92NY pulls event with acclaimed writer who criticized Israel

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92NY pulls event with acclaimed writer who criticized Israel
The author Viet Thanh Nguyen in Pasadena, Calif., Feb. 15, 2021. 92NY, one of New York City’s premier cultural venues, decided on Oct. 20, 2023 to abruptly pull an event featuring the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist after he Nguyen an open letter critical of Israel. (Joyce Kim/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- 92NY, one of New York City’s premier cultural venues, decided Friday to abruptly pull an event that evening featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he signed an open letter critical of Israel, drawing criticism that the organization was stifling dissenting voices.

The event at 92NY, formerly known as the 92nd Street Y, was to have featured Nguyen in conversation with novelist Min Jin Lee about his new memoir, “A Man of Two Faces,” in an auditorium on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that seats roughly 900. But on Friday afternoon, after the Y said it would no longer go ahead with the event, the talk’s organizer, Bernard Schwartz, who leads the Y’s poetry center, moved it to a bookstore in lower Manhattan where it drew a standing-room crowd of about 100.

In a statement on Saturday, 92NY said the event had simply been postponed.

“We are a Jewish institution that has always welcomed people with diverse viewpoints to our stage,” the statement said. “The brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the continued holding of hostages, including senior citizens and young children, has absolutely devastated the community. Given the public comments by the invited author on Israel and this moment, we felt the responsible course of action was to postpone the event while we take some time to determine how best to use our platform and support the entire 92NY community.”

But the participants see it otherwise. At the relocated event, Nguyen described the Y’s decision, which he said he was informed of around 2 that afternoon, as a “cancellation.”

No explanation had been given, he said. But he said he assumed it was a response to the fact that he was among the more than 750 writers and artists who signed an open letter published in The London Review of Books on Wednesday that was highly critical of Israel.

In his introduction at the event, Schwartz, who has led 92NY’s Unterberg Poetry Center since 2005, called the Y’s decision “unacceptable.” Both Nguyen and Lee, he noted, have engaged with questions of war, memory, identity and trauma in their work.

“Who else in a moment like this would you want to hear from?” he asked.

The event was the latest example of cultural fallout over the Israel-Hamas war, which has led to complex debates across college campuses and cultural organizations about free expression, solidarity and the limits of permitted debate over Israel. Events featuring Palestinian artists or culture have been canceled, some statements of support for Palestinians have drawn debate and the leaders of some institutions have been criticized for what is seen as the failure to adequately acknowledge either Hamas’ murder of Israeli civilians or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

In an interview after the event, Schwartz said that he, like his colleagues, had been monitoring letters and petitions, “both as someone who works at the Y, and as a human being trying to grasp what’s happening.”

He said that on Thursday afternoon, he had flagged the long-planned event with Nguyen to the Y’s leadership. He said he noted both the open letter in The London Review of Books and Nguyen’s public support for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS. That support, Schwartz noted, predates other events Nguyen has done over the years at 92NY, without incident.

Schwartz said that on Thursday evening, Seth Pinsky, 92NY’s CEO, called a meeting with the board’s executive committee. Afterward, Schwartz said, he was told there would be further discussion about whether the event would go forward.

Around 2 p.m. Friday, he said, he was told to call Nguyen to discuss “postponing” the event. “I refused to do that,” Schwartz said. Instead, he arranged to hold the event at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Fulton Street.

Introducing the event at the bookstore, Schwartz held up a promotional brochure that the Y sent out this summer featuring Nguyen’s face and the words “The Writers Who Inspire Us, the Books That Define Us.”

“What’s changed between August and today at 2 p.m. that means that artists and thinkers and moral leaders like Viet and Min can’t come to the Y?” he asked. “I’m going to just let that question sit there.”

The letter Nguyen signed, titled “An Open Letter on the Situation in Palestine,” calls for an end to the “unprecedented and indiscriminate violence” by Israel in Gaza, including “grave crimes against humanity.” It has drawn sharp criticism from some for not naming Hamas at all, while making only oblique reference to the Oct. 7 attacks that left roughly 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, dead.

On Thursday, Nguyen posted a statement on Instagram about his reasons for signing the letter.

“The Israeli government and its supporters have sought to shut down any protest of Israel, including nonviolent ones like BDS, which helps lead to the current situation where some can only see violence as a solution,” he wrote. “Even literature and the arts from Palestinians or sympathetic to them are being silenced.”

92NY’s decision to pull the event drew concern from free expression organizations. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said that in times of war and conflict, writers were particularly important as “bridges across schisms.”

“As a literary and cultural community, as hard as it is, I think we really have to play that role of continuing to be open to all voices, and not to back off even when it’s really difficult,” she said.

92NY was founded in 1874 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, with the goal of serving “the social and spiritual needs of the American Jewish community,” according to its website.

In the 20th century, the organization transformed into the 92nd Street Y, a culture and arts organization widely known to New Yorkers as “the Y.” Last year, as it began a $200 million renovation, it rebranded itself as “92NY.” It also hired a rabbi, in order to “more publicly assert our Jewish identity” at a moment of rising antisemitism, Pinsky, its CEO, said at the time.

The Unterberg Poetry Center, founded in 1939, is one of the country’s most storied literary venues, whose roster of speakers has included Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood and other luminaries.

During the event at the bookstore Friday, Lee said she and Nguyen held “absolutely no ill will” toward 92NY, where she had taken six writing classes over the years. “Whatever happened today, it should not in any way invoke any sentiment against Jewish people in New York,” she said emphatically.

“Whenever we think of any institution and any nation, I hope we remember it’s made up of individuals,” she said. “There’s always that plurality.”

Schwartz said afterward that he was “heartbroken” by what had happened, and noted the organization’s packed schedule of upcoming events.

“What other events will the Y say can no longer happen on its stages?” he asked.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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