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PEN America Has Stood By Authors. They Should Stand By PEN.

All strong institutions stand to benefit from internal dissent and external pressures. But too often, recent efforts to reform institutions have meant reconstituting them in ways that distort or fundamentally undermine their core mission.

Nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, university departments and cultural institutions have ousted leaders and sent their staffs into turmoil in pursuit of progressive political goals. In the wake of the 2016 election and the 2020 murder of George Floyd and in a rush to apply sweeping “In this house we believe” standards unilaterally, organizations have risked overt politicization, mission drift, irrelevance and even dissolution. And now the war in Gaza is ripping its way across American universities.

The latest target is PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free expression by journalists and authors. Last week, after an increasingly aggressive boycott campaign by some of its members, PEN canceled its annual World Voices Festival, which was conceived by Salman Rushdie and was to mark its 20th anniversary in May. This followed a refusal by several writers to have their work considered for PEN’s annual literary awards. The ceremony awarding those prizes was also canceled.

An open letter sent to PEN America’s board and trustees and republished on Literary Hub, now the de facto clearinghouse for pro-Palestinian literary-world sentiment, accused the organization of “implicit support of the Israeli occupation” and of “aiding and abetting genocide.” It demanded the resignation of PEN’s longtime C.E.O., Suzanne Nossel, and current president, Jennifer Finney Boylan. According to its 21 signatories, mostly up-and-coming authors, “among writers of conscience, there is no disagreement. There is fact and fiction. The fact is that Israel is leading a genocide of the Palestinian people.”

In response and in keeping with its mission of independence and free expression, PEN America accepted the writers’ willingness to voice their conscience. It has also made clear that there is room for more than one point of view on the question of genocide and on the current conflict in Gaza.

“As an organization open to all writers, we see no alternative but to remain home to this diversity of opinions and perspectives, even if, for some, that very openness becomes reason to exit,” PEN America stated in an open letter to its community.

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