how can it accept anything from the israeli embassy? That goes against everything it claims to stand for! Doesn’t any organization have the backbone to tell israel to get lost?

    • ritzl
      April 5, 2016, 6:09 pm

      Or ANY government for that matter.

      I wonder if PEN does accept sponsorship from other governments, or is Israel the only one.

      Thanks Marnie.

    • JWalters
      April 5, 2016, 6:39 pm

      Just wondering – what are the Las Vegas odds there are some “major donors” behind the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization selling out its principles?

  2. Dutch
    April 5, 2016, 4:53 pm

    Thanks for the info Marnie. The hypocracy – mixing human rights and Israeli sponsorship – is infuriating. In reality PEN acts like a frontshop for the Israeli occupation.

  3. Edward Q
    Edward Q
    April 5, 2016, 7:34 pm

    Chris Hedges resigned from PEN several years ago to protest the appointment of Susanne Nossel as its director. He explains his reasons in this interview:

    • ritzl
      April 5, 2016, 10:37 pm


      Hedges: [talking about Suzanne Nossel and his resignation from PEN] “…The hijacking of human rights organizations to promote imperial projects.”

      How does Nossel, who never met a human right that didn’t look better lying beneath a tank tread, move from liberal interventionist administration, to Clinton advisor, to head of Human Rights Watch, to head of PEN?

      That’s a story that’s maybe bigger than this story. That’s not a criticism at all. The process by which people like Nossel come to be in charge of these humanitarian orgs in the first place (and then give cover to countries like Israel) is the primordial soup of the rightful indignation expressed in this MW article.

      No Nossels, no divergence from historical PEN efforts/advocacy. Maybe someone can do an article about how Nossel got installed to do her dirty work. Her known, historical leadership direction would seem to be antithetical to PEN’s mission.

      Thanks Edward Q. Really interesting.

      • ritzl
        April 6, 2016, 3:31 am

        Just to be clear, the “wow” is because Nossel got to be head of HRW and PEN.

        There’s some major hidden orchestration going on for that to happen.

      • Sibiriak
        April 6, 2016, 5:45 am

        ritzl: How does Nossel, who never met a human right that didn’t look better lying beneath a tank tread, move from liberal interventionist administration, to Clinton advisor, to head of Human Rights Watch, to head of PEN?

        Yeah, it would be interesting to know the actual mechanics of the penetration.

        In any case, much of the “human rights” organizational network had been co-opted into the imperial power structure, if not born into it, and now serves, at least in part, to propagate 21st century mission civilisatrice rationales for Western interventionism. Smart power. Israel included.

      • a blah chick
        a blah chick
        April 6, 2016, 10:26 am

        “…Nossel, who never met a human right that didn’t look better lying beneath a tank tread…”

        My God that beautiful.

      • ritzl
        April 7, 2016, 6:00 pm

        Oops. HRW should have been Amnesty International, above.

        Thanks again Marnie.

    • Marnie
      April 6, 2016, 12:33 am

      Oh my gosh! What a horrible woman. It was cool to see Phil’s piece about her flashed on the screen during the interview with Mr. Hedges. How does this kind of thing happen? It’s like a pedophile being hired at a daycare because they didn’t bother to do a background check. What happened at Amnesty International to allow Nossel’s involvement with them? Yikes!

  4. Kay24
    April 5, 2016, 10:50 pm

    It seems Hillary is not rejecting any help from ex AIPAC members. This is why I will never vote for her. She seems to be making deals with the devil.

    “Clinton spends primary night at NY fundraiser hosted by former AIPAC VP

    Hillary Clinton wasn’t greeting voters at a rally, town hall or diner as votes rolled in from Wisconsin. Instead, she was spending her evening with top donors in New York City.
    She raised at least $60,000 Tuesday night at a fundraiser hosted by Jack Bendheim, the owner of a company that manufactures veterinary health products and nutritional supplements. Benheim, a former vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has deep ties to New York’s orthodox Jewish community.
    The event underscores how costly the primary race has become for Clinton. Though she holds a significant delegate lead, Bernie Sanders has vowed to take his campaign to the party convention in July. That forces Clinton, who’s more reliant on traditional fundraising than Sanders, to criss-cross the country raising funds.”
    read more:

  5. Shmuel
    April 6, 2016, 1:43 am

    Of course not partnering is not the same as boycotting. I find it hard to believe that PEN would not reject offers of sponsorship from the embassy of Russia or China (to cite 2 countries that feature heavily in PEN campaigns). The pat explanation offered by PEN to its members that it is against subscribing to “cultural boycotts of any kind” is thus rather insulting. PETA events are not sponsored by National Beef, and Greenpeace campaigns aren’t “brought to you by Shell”.

    Does anyone know if PEN has ever supported cultural boycotts in the past — e.g. of Apartheid South Africa?

    I was also wondering exactly how the logic of the PEN explanation works. I understand how barring participants from Israel would constitute cultural boycott, but what’s “cultural” about taking money from an embassy?

  6. Sibiriak
    April 6, 2016, 4:03 am

    I was not familiar with PEN, so I went to the web site to check it out. Since I live in Russia and know Russia pretty well, I took a look at what they had to say about that country.

    The first tip off that something was wrong was the repeated use of the misleading and propagandistic label “Putin’s Russia”.

    Then I watched a video of a conference on “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Expression, Creativity, and Culture in Putin’s Russia”.

    As political constraints tighten on free expression in Russia, PEN had the privilege of bringing to the United States four prominent Russian literary figures who are braving these currents to stand up for open discourse.

    Well, I can’t recount the whole discussion, but one question and response toward the end summed up for me what the event was all about. It was actually a question I would have wanted to ask myself.

    MODERATOR (reading question from a card): ” Are the panelists concerned that issues of free expression and censorship in Russia are being used by the U.S. to justify an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Was supporting the coup, NATO expansion…are these considered…as part of…

    [MODERATOR inserts his own opinion]…of course the official government of Russia thinks they are provocations..]

    …do you think they are provocations at all?

    [MODERATOR gives his interpretation:] I guess the real question is …is American foreign policy partly to blame in Russian aggression.”


    After hearing the question, the whole group of panelists, including an interpreter, appear completely stumped. They huddle in groups, whispering among themselves for almost a minute, trying to figure out a response.

    Finally two panelists respond:

    PANELIST #1: “I think that this question is a very twisted one. How do we understand this, that Putin determines U.S. foreign policy…the American policy?”

    PANELIST #2: Allow me to answer this question in a …maybe a bit…indirect way. As far as I understand, you are asking if Putin is kind of a victim to the aggressive policy of the U.S. If whatever the U.S.are doing in the field of external policy kind of forced Putin to do what he did

    And uh, well, I don’t think so. And I think that our ability and our willingness to understand that the “other” [she makes air quotes] , you know in huge letters, sometimes can mislead us because while the other is the other is the other we are to do our best to understand him, to support him, to do whatever we can.

    But sometimes, as the joke goes, the black is black and white is white, and what is going on in Ukraine is, in my opinion, well pure and simple evil, as simple as that” [emphasis added]


    After a brief moment, the audience breaks into applause. Putin is evil. Simple as that. Simple, simple, simple.

    The moderator reads the next question: “After centuries of totalitarianism, why is the Russian mind so averse to free expression.”

    “The Russian mind?” I thought immediately of Raphel Patai’s book, “The Arab Mind”:


    The book came to public attention in 2004, after investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing for The New Yorker revealed that the book was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior” […]

    […] Patai is criticized in passing at several points in Edward Said’s book Orientalism. Other scholars[who?] describe the book as simplistic, reductionist, stereotyping, generic, essentialist, outdated, superseded, flawed, unscientific, and even intellectually dishonest.

  7. JustJessetr
    April 6, 2016, 7:54 am

    Awwwww. Too bad, crybabies.

    Nothing stopping Palestinian writers from joining though, is there? Better to include more voices than reject some.

  8. Talkback
    April 6, 2016, 4:11 pm

    Show us the shekels, Nossel.

  9. MaxNarr
    April 7, 2016, 12:11 pm

    I am so glad I ripped my copy of “The Color Purple” off the shelf and destroyed it after the Gaza flotilla. I replaced it with books on George Washington Carver and I haven’t missed that garbage book by that antisemitic author.

    • James North
      James North
      April 7, 2016, 12:25 pm

      Anyone who believe MaxNarr actually had a copy of The Color Purple on his shelf should see me about buying a long bridge that connects Manhattan with Brooklyn.

    • eljay
      April 7, 2016, 12:26 pm

      || MaxNarr: I am so glad I ripped my copy of “The Color Purple” off the shelf and destroyed it after the Gaza flotilla. I replaced it with books on George Washington Carver and I haven’t missed that garbage book by that antisemitic author. ||

      And she hasn’t missed your hate-filled, venom-spewing, supremacist rants. She wins. :-)

    • oldgeezer
      April 7, 2016, 1:13 pm

      You have to respect a man who destroys his own property for which the author already received her royalty. You are a true 1D, 10T

    • Mooser
      April 7, 2016, 5:55 pm

      “I am so glad I ripped my copy of “The Color Purple” off the shelf and destroyed it after the Gaza flotilla.”

      In spite of the “It is illegal to destroy, fold, mindle or sputilate this book under penalty of law” sticker on the cover? That book has a US Library of Cogress book number on it, too. That makes it a Federal rap!

    • talknic
      April 8, 2016, 1:02 am

      @ MaxNarr “I am so glad I ripped my copy of “The Color Purple” o…”

      Why did you buy a “garbage’ book by an “antisemitic’ author Max?

      BTW what is actually garbage about the book and what is actually antisemitic about the author?

      No hurry Max, I’ll wait for an honest reply …

    • Mooser
      April 10, 2016, 1:15 pm

      “I am so glad I ripped my copy of “The Color Purple” off the shelf and destroyed it after the Gaza flotilla.”

      “Max” if you had been properly Poddy-trained, you wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.

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