Open Letter to PEN American Regarding its acceptance of Israeli funding

A group of us have asked PEN America to decline funding from the Israeli Embassy for its PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. PEN responded that they don’t do boycotts. Here is a letter I just sent to them:

Dear Suzanne (and Jacob, and Colm),

PEN’s egregious response to our call to reject funding from the Israeli government is unacceptable. We are not asking for a boycott. We are asking that a government that has a well-documented record of abuses of human rights (see Amnesty Inernational and Human Rights Watch), that holds discriminatory practices against its citizens and the citizens it occupies, that incarcerates and kills children, illegally settles on land, arrests adults and children who protest against its military occupation and holds them in administrative detention, tortures prisoners, confiscates and forcibly removes people from their homes, be excluded from funding a festival meant to celebrate world voices. We are asking that a government that has historically silenced writer’s voices– see Israel’s history of book-burning and school book banning, for example– be excluded from funding a festival meant to advocate for freedom of expression. Claims that Palestinians are deserving of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and silencing because of the actions of Hamas and militants are unfounded and propagandist. I have worked with PEN as a judge in 2014, an interviewer, and have twice been a guest of the festival– in 2010 and 2013– and I will not stand by as PEN American continues to ignore the plight of Palestinian journalists, using fabricated affiliations with Hamas as an excuse, and as PEN American actively allows the Israeli government to sponsor events by writers when other funding could be procured. Legitimizing a government that is in violation of UN resolutions is unacceptable in general, let alone by an organization that is meant to defend writers who are endangered because of their work. PEN American’s claim that it does not align with or “do” boycotts is dishonest: PEN does not receive money from the Chinese embassy, does it? The fact that PEN actively publicizes and defends writers who are struggling under regimes the US government is at odds with is suspicious and unethical. PEN either needs to take a proper stand against censorship, incarceration, and the silencing of ALL voices, or it must accept that it is not at all what it claims to be.

Randa Jarrar


President and Executive Director of the Radius of Arab American Writers
Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, Fresno State
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