'Toxic discourse''This virtual burning of books is bareknuckled antisemitism'

US literary magazine retracts Israeli writer’s coexistence essay amid mass resignations

Guernica staffers quit, calling piece by Joanna Chen that is highly critical of Israel ‘a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism’; critics lament anti-Israel extremism in literary world

Joanna Chen (Heidi Levine)
Joanna Chen (Heidi Levine)

Amid criticism from staff members and others, a prestigious literary magazine has retracted an essay by an Israeli writer and translator wrestling with her attempts to find mutual understanding with Palestinians after the Hamas-led massacre of October 7.

Guernica magazine did not explain the retraction over the weekend, but said it “regrets having published” the essay by Joanna Chen, titled “From the Edges of a Broken World.”

The retraction came after multiple members of the journal’s volunteer staff resigned publicly over the essay.

Madhuri Sastry, a human-rights worker and researcher formerly of the American Red Cross, quit as co-publisher on Sunday, after calling the essay “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.” She also called for the resignation of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jina Ngarambe.

As many as 15 other editors and staffers also resigned, according to a review of recent changes to the magazine’s masthead, many after making their own public statements decrying the essay and Guernica’s choice to print it. Ishita Marwah, Guernica’s departing fiction editor, for example, wrote that publishing the piece made the magazine “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.”

The Guernica page that used to house Chen’s essay now reads, “Guernica regrets having published this piece, and has retracted it. A more fulsome explanation will follow.”

The website of Guernica, a literary magazine, shows the retracted essay by Israeli writer and translator Joanna Chen. (Screenshot via JTA/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law))

Chen did not immediately return a request for comment on Sunday.

The retraction comes amid widespread tensions within the literary community over the Israel-Hamas war. A number of independent literary magazines like Guernica have prioritized pro-Palestinian narratives, and Jewish and pro-Israel authors have been targeted with online criticism. The situation is so acute that the Jewish Book Council, a nonprofit that promotes Jewish writers and stories, recently launched an initiative to track antisemitism in the literary world.

Guernica’s case stands out because Chen, and her essay, are deeply critical of the present situation in Israel. Chen, a writer and translator of both Hebrew and Arabic work who moved to Israel from the United Kingdom as a teenager, wrote for Guernica in 2015 about her efforts not to build on land from which Palestinians had been displaced. In the retracted essay, she details her commitment to coexistence and frets over the ways in which Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on Israel has challenged it.

The Hamas-led massacre that led to the outbreak of the war saw thousands of terrorists storm across the border into southern Israel where they murdered 1,200 people and abducted 253 more to the Gaza Strip, most of whom were civilians. The slaughter was marked in its brutality as its perpetrators committed acts of rape, sexual assault and torture, mutilating many of their victims and burning others alive, including entire families.

Chen writes that she did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces and describes how she worked as a volunteer for Road to Recovery, an organization in which Israelis provide transport for Palestinians who are seeking medical care, both before and after Hamas’s attack (while briefly pausing in the immediate aftermath). She also recalls an experience donating blood to Palestinians during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza, for which she received blowback from other Israelis. But she says the bridges she had been working to build felt impossible to complete after October 7.

“It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides,” Chen writes in the piece, which also includes translated excerpts from Hebrew- and Arabic-language poems. It remains available online through the Internet Archive.

Of two Gaza-based poets she works with whose work she previously played a role in translating, Chen wrote, “Their voices are important ones, and I want the English-speaking world to listen to them as much as I want the world to listen to the voices I translate from Hebrew.”

‘Deeply ashamed to see this piece’

Almost as soon as the piece appeared online, it began drawing criticism from within the Guernica staff. Founded in 2004 partly in response to the Iraq War and named after Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, the nonprofit magazine has long married literary bona fides and left-wing politics. Having published writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Saunders, and Jesmyn Ward, it identifies its focus as “the intersection of art and politics.”

The publication of Chen’s piece, Sastry said in her statement, violated the magazine’s “anti-imperialist” spirit. She wrote that she had initially pushed the magazine to support a cultural boycott of Israel, but was told that the publication’s politics should be expressed “solely through our editorial choices and position.” Now, she said, an editorial process she sees as opaque led to the publication of a piece she could not support.

“I am deeply ashamed to see this piece in Guernica’s pages, and sincerely apologize to the writers, readers and supporters who feel betrayed by this decision,” the co-publisher tweeted.

Sastry did not provide examples of what she found objectionable about the piece, except to note that it “attempts to soften the violence of colonialism and genocide.” But several other departing editors offered more specific critiques.

“It starts from the outside, from a place that ostensibly acknowledges the ‘shared humanity’ of Palestinians and Israelis, yet fails or refuses to trace the shape of power — in this case, a violent, imperialist, colonial power — that makes the systematic and historic dehumanization of Palestinians (the tacit precondition for why she may feel a need at all to affirm ‘shared humanity’ in the first place) a non-issue,” senior editor April Zhu wrote in a statement published Saturday.

Joshua Gutterman Tranen, an anti-Zionist Jewish writer who has published in Guernica in the past, specifically pointed out a passage he found objectionable in which Chen briefly pauses her volunteer work after October 7, writing, “How could I continue after Hamas had massacred and kidnapped so many civilians, including Road to Recovery members, such as Vivian Silver, a longtime Canadian peace activist? And I have to admit, I was afraid for my own life.”

“The moment in the Guernica essay where the Israeli writer — who never considers why Palestinian children don’t have access to adequate healthcare b/c of colonization and apartheid — says she has to stop assisting them getting medical support because of ‘Hamas,’” Tranen tweeted. “This is genocidal.”

Israel strenuously rejects the charge that it is committing genocide, saying it takes measures to avoid killing civilians. Its supporters, including a cohort of Black Jews who have vocally defended Israel online in recent months, dispute that it is a “white” country, noting that a large portion of its Jewish population has roots in the Middle East and North Africa.

Chen’s essay is not the first time progressive Jews and Israelis have been condemned for being insufficiently critical of Israel. The official movement to boycott Israel, for example, called for a boycott of Standing Together, an Israeli-Palestinian coexistence group that opposes the war, saying that the group promotes “normalization” of Israel. And when Haymarket Books, a left-wing publisher, recently announced a book co-authored by longtime leaders of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, it drew sharp criticism on Instagram — in part because one author, who supports boycotting Israel, is married to an Israeli and has family members in Israel.

Toxic discourse

For some Jews who have questioned their place in progressive and literary spaces since October 7, Guernica’s retraction offered new evidence of a toxic discourse in which no Israeli or Jew can pass muster.

“THIS is what was beyond the pale? This essay of nuance, lived experiences, fears, hopes, and continuing to strive in her own way for peace?” tweeted Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a historian of modern Israel who has written about her own struggle to sustain her liberal Zionist outlook after the attack, after reading the retracted piece. “Obviously this is just a bigoted decision about an Israeli and Jewish author… This virtual burning of books is bareknuckled antisemitism.”

Emily Fox Kaplan, a Jewish writer who had shared the essay before it was retracted, wrote that she saw the criticism of Chen’s essay as part of a much wider dynamic.

“The problem, when it really comes down to it, is that it presents an Israeli as human,” she tweeted. “The people who are losing their minds about this want to believe that there are no civilians in Israel. They want a simple good guys/bad guys binary, and this creates cognitive dissonance.”

Some non-Jewish writers also lamented the piece’s retraction.

“Anyone who wants to seriously grapple with war had better be prepared for far more shocking opinions than are found in this thoughtful essay by a translator and writer living in Israel,” tweeted Phil Klay, a US military veteran whose writing draws on his war experiences. “Shame on @GuernicaMag for pulling it down.”

Matt Gallagher, a war correspondent who is also a veteran and who opposes the Israel-Hamas war, said his own work had benefited from reading thoughtful authors whose perspectives were different from his own.

“If you want the war in Gaza to end, as I do,” he tweeted, “shouting down calm Israeli voices mulling the ruin of it all isn’t going to help.”

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