On January 31, six protesters from the group Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG) disrupted a PEN America event in Los Angeles featuring a conversation between comedian Moshe Kasher and actor Mayim Bialik, an outspoken supporter of Israel. One of the protesters, author Randa Jarrar, was physically removed from the scene by security. The demonstration focused on 13 writers and poets killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since October 7, whose names were shouted and played on a loudspeaker by protesters.
Following the event, which was cosponsored by L.A.–based literary nonprofit Writers Bloc, the freedom of expression nonprofit released a statement regarding the protest and Jarrar's physical removal, expressing "regret that this step had to be taken in order for the event to proceed."
"Alongside many in the literary community, we mourn the immense loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza. We have paid tribute to writers and artists who have been killed in the conflict," the statement continued. "As a free speech organization, we defend and uphold the right to protest. However, we are firm in the conviction that protesters—while they have a right to be heard—cannot be allowed to shout down, shut down, or obstruct the speech of others."
"When it comes to public events, the open exchange of ideas cannot devolve into an environment where only the loudest voices are heard," said Allison Lee, Los Angeles director of PEN America. "As we have stated in our published principles and reiterated regularly in statements and commentary over the years, when a speaker sparks controversy, those who object and wish to protest must have an opportunity to make their opinions known. But protesters cannot be permitted to impose a heckler’s veto that forecloses the ability of others to be heard."
In an open letter released after the event, WAWOG demanded that "PEN release an official statement about these deaths [of Palestinian writers killed by Israeli airstrikes], many of which have been targeted assassinations." The letter continued: "As this letter circulates, the death toll among Palestinian writers and reporters will likely grow. If PEN continues to remain silent, it will become absolutely clear to the public whose lives and voices matter to it and whose don’t."
In the weeks leading up to the January 31 event, novelists Angela Flournoy and Kathleen Alcott withdrew their participation from PEN's New Year, New Books event, slated to take place in Los Angeles on January 25, over the organization's involvement with Bialik, which Flournoy called "unconscionable."