PEN America cancels World Voices Festival amid Israel-Gaza criticism

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PEN America cancels World Voices Festival amid Israel-Gaza criticism
Suzanne Nossel speaks at a PEN America gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on May 18, 2023. PEN America has canceled its annual World Voices Festival after a wave of participants withdrew, spurred by a boycott campaign led by writers who say the group’s response to the war in Gaza has been insufficiently critical of Israel. (Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- The free expression organization PEN America has canceled its annual World Voices Festival after a wave of participants withdrew, spurred by a boycott campaign led by writers who say the group’s response to the war in the Gaza Strip has been insufficiently critical of Israel.

The festival, which was supposed to begin May 8, was canceled Friday, days after PEN America canceled the prize ceremony for its literary awards after nearly half of the nominees withdrew in protest. The festival, held in New York and Los Angeles, was to have included writers from around the world and dozens of panels, readings and events.

In a news release, PEN America said it made the decision because a growing number of writers had pulled out, some because of differences with the group as well as some who said they had felt pressured to do so and felt “genuine fear.”

“As an organization that cares deeply about the freedom of writers to speak their conscience, we are concerned about any circumstance in which writers tell us they feel shut down, or that speaking their minds bears too much risk,” the statement said. “Amid this climate, it became impossible to mount the festival in keeping with the principles upon which it was founded 20 years ago.”

PEN America, which describes itself as sitting “at the intersection of literature and human rights,” is the latest cultural organization thrown into crisis by the fallout from the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7, which killed roughly 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government, and Israel’s military response in Gaza, which has left about 34,000 dead, according to Gaza authorities.

As organizations like 92NY and the Frankfurt Book Fair have canceled or restricted pro-Palestinian writers or events, PEN America has issued a string of statements criticizing such decisions. “We are disturbed by the swelling momentum of calls to ban, cancel, shun and stigmatize,” Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO, said Friday.

But in recent months, PEN America has been increasingly consumed with defending itself, as a series of open letters have sharply criticized the group’s leadership and position on the war, with some even accusing it of being a mouthpiece for the United States or Israeli governments.

Shuttering two of its signature events raises questions about whether PEN America will proceed with its annual gala at the Museum of Natural History, which brings together writers, donors and celebrities for one of the most glamorous events on the New York literary calendar. It is scheduled for May 16.

“We’re taking it day by day,” Nossel said.

Nossel and Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s director of literary programming, said Friday that the cancellation of the events was a blow not just to the organization but to the ideals of open debate, argument and disagreement that it champions.

“When you look around at our literary landscape, a lot of institutions are struggling to do that,” Rosaz Shariyf said. “At PEN, that’s our mission, our reason for being.”

Nossel, who has led PEN America since 2013, lamented that the idea of civil but fractious debate — which had animated the festival since its founding in 2005, in the midst of the divisions over the Iraq War — had “fallen away.”

Since Oct. 7, PEN America’s leadership has been under pressure internally, with some employees concerned by what they consider a timid response to the impact of Israel’s military campaign on free expression and cultural life, including the deaths of large numbers of Palestinian journalists and attacks that have damaged or destroyed Palestinian universities and cultural institutions.

In recent months, the internal conversation has been echoed in often fierce public criticism of the organization.

In February, hundreds of writers signed an open letter denouncing PEN America after organizers of a PEN-sponsored event involving the pro-Israel actor Mayim Bialik removed a Palestinian American writer who had disrupted it.

The signatories called on PEN America to speak more strongly about the Palestinian writers and scholars killed in the war and to name “their murderer: Israel, a Zionist colonial state funded by the U.S. government.” If the group was unwilling to do so, the letter stated that “PEN should disband.”

The signatories of that letter initially included few PEN America members or prominent figures. But pressure intensified in March, when more than a dozen well-known writers, including Naomi Klein, Lorrie Moore and Hisham Matar, announced that they were withdrawing from the festival in protest.

“In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere,” they wrote in an open letter.

Some of those who dropped out initially, according to PEN America, had been set to appear on a panel about threats to free speech for Palestinians and others with pro-Palestinian perspectives. More writers continued to withdraw, with another surge after the cancellation of the literary awards.

Rosaz Shariyf said some writers told her they had faced intense online pressure to pull out. Much of it, she said, has had “an element of a shame campaign.”

When contacted by The New York Times, several writers whose names had disappeared from the festival website in recent days declined to comment or clarify whether they had dropped out. (The festival’s website has since been taken down.)

But some writers pushed back against the idea that there was any pressure campaign, and disputed that their withdrawal represented a “silencing” of themselves or others, as some statements from PEN leadership have implied.

Novelist Hari Kunzru, who withdrew from the festival in late March, said that while he believed strongly in PEN America’s mission, remaining in the festival would have seemed like an endorsement of what he called the group’s failure to engage “deeply and honestly” with the war in Gaza.

Kunzru said that some of PEN America’s recent response to criticism — like the announcement of a $100,000 fund for Palestinian writers and a promise to conduct a systematic review of its work over the past decade — was “too little too late.”

“It feels like managing perceptions,” he said.

In a letter this month, nine former PEN America presidents, including Salman Rushdie, Ayad Akhtar and Jennifer Egan, urged writers to “keep faith” with the group, which “has always embraced dissent within its ranks.”

On Friday, its current president, Jennifer Finney Boylan, expressed concern that people had lost track of all the urgent work PEN America does, including its fights against book bans, opposition to laws restricting teaching on controversial subjects and its efforts to counter other growing threats to free expression in the United States.

But staying true to its mission, Boylan said, also means listening to its critics.

“What we are fighting for,” she said, “is people’s right to criticize.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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