100 writers outraged by Israeli support of annual festival cite ‘repression of Palestinian artists’

© Ammar Awad
Some 100 writers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker, Richard Ford, and Junot Diaz, are urging the PEN American Center to deny any support from Israel as it denies “basic rights to the Palestinian people.”

The writers sent an impassioned letter to PEN America in March, but only now has it been published. PEN American Center, created in 1922, is a group aiming to promote literature and support literary fellowship.

The letter came after PEN mentioned the Israeli embassy as a “champion” of its annual World Voices Festival to take place in New York later this month, and listed the embassy as a sponsor for the Ninety Minutes, a panel where Ethiopian-born Israeli author Dalia Betolin-Sherman was due to speak.

However, more than 100 writers were furious when they discovered such support even existed.

“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 reads.

The authors then listed the steps Israel has taken over the past years to provoke such a reaction. PEN America comes under fire for double standards, too.

“In 2011, PEN International criticized Israel’s detention of Palestinian writer Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh. In 2014, Israel launched a 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip that left over 2,100 Palestinians dead – including 500 children – and displaced a fourth of the population."

"During the assault, the killings and the reported deliberate targeting of certain journalists, media organizations, and their infrastructures” in Gaza by the Israeli military,” the PEN International letter stated.

More recently, in February, PEN International urged “the Israeli authorities to end the practice of administrative detention against journalists and other writers.”

All this didn’t stop PEN America from having the Israeli embassy as sponsor, writers argue in the letter.

“We appeal to PEN American Center to honor this boycott call and refuse sponsorship by the Israeli embassy or any complicit Israeli institution for the 2016 World Voices Festival and for future PEN American Center activities. Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli government amounts to a tacit endorsement of its systematic violations of international law and Palestinian human rights, including the right to freedom of expression for writers and journalists.”

The boycott shouldn’t seek to target “individual Israelis or to deny their freedom of expression,” the writers add.

“Rather, it is a refusal to conduct business as usual with a state that routinely denies Palestinian freedom of expression with impunity.”

Among the writers who have signed the letter are the former president and vice-president of English PEN, Gillian Slovo and Kamila Shamsie; also, the Palestinian writer Ahmad Qatamesh, who was jailed without charge by the Israeli government.

In response, PEN American Center sent an email to its members, from the chair of this year’s festival, author Colm Tóibín, and the American branch’s director, Jakab Orsos.

They quote the organization’s policy from 2007, saying PEN will not take part in “cultural boycotts of any kind – which impede individual free expression – no matter the cause.”

“The diversity of our funding helps to ensure that programming decisions are our own. ‎It is important to note that national sponsorships of festival writers do not imply any endorsement of those governments’ policies, and have no bearing on PEN’s free expression advocacy decisions,” the organization also says.

PEN has previously come under fire for its controversial policies: in 2015, over 200 writers protested against the freedom of expression award given to Charlie Hebdo following the fatal attack on the magazine’s Paris headquarters.

In that letter, writers accused the organization of “valorising selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.”