Inside Story'These boycotts are antithetical to freedom of expression'

Jewish writers say the post-Oct. 7 English literary world has blacklisted them

As the war in Gaza goes on, authors say that when they don’t face outright hostility for being Jews, they are marginalized as publishers claim their voices aren’t marketable

Cathryn J. Prince

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators chant during a protest, April. 12, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators chant during a protest, April. 12, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

NEW YORK — Erika Dreifus has spent the better part of two decades sharing resources for fellow Jewish writers on her website, but little did she imagine prior to the October 7 massacre that she’d be curating a list of publications that she calls “Writers, Beware.”

The list, which includes magazines, websites and all things book-related, “are sites that are vilifying the Jewish state, or Jewish writers” since the Hamas-led terror onslaught that saw 1,200 people butchered in southern Israel and 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip, said Dreifus.

“Even before Israel went into Gaza, literary sites and magazines began putting out statements that were so egregious, so bigoted, so antisemitic,” Dreifus said.

As the war enters its seventh month, the situation appears to have worsened.

On April 5, Jina Moore, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious literary magazine Guernica, announced her resignation in a blog post one month after being forced to retract a personal essay she’d greenlit by British-Israeli Joanna Chen, saying she disagreed with her copublisher’s decision to retract it.

A self-described liberal writer and translator who used to drive Palestinian children from the West Bank to Israeli hospitals for medical care, Chen used her essay to address her inner struggle with the idea of coexistence during wartime.

But the publication of Chen’s essay sparked a mass resignation from the magazine’s staff, while copublisher Madhuri Sastry called it “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.” A member of the anti-Israel group Writers Against the War on Gaza, Sastry called for a cultural boycott of all Israeli institutions.

“The incident showed that the literary community is not a safe space for Jewish or Israeli writers,” Dreifus said.

The literary community is not a safe space for Jewish or Israeli writers

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Israeli and Zionist writers, editors, publishers and agents told The Times of Israel that they are being de-platformed, disinvited from literary events and harassed. And while that may not violate the First Amendment, it both tests the principles of freedom of expression and reveals a growing intolerance for diverse and different viewpoints.

“We’re seeing more and more instances of writers being excluded or retracted from publishing, speaking at literary events or other involvements in this community, for no other reason than they are Jewish or have connections to Israel,” said Anti-Defamation League senior vice president of international affairs Marina Rosenberg.

Joanna Chen. (Heidi Levine)

“Let’s be clear: Boycotting, rejecting and actively silencing Jewish or Israeli writers is antithetical to free expression, and ultimately counterproductive to a thriving marketplace of ideas,” she said.

Aside from Guernica, writers and publishers have also directed their ire at free speech organizations that refuse to take a unilaterally anti-Israel stance regarding the Gaza war. For example, in several open letters posted on Literary Hub, a daily literary website, many authors, including Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander and Roxane Gay chastised PEN America, a free expression advocacy organization.

In a March 13 letter, the authors announced their decision to withdraw from the PEN World Voices Festival because of what they called the organization’s “inadequate response to the unfolding genocide in Gaza.”

“In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere,” read the open letter.

The authors also took issue with PEN America’s decision to feature the Jewish actor Mayim Bialik at a PEN Out Loud event in Los Angeles in February.

Nevertheless, PEN America stands by its core mission.

“Our lineage of more than a century has enabled us to unite thousands of writers of diverse backgrounds, affiliations and beliefs, an achievement we acknowledge would have been far beyond our reach had we started this work in the present… We do not strive to force agreement, but rather to sustain the common ground at the core of PEN America’s mission: support for the right to disagree,” read a PEN America open letter to its members.

Is the pen mightier than the censorship sword?

While publishers enjoy the editorial freedom to accept or reject content as protected by the First Amendment, this growing animus toward freedom of expression is dangerous, said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“The mindset of college students to de-platform has migrated past campuses into the broader world. The idea that certain views are too harmful and we shouldn’t give them any space is moving into sectors like publishing, which is populated by college graduates from elite schools — schools that do the worst on free speech issues,” said Terr.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

While the concept of inclusivity is integral to children’s literature, several children’s authors interviewed for this article described increasing intolerance for Jewish authors and Jewish content.

“The climate in kid lit has been awful since the start of the war. It’s full of anti-Jewish hate and anti-Israel hate. I had expected a show of support toward Jewish writers after October 7 because we’ve always been about promoting each other, sharing each other’s work. None came, it was like a smack in the face,” said one East Coast children’s book author who asked to remain anonymous.

For Jewish writer Leslie Lisbona, the spaces where her work is welcome seem to have shrunk.

She recounted how pleased she was when Koukash Review, a literary journal, accepted two of her essays in the early autumn of 2023. Then, shortly after October 7, the journal put out a statement calling for writers to stand against Israel.

Additionally, Lisbona, who had been slated to read her work at an open mic night in Brooklyn in November, learned the $25 entry fee for the event would go toward supporting Palestinian families. Lisbona expressed her concern about injecting politics into a night of prose.

“I always felt the literary world was my sanity place. All of a sudden, I felt I can’t say what I want to say. I could write about a pimple on my forehead, I could write about abortion. Why am I afraid to write about being Jewish or Israel?” Lisbona said, adding that in the future she “won’t be careful about what I say, but I will be careful about where I publish.”

Both sides of the pond affected

The situation isn’t limited to the United States.

“Things in the UK are so bad,” said a British publisher who, fearing death threats, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Granta, a London-based magazine, published a roundtable with BDS-supporting anti-Zionists complaining about Germany’s strong stance on antisemitism, the publisher said; the group Book Workers for a Free Palestine is pushing a cultural and academic boycott; and several small publishers signed a statement roundly blaming Israel for the violence on and after October 7 while overtly avoiding mentioning of the victims of Hamas’s attack.

Additionally, 4th Estate Publishing director Kishani Widyaratna used her public Instagram to share the video of author Mona Chalabi in which Chalabi casts doubt about whether rape and sexual assault took place during the October 7 onslaught.

Mona Chalabi attends the 2023 TIME100 Next event at Second Floor on October 24, 2023, in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Aside from Dreifus, the Jewish Book Council is also collecting reports of antisemitism in the literary world.

“We encourage reports of both smaller-scale incidents (such as an individual getting review-bombed because their book includes Jewish content) and larger incidents (such as Jewish literary professionals facing threats of intimidation and violence). The hope is that, by reporting and recording antisemitism in the literary world, we can help to put support systems in place for those affected,” said a Jewish Book Council statement.

All this leaves Howard Lovy, a Jewish writer and editor, feeling pessimistic.

“I don’t see this getting better anytime soon. There’s not only prejudice against Jewish and Israeli authors — even those who don’t even write about Israel at all — but there’s a perception among literary agents and publishers that there’s no market for Jewish voices right now. They believe readers just don’t want to hear from Jews at all,” Lovy said. “Whether this is true among the reading public, I don’t know, but it’s enough that the literary community believes it. That perception alone is leading to lost opportunities for Jewish writers, projects canceled and phone calls not being returned.”

However, Lovy implored Jewish and Israeli members of the literary community to carry on.

“Now, more than ever, it’s time to make our voices heard. In fact, I’ve spoken to Jewish authors who decided that they will write about Jewish issues more now than they would have otherwise. The answer to the silencing of Jewish voices is to make our voices louder,” he said.

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