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PEN should not accept Israeli propaganda money to fund festival

Why does an organisation championing free expression accept money from a state that persistently tramples on Palestinian human rights?

PEN American Center, which describes itself as “the US branch of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organisation,” has chosen to align, once again, with the government of Israel, one of the world’s most persistent abusers of human rights. It has accepted funding for the annual World Voices Festival from the Israeli embassy as part of the Brand Israel programme, a government pubic relations initiative launched in 2005 that uses cultural productions to distract from Israel’s well-documented and systematic destruction of Palestinian life.

Sixty-two writers, including literary giants such as Alice Walker, Richard Ford, and Junot Díaz, and 11 organisational signatories sent a private letter calling on PEN to reject money from the Israeli government, as a minimal acknowledgement of Palestinian humanity; a symbolic act of fellowship with a disenfranchised, terrorised, and long-suffering people’s cry for global solidarity. The signatories to the letter include former England PEN president Gillian Slovo and former deputy president Kamila Shamsie.

PEN responded by citing a 2007 organisational decision not to subscribe to “cultural boycotts of any kind,” but to “promote dialogue”. Such seemingly enlightened alibis smack of the term “civility,” which was deployed by the University of Illinois to fire Professor Steven Salaita for tweeting disgust at Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian life during one of its many merciless onslaughts of Gaza.

Salaita’s refusal to submit, coupled with a tide of solidarity from the public and academia (including boycotts), ultimately unravelled that term for what it was: lofty verbiage activated to disguise the machinations of power, pretending to uphold intellectual values while accomplishing the precise opposite to stifle human agency.

Dr Salaita’s case was a spectacular demonstration of the perversion of language in service of power to crush dissent, and of the way truth can triumph through the principled stand of a united collective choosing to employ tactics meant to isolate abusers of power. 

It can be argued that the origin and language of PEN’s 2007 blanket anti-boycott policy point to a similar attempt to muffle, or at least ignore, the increasingly audible anguish of Palestinians. Their policy was formulated in response to the 2005 Palestinian civil society’s call for international boycott of Israel, perhaps as a preemptive measure for the inevitable day - now - when PEN would be called upon to reject cooptation by Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise. 

The Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign emerged after nearly 60 years of living under various permutations of apartheid, incrementally and systematically deprived of our land, home and heritage to make way for imported foreigners, Jews from around the world who are given economic and social incentives to settle in vacant plots made from our demolished homes, uprooted precious olive trees, confiscated lands, plundered cemeteries, broken bodies and broken spirits and broken children. Vacancies made from the real and enduring pain of a besieged and mostly powerless indigenous people. 

BDS was born in the long and noble tradition of the weak forming unified collectives to confront tyranny. Boycott is a tactic used by oppressed peoples throughout history in various places and times to harness human solidarity in order to effectuate liberation and the possibility of living dignified lives.

The verb itself derives from the Irish peasant defeat of a ruthless landlord named Captain Charles Boycott in the 19th century. The tactic was used in Bengal and later in India to resist colonial British occupation and exploitation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a public insistence on the dignity and humanity of a traumatized and terrorized segment of the population in the United States, one that inspired and mobilized this nation be better and do better. The international cultural boycott of the Apartheid regime was an important moment in the provocation of justice South Africa.

Why then would PEN, an organisation representing the writer-intellectual, issue an unconditional blanket rejection of such a uniquely empowering, engaging, and unifying tactic of civil society in the pursuit of justice? Further, are we to believe that PEN simply accepts governmental support unquestioningly? 

PEN’s insistence that its decision is guided by “maximum protections for free expression” echoes in a moral vacuum wherein Israel administers daily violence against Palestinian children; where it is the only nation in the world that creates homelessness as a matter of state policy; where water is allocated according to religious affiliation – a right for Jews, but a limited and expensive luxury for non-Jews; where segregated roads, segregated busses, and segregated pedestrian ways are the norm;  where one million olive trees have been killed in order to wound the people who have cared for them over centuries.  

PEN wrote that “societies in which human rights abuses occur always include liberal voices, and it is part of our work to ensure that those voices are heard as broadly as possible.”  I agree with that statement and I suspect so do all the signatories to the letter sent to PEN. In fact, the Palestinian cultural boycott is explicit that it does not target individual artists for boycott, but the institutions deeply complicit in human rights abuses. 

However, at least one Israeli artist attending the World Voice Festival is funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, which requires recipient artists to sign a contract “to promote the policy interest of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.” The artist/writer is contractually bound to keep this relationship a secret: “The service provider [sic] will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry.”  In fact, Israeli artists who do not toe the state line are deprived of funding and sometimes punished.

This is Brand Israel at work, and PEN American Center has sadly made a decision to be a part of it.  No matter what language PEN uses to justify taking money from Israel, their actions amount to a willingness to allow a powerful colonial government to coopt a public U.S. cultural forum in furtherance of an explicit state propaganda campaign.  

It remains my hope that PEN might still reject funding from Israel’s state propaganda budget. Surely there are other means to fund the travel of individual Israeli writers.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer. Her latest novel is The Blue Between Sky and Water (Bloomsbury, 2015), with rights sold thus far into 21 languages.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Image: A Palestinian baby sits in his crib outside his family house, after Israeli army tractors destroyed structures at a Bedouin camp in Khirbat Tana, near the Bait Furik village, east of the Palestinian city of Nablus, on 7 April 2016 (AFP).

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