The PEN Festival and Bigotry Against Israel

It is troubling that almost anything still goes. Good authors who once knew better have again succumbed to bigotry of Palestinian pressure groups against Israel. A number of them are now endorsing attempts by those groups to prevent better words emerging from anyone connected with the State of Israel.

The unseemly petition by these writers to deny free speech was made known in a message, published on April 5, 2016, that was sent by the pro-BDS organization Adalah-NY, the NY campaign for the boycott of Israel, 11 “anti-racist” organizations, and more than 100 writers to the PEN American Center. The Center is holding its World Voices Festival in New York City for the week from April 25-May 1, 2016.  The letter demanded that PEN “reject… the Israeli Embassy.”

The signatories to the letter were acting in a manner incompatible to the very principles of PEN and of any writer truly engaged in promoting dialogue. PEN American Center was created in 1922 to promote literature and support literary fellowship. It calls itself “the U.S. branch of the world’s leading international literary and human rights organization.”

The onslaught of those writers who automatically endorse the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood and the efforts, in one way or another, to prevent or limit free speech by Israelis and their ability to participate in rational exchange of views, never stops. To their disgrace, the usual suspects and more than 100 writers including Pulitzer Prize winners Alice Walker, Richard Ford, and Junot Diaz, are guilty of this.

Moreover, the letter itself is hypocritical. The writers pretend their action is not a “call to boycott individual Israelis,” but instead, using weird, disingenuous, and meaningless language, that it is a call “not to partner with the Israel government or other complicit (sic) institutions.” In itself, the letter is a gross insult to those independent Israeli writers who may participate in the Festival and are implicitly accused of and assumed guilty of “complicity.”

One of the prominent persons who signed the letter is Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She has long been well-known, indeed renowned, for her automatic antagonism and critical view of Israel. Now, in this total irrelevant animus against Israel she complains of the failure of PEN to stand up for “Palestinian writers, academics, and students who are suffering under a repressive Israeli regime that denies their right to freedom of expression.”

The real question is whether by using this extreme rhetoric Walker is, deliberately or unknowingly, trying to prevent a peaceful dialogue between the State of Israel and Palestinians. If so, she must be held accountable for a divisive and reactionary point of view opposing the development of Palestinians, as well as falsely denouncing Israel as a “racist” state.

Among others who have supported Palestinian bigotry is Angela Davis. Her problem, and therefore that of the letter, is that she has no credentials to speak for the “suffering.” Even her leftist fellow travelers might remember that she endorsed the imprisonment of Communist political dissidents in 1968, and was awarded the International Peace Prize by Communist East Germany. The most devastating comment on the real Davis came from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the real sufferer in Soviet Gulags, in his remarkable Voice of Freedom speech to the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 1975.

Solzhenitsyn in his bitter criticism declared that in the Soviet press emphasized the “suffering” of Davis as if she were the only person in the world who was suffering, and that little Soviet schoolchildren were told to write petitions in defense of her. However, when Davis was asked by Soviet and Czech political dissidents to help their friends in jail she refused. Her shocking, inhumane answer, one that should be remembered by the present writers and by PEN, was “They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.”

Many of the people who signed the letter are writers of fiction but their flights of fancy has led them to the fantasy that Israel as always is engaged in a vast international conspiracy regarding the Festival. The PEN Festival has listed 15 agencies, starting with the Ford Foundation, as sponsors: Israel is not one of them. But Israel is mentioned, among a number of others, as one of the “Champions” of the Festival. Of course, for them Israel is engaged in conspiracy by the high crime of sponsoring one literary panel in the Festival, one dealing with freedom from torture. But it is only partly guilty because the other culprits also in it are the French Embassy and OR books.

The fact is that the Israel made a small contribution to help pay the costs of airfare, hotel, and interpreters for individual Israeli writers who are participating in the festival. Israel is one of the 14 agencies, including France, Germany and Poland, supporting individual authors.

Those writers who signed the letter, who are not automatically haters of Israel, should be ashamed of themselves, not only for their endorsement of the extreme Palestinian hostility to Israel, but also for their refusal to examine the reality of Israeli life.

Instead of taking part in machinations designed to denying free speech to Israelis they should be addressing a real problem, dramatically revealed in a report in April, about the perpetrators of crime in Israel.  

On April 10. 2016, the Israeli government introduced a plan to deal with crime in the Arab communities in Israel. The Arab population, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Circassian communities amount to almost a quarter of the Israel population. About 60 per cent of the murders in Israel take place in Arab communities, as well as 47 per cent of robberies, and 32 per cent of reported property crime. Since 2000, about 1,100 Arabs have been murdered by other Israeli Arabs, a yearly average of 70 victims of Arab-on-Arab murders.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recognizing a real problem, has called for equality in law enforcement along with more police to serve Arab communities. In a forthright comment, he declared the intention to reduce other gaps in Israeli society at large and particularly in Israeli Arab society concerning housing, education, employment, and transportation.  

Is it too much to suggest that the 100 and more writers of the letter to PEN might listen to and benefit from Netanyahu’s effort to reform and also from recent harsh criticism of the Saudi Arabian TV anchor, Nadine Al-Budair? The anchor said that it is time for Muslims to own up to elements of their faith that encourage followers to commit terrorist attacks.

It is certainly time for those not committed to a lifetime devoted to warfare, physically or otherwise, against Israel to recognize they have been led into an abyss of hatred of Israel by those dedicated to its destruction. Like the authorities of PEN they should not succumb to the hatred.