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PEN director praises Charlie Hebdo’s courage, then suggests BDS makes students feel ‘isolated, vulnerable, threatened’

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Below is an excellent short interview of Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center, by Jeff Stein of New York Non Profit Media. Nossel recently made headlines when PEN took money from the Israeli government as a “champion” of its literary festival, and Nossel dismissed the urging of leading writers to boycott that government’s sponsorship.

In this interview, Nossel justifies a PEN award to the French publication Charlie Hebdo, saying that those satirists worked the “outer precincts of free expression, a place that most of us don’t want to tread,” even if they could also be offensive; but then when the subject is BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel) as a free speech issue, Nossel hems and haws and seems to agree that BDS is a free speech issue but says campuses should be able to make rules to create a “respectful community,” and suggests that BDS makes some people feel “isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened.”

Adalah-NY said she dodged the question. She’s vague, but I sense Nossel is advocating two standards: first, praising an “equal opportunity offender” in Charlie Hebdo, while in the second case valorizing the fact that some feel threatened by BDS as reason to set parameters on BDS in a “respectful community.”

Here’s Nossel on Charlie Hebdo:

They were willing to go there even at great personal risk and personal peril… we were pretty clear that what they were engaging in was not hate speech, but mockery and satire directed in a 100 different directions, including at Islam, and that was the most incendiary of it, but they were I believe an equal opportunity offender. They took on religious Jews, they took on the French government, the French right wing. When you talk to people who really understand French and French culture and satire and the language, it fits into a long tradition of French satire. And almost inevitably the target they were skewering was not the member of the religious minority but rather those entrenched extremists, the right wing. and their ostracization of minorities. So it was important to understand the true nature of what they’re doing and also defend their right to go to the outer limit and take those risks that the rest of us I think rightly refrain from.

Jeff Stein then asks if there isn’t a double standard of free expression. There’s been tons of legislation aimed at BDS; and no matter what you think of BDS, isn’t curtailing that speech more accepted in the west than curtailing Charlie Hebdo?

Yeah, that is something we look at. We’re doing a report right now looking at issues of campus speech. That’s been one of the very divisive issues on campus. There have been others: issues of race and misogyny, questions of what makes for a respectful community, and should a campus have parameters over what can and can’t be said, and what belongs on the inside and what belongs on the outside. And so we’re taking a look at that and trying to set out a way that minority views and identities can be respected and embraced but alongside freedom of expression. We don’t think that they should come or need to come at the expense of one another. All kinds of movements, whether it’s for racial equality or gender equality or movements having to do with issues overseas, they all depend on free expression to be able to organize and thrive and get their voice and message out, and we try and be neutral when it comes to those viewpoints, understanding that different speech can be interpreted in different ways.

Some speech can make people feel isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened, and I think that has to be understood and appreciated. I don’t think you can sweep that aside, but I think you can address those concerns in a way that is consistent with upholding free speech principles so that’s what we try to do.

It seems that Nossel is saying that BDS is a free speech issue, but she respects curbs on it– say to insure a “respectful community” on campus, and to protect those who feel “isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened.” Would she extend the same understanding to Muslims who are offended by Charlie Hebdo?

A friend writes:

PEN American actually gave an award to Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that is offensive to many Muslims and others, but Nossel resorts to verbal gymnastics when asked about freedom of speech for supporters of rights and equality for Palestinians. She can’t even state support for freedom of expression of BDS, much less give an award to Omar Barghouti or chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, of course.

For PEN freedom of expression is clearly not for all, but depends on who you are.

Note that Nossel previously worked in the Clinton State Department and helped to quash the Goldstone Report, which documented indiscriminate attacks on Gaza civilians, just what Bernie Sanders lately said in New York.

I believe Nossel’s squirming about this issue is all about big donors to liberal organizations– Jews who are also fiercely supportive of Israel.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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14 Responses

  1. JWalters on June 6, 2016, 8:16 pm

    “Nossel hems and haws and says BDS makes some people feel ‘isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened,’ and that has to be understood and appreciated.”

    Those fears are “understood” by seeing the very long, expensive propaganda campaign to create those fears.

    Massacres and town demolitions also make people feel “threatened”.

    It seems to me Nossel is clearly on the payroll of evil, if the word “evil” has any meaning at all.

  2. ritzl on June 6, 2016, 8:30 pm

    So do people like Nossel come packaged with funding? Are cash starved rights orgs making (forced to make) a Hobson’s choice between a compromised message and no message at all?

    Is it that bad out there, or is this a decision based on trading quality/credibility of mission for maintaining a certain quality of institutional life?

    Hard to tell. If the former, selling out may be understandable. If the latter, unforgivable.

  3. Mooser on June 6, 2016, 11:14 pm

    I’ve still got bunches of those “Je sui Generis buttons if PEN wants them for the literary festival.

  4. Marnie on June 7, 2016, 1:57 am

    What few Charlie Hebdo cartoons I saw I found to be extremely racist and offensive. How is BDS racist and offensive? How can the 2 even be discussed as if there is any correlation between them? I don’t get that Nossel chick at all but I mostly don’t get how she can keep her job at PEN.

  5. WH on June 7, 2016, 2:59 am

    References to CH as an ‘equal opportunity offender’ aren’t entirely true; obviously they mocked everyone over the years, but there was an increasing bias towards mockery of Muslims in recent times that even caused one employee to quit (he later wrote an article on his gradual disgust with the magazine).

  6. David44 on June 7, 2016, 3:48 am


    I don’t think you’ve understood what Nossel is doing here. She is clearly uncomfortable with the question about BDS, and can see that this is a double standard. So instead of answering about BDS, she shifts to talking about something else – the (admittedly highly topical) question which she has probably been asked about a lot of times, namely the questions about “safe spaces” on campus and free speech and so on. And though she hedges, her answer does, it seems to me, ultimately come down on the side of free speech – she says that one should find a way of respecting people who are offended or marginalized without restricting the rights of others to speak freely. Her reference to a “respectful community” was about what other people are concerned about (cf. e.g. the University of Illinois’s stated rationale for removing Stephen Salaita), not the criterion that she thinks should be applied.

    So no, she does not stand up clearly for BDS (as she should, given her stated values). But she doesn’t come down on the side of restricting it either. This was not an answer about BDS: this is an answer being given by someone who clearly thinks that she has successfully avoided answering about BDS.

    • Donald on June 7, 2016, 8:58 am

      I think you’re right. She was asked about BDS and dodged the question by changing the subject.

    • ritzl on June 7, 2016, 9:52 am

      It read to me like she was backed into a corner where she couldn’t expand any further on her belief that BDS is an exception to her and PEN’s free speech mission without publicly turning that mission into a total farce of selectivity… and THEN she changed the subject.

      She was just that close to making herself and PEN
      America an irrelevant laughingstock (akin to the Newseum).

      “Forced to grudgingly mouth the words by fiduciary constraints” doesn’t constitute “belief in,” imho. I got the impression that by not answering a simple question with a direct, affirmative, mission-consistent, universal answer of an advocate she practically screamed that she didn’t believe BDS is free speech. From that glaring omission-by-subject-change, I also got the impression she’d bring Thor’s hammer down on BDS if she was employed elsewhere (eg. a “next level” Clinton administration).

  7. pabelmont on June 7, 2016, 7:29 am

    Charlie Hebdo insulted Muslims and that’s OK, even if they feel threatened, hated, disrespected, etc. Their feelings are of no account, no-one need curtail Charlie’s speech in order to make them feel better, but PEN believes that the asserted (but IMO not proved) feelings (of being threatened) of some people who’ve been brainwashed to believe that being Jewish means that one must also be Zionist is a sufficient argument to suppre4ss BDS.

    Gov. Guomo (of NY) appears to agree, despite his oath to protect the constitution of the USA which purports to guarantee free speech. He needs to expand his reading to include at least the USA’s Supreme Court’s decision: NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. 458 U.S. 886 (1982) in whiuch it was held (paraphrase)

    1. The nonviolent elements of petitioners’ activities are entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. Pp. 458 U. S. 907-915.

    (a) Through exercise of their First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, association, and petition, rather than through riot or revolution, petitioners sought to bring about political, social, and economic change. Pp. 458 U. S. 907-912.

    (b) While States have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as that found in the boycott in this case. Pp. 458 U. S. 912-915.

    read entire opinion hee:

    Note that this case considered violent behavior which appeared to attend a boycott otherwise non-violent. BDS, by contrast, apepars to be entirely non-violent.

  8. pabelmont on June 7, 2016, 8:33 am

    Further, a few snippets from the opinion.

    Roughly: If a boycott is attended by violence, there is a need to separate the protected political speech from the violent behavior. (BDS does not, that I know, involve violence, at least not by the BDS-ers.)

    JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The term “concerted action” encompasses unlawful conspiracies and constitutionally protected assemblies. The “looseness and pliability” of legal doctrine applicable to concerted action led Justice Jackson to note that certain joint activities have a “chameleon-like” character. [Footnote 1] The boycott of white merchants in Claiborne County, Miss., that gave rise to this litigation had such a character; it included elements of criminality and elements of majesty.

    Page 458 U. S. 888

    The Mississippi court (which punished the boycott because of violence attending it) said:

    “United States Supreme Court has seen fit to hold boycotts to achieve political ends are not a violation of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 (1970), after which our statute is patterned. [Footnote 13] Thus, the court rejected two theories of liability that were consistent with a totally voluntary and nonviolent withholding of patronage from the white merchants.”* * * “The agreed use of illegal force, violence, and threats against the peace to achieve a goal makes the present state of facts a conspiracy. We know of no instance, and our attention has been drawn to no decision, wherein it has been adjudicated that free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment includes in its protection the right to commit crime.”

    Page 458 U. S. 894

    Of course, the petitioners in this case did more than assemble peaceably and discuss among themselves their grievances against governmental and business policy. Other elements of the boycott, however, also involved activities ordinarily safeguarded by the First Amendment. In Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U. S. 88, the Court held that peaceful picketing was entitled to constitutional protection, even though, in that case, the purpose of the picketing

    “was concededly to advise customers and prospective customers of the relationship existing between the employer and its employees, and thereby to induce such customers not to patronize the employer.”

    Page 458 U. S. 909

  9. James Canning on June 7, 2016, 1:16 pm

    “Squirming” because so many very rich American Jews want to suppress BDS, is obviously part of what obtains.

  10. annie on June 8, 2016, 11:11 am

    They took on religious Jews, they took on the French government, the French right wing.

    they didn’t ‘take on’ religious jews — please. they may have offered a little pin prick here and there, but no prostrated rabbis w/their balls hanging down and camera stuck up their ass. nothing like they did to mohammed. how can anyone take this kind of allegation seriously? and they fired one satirist for “making a joke about Nicolas Sarkozy–implying that his son planned to convert to Judaism for financial success. The cartoonist was then charged with a hate crime. ”

    “L’affaire Sine” followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22, to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president’s son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.”

    triple ouch! /NOT

    charlie hebdo were/are not equal opportunity offenders, ever

    • hophmi on June 8, 2016, 12:44 pm

      “they didn’t ‘take on’ religious jews — please. they may have offered a little pin prick here and there, but no prostrated rabbis w/their balls hanging down and camera stuck up their ass.”

      Equal opportunity would suggest that they took on Jews about a 1/10 of the time they took on Muslims, since the Muslim population of France is ten times the Jewish population, or perhaps, 1/100 of the time, since the Muslim population world wide is 100 times that of the worldwide Jewish population.

      But let’s be honest here. There’s a feeling among many Muslims that Westerners should be bound by their religious belief that the prophet should not be depicted, so whether it’s Charlie Hebdo or South Park or a newspaper, it doesn’t really matter what the context is, does it? Terrorists murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists over this issue and threatened to murder other journalists for depicting Mohammed.

      The OIC has attempted to create worldwide legislation enforcing that prohibition. So a comparison of Jews and Muslims is beside the point. Jews aren’t a 1/4 of humanity.

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