A Leading Free Expression Group Is Roiled by Dissent Over Gaza

When PEN America celebrated its 100th birthday two years ago, it was a rousing if sober celebration of a nimble defender of free expression around the world.

Once a small writers group best known for its staunch defense of imperiled writers in authoritarian regimes, it had become a leading fighter against book bans, educational gag orders and other surging threats across the United States. It was also taking on 21st-century scourges like misinformation and online harassment, while standing up for the old-fashioned power of the pen, rallying support for Salman Rushdie after he was stabbed onstage at a literary event in 2022.

Today, amid spiraling protests over the Israel-Hamas war, battles over free speech are pitched as high as ever. But PEN America has found itself roiled, and at times hobbled, by escalating controversy over its response to the war.

Last month, it canceled its literary awards ceremony and its World Voices Festival, which brings writers from around the globe to New York, after dozens of authors pulled out as a protest against what they said was PEN America’s failure to adequately speak out about dire threats to Palestinian writers and cultural life posed by Israel’s military action. But far from quelling controversy, the cancellations have unleashed a war of words over just who is trying to silence, shame and bully whom.

“Go ahead, shut down PEN America, put a few heads on pikes,” the novelist Margaret Atwood, a former president of PEN Canada, said of the group’s critics in an email. “Then burnish your brand and congratulate yourselves on your own purity and righteousness while those who PEN America could have helped — worldwide, at home, and in prison — wither on the vine.”

To others, it’s PEN America that is falling down on the job of defending writers. The novelist Hari Kunzru, a former deputy president of English PEN, said in an email it had made “the nakedly political choice to downplay the destruction of Palestinian civil society.” And rather than listening to critics, he said, it is “trying to mobilize sentiment against them by using insinuation and hearsay.”

The group’s annual gala at the American Museum of Natural History will be held on Thursday as planned, the group says, with awards for the singer Paul Simon and the imprisoned Vietnamese writer Pham Doan Trang.

But dinner will also come served with possible protests and a tangle of questions: What does it mean to defend writers amid a polarizing war? When should a group that promotes free expression for all take sides? And at a time of extreme humanitarian crisis that some see as genocide, is a commitment to big-tent dialogue a necessity, or a dodge?

PEN America was founded in 1922, a year after PEN International. Today, it’s the biggest of the 147 PEN outposts around the world, with more than 4,500 members, a budget of $24 million and a network of state affiliates and satellite offices that take the fight beyond the blue-state enclaves where writers cluster.

Each national PEN organization is bound by the 1948 PEN Charter, which calls on members to “do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality.” PEN America describes itself as standing “at the intersection of literature and human rights.”

“Defense of free speech, openness to wide-ranging views, faith in dialogue and a willingness to reckon with complexity — those for me are hallmarks of how we’ve gone about our work,” Suzanne Nossel, the group’s chief executive, who arrived in 2013, said in an interview.

But what that means in practice can be a deeply fractious question. In 2015 PEN America decided to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after a dozen of its staff were killed in an attack on their office by Islamist extremists outraged by cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammed. PEN’s leadership saw the magazine as exemplifying of “freedom of expression courage.”

But six writers serving as table hosts withdrew from that year’s gala in protest, while more than 200 PEN members signed an open letter to protest honoring a publication that many Muslims in France saw as racist and Islamophobic.

The gala went forward, complete with a standing ovation for the magazine’s staff. Afterward, PEN America started “The M Word,” a two-year project aimed at elevating Muslim American voices.

There have been other controversies since. But no issue has rocked the group, both inside and outside its offices, more than the war in Gaza.

On Oct. 10, three days after the Hamas-led attack on Israel, PEN America released a statement condemning the “premeditated and vicious attack” on Israeli civilians, and expressing concern for the “innocent civilians in Gaza” who “suffer for Hamas’s crimes.”

Behind the scenes, some staff members were chafing against what they saw as a one-sided response that omitted historical context. In a letter to management on Oct. 17, several dozen employees criticized the statement, saying it “erases the role of the Israeli government in a long-lasting campaign of violence against Palestinians.”

That same day, the organization released another statement, saying it “mourns the devastating loss of civilian lives in Gaza and condemns threats to free expression and the free flow of vital information to the public,” citing the killings of 11 Palestinian journalists and three Israeli journalists, the cutoff of internet service in Gaza and the damage to schools and mosques by Israeli airstrikes.

But when PEN International called for an immediate cease-fire and release of hostages in late October, some staff members began asking why PEN America was not doing the same.

PEN America ultimately called for “an immediate cease-fire” on March 20, as public criticism of the group snowballed. But days later, a group purporting to consist of current and former PEN America employees forwarded two earlier staff letters of concern to the group’s board, claiming the organization had displayed an “anti-Palestinian bias” that was affecting its ability to carry out its mission.

Central to the criticism is a charge of a double standard. After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, PEN America mounted a full-throated response, holding a vigil in Manhattan, leading a delegation of Ukrainian writers to Washington and issuing a major report on Russia’s attempts to “erase” Ukrainian culture.

By contrast, critics said, there has been no similarly forceful condemnation of Israel’s military assault, and no major initiatives focused on the war’s devastating impact on writers and cultural life in Gaza, where most schools have been heavily damaged or destroyed.

“I don’t understand why an organization cannot both condemn Hamas’s actions on Oct. 7, which should be condemned, and also condemn the shocking response to it by the Israeli military on a civilian population,” said Susan Muaddi Darraj, a Palestinian American writer who joined an open letter by writers pulling out of the festival. “Why can’t two things be true at the same time?”

Nossel rejects the charge of bias. She cited the group’s many actions, including its multiple statements decrying restrictions of pro-Palestinian speech, a public panel of writers in December to discuss “the challenge of keeping civil discourse alive amid deep schisms” over the war and the $100,000 it recently pledged to aid writers in Gaza.

Nossel said the group’s Ukraine response had grown out of its longstanding relationship with PEN Ukraine, as well as the strong unanimity, within the organization and across American society, against the Russian invasion.

“In retrospect, that unanimity may have prompted us to get out over our skis in terms of some of our statements,” she said.

Among PEN America’s members and stakeholders, she said, there was no similar unanimity over the Gaza war, a conflict that has left many institutions facing questions about why their responses to it have differed from their responses to other issues.

“But what I think people do share,” Nossel said, “is a sense of devastation about what’s going on, a deep worry.”

For many critics, what pushed things to a boiling point was an incident in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, at a PEN-sponsored event featuring the pro-Israeli actress Mayim Bialik in conversation with the comedian Moshe Kasher about his new memoir.

According to news reports, a group of protesters began reading the names of writers killed in Gaza through a loudspeaker. When one protester, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer who had previously worked with PEN America, refused to stop, she was physically removed.

PEN America says that it was acting in keeping with one of its core principles: Protesters must be free to speak, but cannot prevent events from going forward.

The writer Naomi Klein said that response may have been consistent with PEN America’s policies. But she said it missed the broader point, which was its failure to address the war itself in anything but a “piecemeal” way.

“People don’t disrupt an event if they don’t feel that there is a silence there,” Klein said.

Klein was among the first group of writers to announce, in early March, that they were pulling out of the World Voices festival. She had been set to appear on a panel she suggested on the “Palestine Exception” to free speech: the idea that pro-Palestinian views are suppressed in universities and other institutions.

If PEN America had engaged seriously with criticisms of its own “double standard,” Klein said, the controversy “wouldn’t have spiraled in the way that it did.”

Jacob Weisberg, a former PEN America board member who now leads the board at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the critics misconstrue PEN America’s role, which is not to take sides, but to promote dialogue and “fight polarization.”

“It’s there to assert the right to free expression, and do it in a way that doesn’t leave people yelling at each other across barricades,” he said.

To some, the criticism has gone beyond protest and become a with-us-or-against-us bullying campaign. Atwood called it an attempt at “ideological capture,” which would turn PEN America from a free expression organization to “a propaganda mouthpiece for one political view.”

Supporters have also raised eyebrows at the strident rhetoric in some criticism, like an open letter accusing the group of “parroting” Israeli propaganda and charging Nossel (a Harvard-trained lawyer who has worked at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA and the U.S. State Department) with “longstanding commitments to Zionism, Islamophobia, and imperial wars in the Middle East.”

“That bullying is being executed with enormous energy, by a very vocal group,” Andrew Solomon, a former PEN America president, said. “There has been a tremendous amount of antisemitism directed at Suzanne,” he added.

In an article in The Atlantic, the journalist George Packer, a board member, accused the withdrawing writers of displaying an “authoritarian spirit” that he likened to Soviet writers who denounced their peers. “It isn’t a pretty sight when writers bully other writers into shutting down a celebration of world literature — especially when big names with the most expansive free-speech rights in the world take away a platform from lesser-known writers hoping to reach an audience outside their own repressive countries,” he wrote.

But others said PEN’s defenders were unfairly attacking and belittling its critics. In an Instagram post, the novelist Dinaw Mengestu, a fellow board member and PEN America vice president, called Packer’s argument “absurd” and said it “perverts and distorts” the criticism.

Another board member, Tara Westover, reposted Mengestu’s comments, adding, “When a free expression organization for writers starts attacking writers in the name of free expression, something has gone very wrong.”

In an interview, Mengestu acknowledged that “there might be some people who feel like they are being pressured.” But talk of bullying, he said, only distracted from the legitimate criticism of what he called the group’s “history of bias.”

“We need to remember this crisis, at its core, isn’t about PEN,” Mengestu said. “It’s about 34,000 lives that are lost, and the danger that number will grow.”

Since the cancellations last month of the festival and the literary awards ceremony, three of PEN America’s 16 state chapter heads have resigned. But its everyday work of defending free expression goes on.

In recent weeks, PEN America has released statements criticizing the crackdown on campus protests, a new report on book bans and the annual update to its Freedom to Write database, which tracks imprisoned writers around the world. (China leads the list, with Israel and Russia in the top 10 for the first time.)

It’s is also working to build connections to help writers in Gaza, and rebuild trust with critics closer to home.

Asked what that involves, Nossel said simply, “A lot of listening.”

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