Skip to Content

PEN America Is Fighting For Its Life

In 2015, PEN America, the organization devoted to defending free speech, chose to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at its annual gala. A few months earlier, Islamic extremists had murdered 12 people at the publication’s offices in Paris. The rationale for recognizing the magazine seemed airtight: People had been killed for expressing themselves, and PEN America’s mission is to protect people targeted for what they express. For some writers connected with the organization, however, this reasoning was not so obvious. Six of them boycotted the gala, and 242 signed a letter of protest. In their eyes, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff, including those recently killed, embodied a political perspective that was unworthy of plaudits. The magazine frequently mocked Islam (and, in particular, caricatured the Prophet Muhammad), and this was a form of punching down, insulting a population that, as the letter put it, “is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.”

PEN America defended itself, the gala went on, and Salman Rushdie, a former president of the group and a writer , was given the last word in a New York Times about the brouhaha: “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.”

Rushdie, who helped found PEN America’s World Voices festival two decades ago, had no confusion about what the organization represented. Its role was not to take a position on the place of Islam in France or comment on the French state’s aggressive secularizing policies, which Charlie Hebdo’s editors had championed through their cartoons. No, PEN America was simply there to protect the right of artists to draw, of writers to write.

The clash over Charlie Hebdo felt, in the moment, like a blip. It was not a blip. The forces that demanded PEN America stand for more—that it fight for issues its members considered to be matters of social justice, as opposed to the squishier but essential liberal ideals of openness and dialogue—have in the past two months managed to bring the organization to its knees. Unsurprisingly, the events of October 7, and all that followed, were the precipitating cause.

This afternoon, PEN America announced that it is canceling its World Voices festival—this year was to be the 20th anniversary of the annual international gathering of writers that Rushdie conceived as a way to encourage cross-cultural conversation and champion embattled artists. A cascade of authors, either out of conviction or under pressure, felt they couldn’t take part. PEN America had already decided last week to cancel its literary awards for the year after nearly half of the nominees withdrew their names from consideration. And its annual gala, a black-tie fundraiser scheduled for the middle of May, also seems hard to imagine right now. The language of the protest, too, has reached new extremes, with the most recent demanding the resignation of PEN America’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel; its president, Jennifer Finney Boylan; and its entire board. Everyone I’ve spoken to there is in a state of high panic and deep sadness.

The existential conflict surrounding PEN America—the letters and counter-letters, withdrawals and statements of principle—captures the enormous rupture on the left since Hamas’s invasion of southern Israel on October 7 and Israel’s deadly response in Gaza. Can an organization that sees itself as above politics, that sees itself straightforwardly as a support system for an open society, be allowed to exist anymore? For the protesting writers, this lofty mission represents an unforgivable moral abdication at a moment of crisis. But if they have their way and PEN America doesn’t survive, where will these authors turn when they need defending?

From my own reading of the various letters of protest, the main demand of the now dozens upon dozens of writers protesting PEN America is this: They want the organization to say the word genocide—for PEN America to declare that what Israel is doing in Gaza is a deliberate effort to wipe out the Palestinian people, and act accordingly. From the perspective of the protesting writers, this interpretation of what has transpired since October 7 is both irrefutable and cause for repeating the charge as loudly as possible. “PEN America states that ‘the core’ of its mission is to ‘support the right to disagree,’” reads the most recent . “But 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.”

Plenty of arguments exist on the side of those who do not see what Israel is doing as genocide—and they are compelling even for people like myself who believe that Israel has acted recklessly and in a way that constitutes collective punishment. But the writers protesting PEN America do not seem interested in a conversation or scrutiny or trying to contend with what Israel’s post-October 7 motives might be. They seem driven instead by an understandably deep emotional response to a devastating death toll and, like the greater pro-Palestinian movement, have decided to use the word “genocide” as the most resonant way to describe a conflict in which, according to Hamas’s Health Ministry, more than 33,000 Palestinians have now been killed. It has given them a sense of righteousness that is impossible to contain within an organization built on the “right to disagree.”

To follow the volley of letters and responses from PEN America over the past two months is to get a close-up look at the growing irreconcilability of these positions. The first serious sign of protest came in a March 14 from a group of writers, including Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, and Lorrie Moore, who declared they would boycott the World Voices festival this year. Their stated reason was their unhappiness with what they took to be PEN America’s anemic response to the death and destruction in Gaza. They accused the organization of taking too long to call for a cease-fire and then, when it finally did, of demanding that it be “mutually agreed” (a reasonable phrasing given that, according to the U.S. State Department, it is Hamas that has rejected the latest cease-fire proposal). This was not “a clear call,” the writers said. Moreover, why had PEN America, they wanted to know, not joined the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel? Sure, PEN America had put out a number of statements of concern about Palestinian writers and the worsening situation in Gaza (more than , actually, since October 7), but where was the “action”?

The letter sought redress; it was not an attempt to burn it all down. And PEN America responded. In a that appeared a week later, the organization reasserted its mission without apology: “For some, referencing nuance is moral betrayal. For others, failure to do so is unconscionable. 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.” The response also included an unambiguous call for “an immediate ceasefire and release of the hostages,” an invitation for open dialogue with the protesters, and a commitment to increase the financial contribution to an emergency fund for Palestinian writers.

An excess of “openness,” the writers insisted in a , was not their issue with PEN America; rather it was “a series of specific failures to act with urgency and substance in the face of ongoing war crimes, including a failure to use language to name these crimes as such under international humanitarian law.” To uncover what they saw as the bias behind this failure, the writers were calling for “a thorough review and examination of the conduct and performance of PEN America,” on the issue of Israel and Palestine. And they got what they wanted. On April 16, the organization announced to its staff the creation of a working group that would look back at the previous decade of statements on Israel and Palestine, and also make sure there was consistency in PEN America’s public remarks with regards to other conflicts, such as those in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sudan.

But things continued to get worse. As PEN America geared up to announce the finalists for its awards, a large group of authors declared that they were taking their books out of contention. In a last week, Finney Boylan, a writer who became the organization’s president in December, tried to stanch the bleeding, calling Israel’s actions in Gaza an “abomination” (though not a genocide), arguing for the value of “conversation,” and lamenting that “some authors would rather silence themselves than be associated with an organization that defends free speech and dissent.”

Nothing seemed to convince the growing number of protesters. On April 17, those who had boycotted the awards delivered a , one which was then endorsed by the original group of writers protesting the festival. This one had none of the conciliatory tone of the original letter. It accused PEN America of propagating “ahistorical, Zionist propaganda under the guise of neutrality,” of “parroting hasbara talking points,” using the Hebrew word for “explanation” that anti-Israel activists associate with Israeli government spin. Nossel in particular was singled out as someone who apparently had “longstanding commitments to Zionism, Islamophobia, and imperial wars in the Middle East.” The letter was nasty, absurd in its histrionics, suggesting essentially that PEN America was in cahoots with the Israeli military. PEN America was guilty of no less than “complicity in normalizing genocide.”

The people at PEN America that I spoke with were left speechless by this letter, but also felt that it confirmed their perceptions of the protesters and their true motives—I understand, for example, why some who read the letter wonder whether the personal animus directed at Nossel is not just because she is the organization’s leader but because she is Jewish. The demand of these writers from the beginning, it now seemed clear, was not about the number of statements PEN America made about Palestinian writers and whether they matched the number made about Ukrainian writers. At question was language. And if PEN America was not willing to use the word genocide, then it existed on the other side of a bright red line, outside the encampment. The breach was complete. The organization now appears broken in ways that seem impossible to imagine repairing.

When I spoke to Nossel last week, before the news about the canceled awards ceremony and festival, she put a brave face on PEN America’s predicament and insisted that she was staying true to the organization’s mission. Nossel is a former State Department official and was the executive director of Amnesty International USA before joining PEN America as its CEO in 2013.  “We see ourselves as guardians of open discourse,” she told me. “We really believe that we have to bring about a moment when these conversations can be had, and that, ultimately, the defeat of dialogue and the turning away from dialogue is something dangerous for our democracy. We don’t want to just throw up our hands.” The festival, she said, was supposed to exemplify this philosophy. One of the events now canceled was to be a panel on “The Palestinian Exception to Free Speech,” about threats to those who speak up for Palestinian rights. Recent statements put out by PEN America have the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine on college campuses and the by USC to cancel the valedictory speech of a pro-Palestinian student.

The fundamental misperception at the center of this conflict is that PEN America sees itself as a free-speech organization, while the protesters see it as a channel to express their political views. I’ve read some of the letters addressed to PEN America from writers who decided to opt out of the festival—some after first saying they would participate despite the pressure—and there is a clear pattern: Many seemed worried about failing a political litmus test, that they would be throwing in their lot with the normalizers of genocide if they took part in a panel on or . One letter from a prominent author who had chosen to withdraw mentioned “ongoing harassment.”

PEN America has grown enormously in the past 10 years, from an organization with a budget of $2 million to one with $24 million, and a staff that went from 14 to nearly 100 in that time. It has worked on a wide range of issues, from cataloging book banning to reporting on writers under assault in Latin America. Some of the people I’ve spoken with who have had leadership positions at PEN America have wondered, though, if an outsize focus on threats to free speech from the right has unwittingly contributed to the politicization and the current confusion about what PEN is supposed to be for. One of these PEN America insiders told me that he thought 90 percent of the issues the organization had been campaigning for could be construed as progressive causes.

The group’s free-speech absolutism may have become muddied in the process. “I would say that in the end, if we can get out of this situation,” this same person told me, “if we can find a way to come back to the preservation of the essential mission, which is to stand for free speech and free expression, and the proliferating nature of those demands and those challenges in a 21st century, and not be so exclusively wedded to our fights on behalf of the left, then I think we will have made a real step forward.”

Note that “if.” At the moment, momentum is on the side of the protest, which will claim the cancellation of the festival as a victory. It now seems entirely possible that PEN America may not survive this episode. But I wonder whether these writers really appreciate exactly who will be most hurt if they achieve their goal. How many organizations exist that raise tens of thousands of dollars to support translators and emerging writers? How many festivals bring to the United States creative people from around the world to talk about their art, to debate and discuss the harsh conditions under which they work? How many organizations keep track of imprisoned authors? Does it really make sense to jettison such an entity without first thinking through what its absence would mean, what a world without PEN, without a defense of expression, whatever form it might take, would actually look like?

Or maybe just listen to the voice of a writer like Aatish Taseer who turned to PEN America at a moment of need. The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, offended by a critical article Taseer wrote in Time magazine, canceled Taseer’s overseas Indian citizenship (a special status accorded to Indians living abroad). This left Taseer “completely bereft,” he told me, unable to return to the country and see his family, including his grandmother before she died. He asked PEN America for help. “They pulled every possible lever they could on my behalf to try and bring attention to my case, and to try to bring about a change in my situation,” he said. “I’m sure that PEN has made missteps, but I would rather be able to influence the organization from within than trying to boycott it or shut it down,” he said. Given how much PEN America has done for him, the disappearance of such an organization, in spite of its imperfections, would be a “terrible loss.”