PEN American Center released a statement last Friday expressing concern over Israel’s arrest of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour. Tatour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was arrested in October 2015 over a poem and two Facebook posts. She was released from prison to house arrest in January 2016, and will remain under house arrest until at least September 2016, as her trial proceeds. The PEN American Center statement, saying that Tatour’s detention was part of a “worrying escalation in Israeli repression” is welcome because it uses the international organization’s credibility to draw attention to the injustice of Tatour’s detention. PEN added that, “Interpreting an artistic work as a direct call to terrorism dangerously misconstrues an act of free expression.” The PEN statement was already was highlighted in an Al Jazeera article today about Tatour.
Still PEN American Center’s statement about Tatour suggests that it is unwilling to fulfill its mission, “to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible,” when it comes to defending Palestinian writers. PEN American Center claims that it “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights.” But the PEN statement itself denies Tatour’s very self-identification as a Palestinian, denies the existence of Israeli military occupation, and fails to call for Tatour’s release, though PEN very frequently calls for the release of detained writers.
PEN American’s Center’s ability to advocate for Palestinians was called into question in the last months when it rejected calls by over 200 prominent writers for PEN to drop Israeli government funding for its annual World Voices Festival. PEN was also revealed to have called for cultural boycott activities targeting Azerbaijan, after stating a policy opposing all cultural boycotts as its justification for rejecting the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of the Israeli government and complicit Israeli institutions. Historically, PEN American Center has rarely spoken out for Palestinian writers, despite many Israeli rights abuses.
The PEN statement refers to Tatour as “Arab-Israeli” and an “Arab citizen of Israel,” never acknowledging that she is Palestinian. On Dareen Tatour’s twitter account she calls herself a “poet from Palestine.” She refers to herself as Palestinian in interviews. Her poem, “Resist My People, Resist Them,” which was a primary piece of evidence in her arrest, centers on a struggle “For an Arab Palestine.” Her people for whom she writes and was arrested are very clearly Palestinian, yet PEN American Center publicly censored Tatour’s self-identification. As UCLA professor Saree Makdisi explained in the LA Times, “Palestinians inside Israel are the remnant of the Palestinian people who survived the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948,” and “To refer to some Palestinians as Palestinian and others merely as deracinated ‘Arabs’ is to doubt or negate their claim to a national existence as a people both historically and in the present.” Other human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International routinely use the descriptive phrase Palestinian citizens of Israel.
PEN American Center also pointedly refused to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip as under Israeli military occupation. PEN American Center instead referred to “the Palestinian Territories and Israel,” rather than the commonly used term “the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” There is an overwhelming international consensus among human rights and international law experts, the United Nations, and governments worldwide that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are under Israeli military occupation. Some Israelis and some American defenders of right-wing Israeli policies attempt to deny Israel’s military occupation. The New York Times was recently derided for putting “occupation” in quotation marks in an article, but then quietly removed the quotation marks. PEN American Center has reposted past PEN International statements referring to Israeli occupation, but, despite a stated commitment to human rights, is not even willing to acknowledge Israeli occupation in its own statements.
The hypocrisy extends to the meek tone of PEN’s statement, merely calling Israel’s actions “worrying.” In many statements, though not in all, PEN American Center calls for the release of detained writers, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, India, Turkey and China. It is unclear why PEN American Center was unwilling to call for Israel to release of Dareen Tatour, despite the flimsiness of the case against her.
PEN America Center had been asked publicly by many since at least mid-April to make a statement in support of Dareen Tatour. While this statement two months on will likely be helpful to Tatour, it appears that the organization has done the bare minimum for her, taking the side of its funder, the Israeli government, in denying the existence of Tatour’s Palestinian identity and of Israel’s military occupation.
In a final worrying twist, PEN’s Friday statement re Tatour has still not been shared by PEN American Center on social media as of Monday at 4 PM, nor is it visible on the organization’s homepage. It’s unclear if this is a deliberate effort to downplay the statement, or a bureaucratic delay.
It’s hard to imagine that PEN American Center can maintain its credibility with its writer/members as long as it continues to compromise its stated principles to downplay Israeli human rights abuses.
June 27 Update:
Today I found in reviewing PEN’s recent press releases that PEN American Center shared seven of its last nine press releases on twitter and/or facebook. The only two of the nine that it didn’t share were the press release about Dareen Tatour, and a press release about the PEN gala in New York City, which received lots of mainstream media coverage that PEN did share on social media. PEN typically shared these press releases on social media the same day that they were issued. Also, PEN American Center did not share on social media the June 20 Al Jazeera article quoting its press release, though PEN frequently shares articles citing its work.
This suggests that PEN does not consider a Palestinian poet to be of equal humanity to the American journalist, Bangladeshi publisher, Chinese PEN members, Hong Kong booksellers, Azerbaijani journalist, poet from Myanmar, or French photojournalist who were featured in the seven other press releases that PEN did share via social media. As noted, PEN American Center did the bare minimum for Dareen Tatour.
Also today, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz Daily published an editorial calling for Dareen Tatour to be freed until her case is decided. Ha’aretz called her a “Palestinian Poet,” not an “Arab.” While Ha’aretz did not go far enough, it went further on both of these counts than PEN American Center did. Not surprisingly, Ha’aretz seemingly did not see a value in citing PEN’s weak statement to bolster its advocacy for Tartour.