Writers Drop PEN America Festival Over ‘Inadequate’ Gaza Response

Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Several prominent writers, including Naomi Klein and Michelle Alexander, have withdrawn from the PEN World Voices Festival over the literary organization’s “inadequate” response to the crisis in Gaza.

In a lengthy letter released Wednesday and signed by dozens, the writers explained that PEN’s unwillingness to call for a ceasefire in Gaza directly contradicts its stated commitment to protecting free expression.

They said that such silence amounts to a “betrayal” of PEN’s values.

“This failure is particularly striking in light of the extraordinary toll this catastrophe has taken in the cultural sphere. Israel has killed, and at times deliberately targeted and assassinated journalists, poets, novelists, and writers of all kinds,” the letter reads. It adds that the targeting of cultural institutions, like universities and libraries, amounts to a kind of cultural genocide.

Among the writers who have died in Gaza are the Palestinian poet and scholar Refaat Alareer, who was killed with several family members in a targeted Israeli airstrike in December; and the entire family of the Al-Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael al Dahdouh.

PEN America has come under fire for its position of neutrality on the Gaza crisis before. In January, two novelists canceled their scheduled appearance at a PEN event when they learned it would also platform Mayim Bialik, who has been slammed for her posts on the Israel-Hamas war. The next month, hundreds of writers signed an open letter demanding PEN America speak out on “the 225 poets, playwrights, journalists, scholars and novelists killed in Gaza and name their murderer: Israel, a Zionist colonial state funded by the U.S. government.”

The PEN World Voices Festival, founded in 2004 by Salman Rushdie, is intended to celebrate international writers. But the March 13 letter accuses PEN of failing to protect the free speech rights of Palestinian authors. It also cited the violent expulsion of Palestinian writer Randa Jarrar—who peacefully protested at Bialik’s PEN appearance.

The nonprofit has made multiple statements expressing concern for the violence in the region, which the letter notes. But it argued the organization’s actions fell far short of the efforts made for Ukrainian or Latin American journalists who were also targeted for expressing freedom of speech.

“If organizations like PEN America cling to the illusion of political neutrality in the face of a clear effort to destroy Palestinian lives and culture, one can only wonder whether there will be any writers left in Gaza to tell the story of their apocalypse, or to trust words and speech, when the killing finally ends. Or any record left of the history they have lived,” the letter reads.

As of March 15, the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists counts at least 95 journalists and media workers killed since Oct. 7 in Gaza.

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