PEN America Cancels World Voices Festival Amid Israel-Gaza Criticism

The free expression organization PEN America has canceled its annual World Voices Festival after a wave of participants withdrew, spurred by a boycott campaign led by writers who say the group’s response to the war in Gaza has been insufficiently critical of Israel.

The festival, which was supposed to begin on May 8, was canceled on Friday, days after PEN America canceled the prize ceremony for its literary awards after nearly half of the nominees withdrew in protest. The festival, held in New York and Los Angeles, was to have included writers from around the world and dozens of panels, readings and events.

In a news release, PEN America said it made the decision because a growing number of writers had pulled out of the festival, some because of differences with the group as well as some who said they had felt pressured to do so and felt “genuine fear.”

“As an organization that cares deeply about the freedom of writers to speak their conscience, we are concerned about any circumstance in which writers tell us they feel shut down, or that speaking their minds bears too much risk,” the statement said. “Amid this climate, it became impossible to mount the festival in keeping with the principles upon which it was founded 20 years ago.”

PEN America, which describes itself as sitting “at the intersection of literature and human rights,” is the latest cultural organization thrown into crisis by the fallout from the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s military response in Gaza.

As organizations like 92NY and the Frankfurt Book Fair have canceled or restricted pro-Palestinian writers or events, PEN America has issued a string of statements criticizing such decisions. “We are disturbed by the swelling momentum of calls to ban, cancel, shun and stigmatize,” Suzanne Nossel, the group’s chief executive, said on Friday.

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