Writers Challenge Israeli Embassy’s Presence at Literary Festival

By Mike Kuhlenbeck

More than a hundred writers have signed a letter calling on the PEN America Center “to reject support from the Embassy of Israel” for the 12th annual World Voices Festival in New York City.

The New York-based grassroots organization Adalah-NY published what was initially a private letter to PEN American Center on April 5 denouncing PEN’s support of the Israeli Embassy regarding the upcoming World Voices Festival to take place from April 25 to May 1.

The seven-day festival is hosted by the PEN American Center, a non-profit organization that describes its goals as “working to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.”

The signatories of the Adalah-NY letter, which was issued publicly on April 5, many of them long-time members of PEN, say the organization is betraying these principles by siding with the Israeli regime, notorious for jailing journalists and other crimes usually condemned by the organization.

For example, PEN International decried the 2011 imprisonment of Palestinian writer Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh in the West Bank by Israeli armed forces, where he was being held “solely for the peaceful expression of his opinions,” as noted by PEN International.

Despite a lengthy track record of violating free speech and imprisoning writers for not sharing the views of the Israeli government, PEN refers to the Israeli Embassy, a sponsor of one of the festival panels, as a “champion” of the event.

The letter, now available online, states: “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.”

Adalah-NY sent the letter addressing these concerns to PEN on March 29, containing the signatures of 62 individual and 11 organizations. The list of signatures has since swelled to over one hundred names.

Shortly after the letter was delivered through the appropriate channels, certain members of PEN justified the organization’s Israeli funding by citing policies against “cultural boycotts of any kind” and the need to “promote dialogue.”

The poet Marilyn Hacker, recipient of PEN Voelcker Award for Poetry and PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, challenges these criticisms.

“Even if PEN opposes all forms of boycotts, PEN should have policies and ethical standards in place forbidding partnerships with significant human rights abusers,” Hacker said. “On that basis alone, PEN should rule out a partnership with the Israeli government.”

Activist Omar Barghouti, a founder of the (BDS) movement, said 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,” Barghouti said. “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.”

Author Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her bestselling 1982 novel The Color Purple, is one of the many distinguished signatories of the petition.

Walker said, “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-signing campaign is the most recent action of the boycott and divestment (BDS) effort against the Israeli government by Adalah-NY (formerly the Ad-Hoc Coalition for Justice in the Middle East). The group was formed in August 2006 in response to “Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip at the end of June and the subsequent Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006.”

Dr. Angela Davis, letter signatory and jury member for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, compares the United States’ relation with Israel to its relationship with apartheid South Africa in her latest book Freedom is a Constant Struggle:

“[Nelson] Mandela and his comrades shared the same status as numerous Palestinian leaders and activists today and that just as the US explicitly collaborated with the [South African] apartheid government, it continues to support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, currently in the form of over $8.5 million a day in military aid.”

– Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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