February 23, New York, NY—Human rights advocates welcome the decision by PEN America to hold PEN’s annual World Voices literary festival without funding from the Israeli government. 

The decision followed a campaign and a call supported by leading literary figures asking the organization to reject Israeli government sponsorship. PEN America accepted Israeli government support for the World Voices Festival four of the previous five years, and despite writers’ opposition in 2016. The leading US free expression and literary organization announced its program last week for the May 2017 World Voices Festival in New York.

PEN America did not, however, offer a reason for the absence of Israeli government support for World Voices in a February 2017 email exchange with Adalah-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Since March 2016 over 240 well-known writers, poets, and publishers have signed onto a call for PEN America to reject Israeli government support. They include Susan Abulhawa, Nicole Aragi, Russell Banks, Angela Davis, Carl Dennis, Junot Díaz, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Naomi Klein, Laila Lalami, Lucy Lippard, China Miéville, Eileen Myles, Michael Ondaatje, Claudia Rankine, Wallace Shawn, Raja Shehadeh, Gillian Slovo, Ahdaf Soueif, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Jacqueline Woodson. Twenty-two writers explained in more detail why they had supported the call. Over 17,000 other concerned individuals had also joined the call.

PEN International, the organization’s global hub, has criticized the Israeli government in the past for "the killings and the reported deliberate targeting of certain journalists, media organizations, and their infrastructures” and “the practice of administrative detention against journalists and other writers."

In a February 8 email to Adalah-NY and JVP, PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel wrote regarding World Voices, “Our support this year will come from contributions from a variety of private funders, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Poland.” Ms. Nossel explained, “Each year, our sources of funding for the Festival change depending on a wide range of factors.” In a February 17 follow-up email Ms. Nossel added, “Our approach to this centers on discussion and deliberation rather than formal policies.”

Allison Brown from Adalah-NY explained, “PEN America’s decision not to accept Israeli government support in 2017 is a victory for Palestinian rights, and for the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which calls on institutions to reject cultural partnerships with the Israeli government because Israel attempts to use these partnerships to legitimize its apartheid rule. For example, Israel has held Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in prison or under house arrest for 16 months for a poem, and has jailed Palestinian journalists like Mohammed Al-Qiq and Omar Nazzal without charges or trial.”

Shalva Wise, JVP Artist Council Coordinator, commented, “Despite this victory, the lack of a public statement and a clear explanation by PEN America, or any formal policy, leaves us concerned that PEN America is leaving the door open to future partnerships with Israel and other repressive governments. PEN America should put in place a transparent policy prohibiting partnerships with governments like Israel that routinely violate the freedom of expression of writers and journalists. PEN America cannot mobilize actions against the Trump administration’s repressive policies with one hand, and burnish the image of other repressive governments with the other.”

At least one Israeli writer is participating in the 2017 World Voices Festival. In line with the Palestinian boycott call’s support for freedom of expression, letter signers called for the rejection of Israeli government support, and not for barring the participation of individual Israeli writers.

After PEN America dismissed the initial appeal from writers to reject Israeli government support, human rights advocates protested at the World Voices opening event in April 2016. Adalah-NY, JVP and writers then continued collecting signatures to the letter, including at several PEN America events this winter. With the 2017 festival approaching, Adalah-NY and JVP asked for an emailed update from PEN America on the status of Israeli government funding.

2017 marks the first time in recent years that PEN America did not list the governments supporting the festival on the World Voices website. PEN America had accepted Israeli government support for World Voices in 201220132015 and 2016 – making the Israeli government, with the French government, the most frequent governmental sponsors of the World Voices Festival between 2012 and 2016.

Adalah-NY and JVP support the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law and fully recognize the Palestinian people’s right to live in full equality in their homeland.

Letter to PEN America with Signatories: /web-action/1450/tell-pen-america-don-t-partner-israeli-government

Email Exchange between PEN America and Adalah-NY/JVP, February 2017: /document/1460/email-exchange-between-pen-america-and-adalah-ny-jvp-february-2017