Saturday, March 30, 2024

PEN America in Damage-Control Mode Amid Staff and Palestinian Writer Revolt


In a letter to the board of PEN America, a group of current and former employees expressed their support for a recent protest against the organization’s refusal to align with PEN International and call for a ceasefire in Gaza. The employees, who sent the letter anonymously due to fear of professional retaliation, shared concerns about PEN America’s failure to comply with its mission and values regarding Palestinian free expression.

PEN America, founded post-9/11 to protect free expression, has faced criticism for not adequately addressing the suffering of Palestinians. More than 100 Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israeli forces, and critics have been jailed for mere speech. The organization’s response to the conflict led to prominent writers rejecting invitations to its annual gathering.

The rejection prompted PEN America to call for an immediate ceasefire and make a financial contribution to support Palestinian writers. However, the organization faced further backlash for its handling of the conflict. Palestinian writers invited to participate in a panel on censorship refused, stating they did not want to be token representatives.

The organization faced criticism for its lack of consistency in responding to conflicts. While it took action when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was perceived as dismissive of the crisis in Gaza. Writers urged PEN America to prioritize human rights in Palestine and criticized its minimal efforts compared to other campaigns.

In response, PEN America highlighted its extensive focus on the war in Gaza, including webinars and statements related to the conflict. The organization expressed regret over the removal of a Palestinian American writer from an event and outlined steps it was taking to address the criticisms.

Dissident writers welcomed the organization’s interest in introspection and called for an external review of its approach to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Worker Writers School, a literary group composed of workers from various industries, unanimously co-signed a response statement and decided not to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in solidarity.

The controversy surrounding PEN America highlights the challenges organizations face when navigating complex geopolitical conflicts. The need for consistency, integrity, and impartiality in addressing human rights violations is crucial, especially in conflicts as longstanding and contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As PEN America works to address the concerns raised by its employees and external critics, it faces a critical moment in upholding its mission to defend free expression and writers worldwide. The organization’s response to these challenges will shape its reputation and impact its ability to advocate for human rights in the future.

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