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2017 World Voices Literary Festival to be held without Israeli funding

2017 World Voices Literary Festival to be held without Israeli funding

The literary association PEN America will hold their annual World Voices literary festival this year without funding from the Israeli government.

PEN America received Israeli government funding for four of their last five literary festivals. Despite the lack of Israeli funding for this year’s festival and pressure from activists, PEN America maintains that they do not support cultural boycotts.

The World Voices Literary festival website does not list any foreign government on its sponsor page. However, in an email to Adalah-New York and Jewish Voice for Peace, PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel cites only the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Poland as this year’s government sponsors.

Organizations who have criticized PEN America for accepting Israeli funding include Adalah-NY, Jewish Voice for Peace, CODEPINK Women for Peace, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and PEN Palestine.

Patrick Connors of Adalah-NY argued that the Israeli government’s’ past sponsorship of the festival is part of larger “whitewashing strategy.”

“The Israeli government’s support to the World’s Voices festival is part of the Brand Israel Initiative that the government has been implementing for a number of years and it’s a way to try to legitimize Israeli rule over Palestinians by associating itself with progressive arts and literature causes like free expression and the work that PEN America does,” Connors said.

By February 2017, 240 writers, poets and publishers had signed a letter calling on PEN America to reject Israeli government funding. Well-known signatories included Susan Abulhawa, Angela Davis, Junot Díaz, Naomi Klein, Claudia Rankine, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Alice Walker, and Cornel West. Many supporters of the call are also PEN Members or had previously participated in World Voices literary festivals.

When PiA asked if the lack of Israeli funding for this year’s festival is a response to the campaign and the BDS movement, PEN America Director of Communications Sarah Edkins referred to an email sent to members of Adalah-NY. The email explained PEN’s policy on cultural boycotts.  

“The Festival aims to enable the richest, broadest conversations possible on global issues of shared concern. When confronted with nuanced and complex issues, PEN and PWVF must always fall on the side of maximum protections for free expression. With that guiding principle in mind, PEN does not and cannot subscribe to any kind of cultural boycott which impede individual free expression,” the email reads.  

However, Adalah-NY states that PEN’s claim that the Palestinian cultural boycott call impedes “individual free expression” is not accurate. An Adalah-NY press release notes: “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.”

Activists, on the other hand, argue that accepting funds from the government of Israel is what really goes against PEN’s mission of defending freedom of expression. The March 2016 letter notes that PEN International has criticized Israel in the past for abuses against journalists and writers. For example, in 2016 the organization condemned Israel’s detention of Palestinian journalist Omar Nazza and  poet Dareen Tatour.

Jessica Rohan, a writer who was active in the campaign, said that PEN America’s acceptance of Israeli funds is particularly antithetical to their values in light of the organization’s opposition to the Trump Administration.

“I think that it’s really important for PEN America to recognize that if you’re going to oppose the Trump Administration’s incursions on freedom of expression you also have to recognize that the Israeli government is also complicit and actively promotes the limits to freedom of expression of Palestinians,” Rohan said.

Organizers view the revelation that Israel is not funding this year’s festival as a partial victory. Rohan explained that she was happy to hear the news, but hopes PEN America will take more concrete steps regarding accepting funding from Israel and other nations.

“I think it’s really important that this isn’t a one off occurrence, but that it actually becomes part of PEN America’s official policy and that PEN America creates an explicit policy around accepting funding from states,” Rohan said.

When asked in an email if PEN America is open to future funding from the Israeli government, Edkins said the organization is not “making decisions at this time with respect to future funding possibilities.”

Edkins also refrained from pointing to any specific policies or guidelines when asked about accepting funding from governments that have a poor record on human rights and freedom of expression.

“Decisions about funding are made on a case-by-case basis through internal deliberation and discussion on a broad range of factors,” Edkins said.

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