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A well-regarded literary journal retracts an essay by an Israeli on account of, well, what exactly? Is it a literary crime to be an Israeli in 2024?

This is a segment from The “You Know, I Read It in a Magazine” Edition.


Now it is time for our second discussion.

So Miriam, when Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, do you think he ever imagined in his wildest dreams that that name would be associated with a war? – Huh, Guernica is a prestigious little online journal devoted to global arts and politics that has published stuff by literary luminaries like George Saunders, Sam Lipsight, Marguerite Duras, Amitav Ghosh, Edgar Carat, David Byrne, Tony Kushner, Joan Didion, and public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Samantha Power, and Amartya Sen.

In its 20 years, Guernica has won all sorts of awards and is supported by the American National Endowment for the Arts and by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

It’s well-respected in literary left circles, even if it is not very well-known outside of these circles.

This week, though, Guernica was in the news after it retracted a personal essay called “From the Edges of a Broken World” by a British-Israeli journalist, poet, and translator named Joanna Chen.

The retraction came after the magazine’s co-publisher, a human rights attorney named Madhuri Sastry, and as many as 16 other editors and staffers resigned in protest of the decision by the editor-in-chief, a woman named Gina Ngarambe, to publish the piece in the first place.

Madhuri Sastry called the “Broken World” essay a “hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

The journal’s fiction editor, a woman named Ishida Marwah, who also resigned, said that publishing the essay made Guernica itself into “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.”

We’ve gotten used to such strong and polemical language in public fights about Israel and Zionism, but what is surprising about this case is that the essay that sparked the protest is not by any standard we can think of, a work of Hasbara or pro-Israel or pro-Zionist agitprop.

Joanna Chen was for years a local correspondent for Newsweek.

She has translated to English poetry by Gazans and other Palestinians.

She’s a volunteer with Road to Recovery, an NGO that ferries Palestinian kids from checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza for life-saving treatments in Israeli hospitals, which volunteer work she describes in the essay.

Joanna Chen is also careful to note that she did not serve in the IDF and that her translation of poems from Arabic lets her “transcend borders and build literary bridges from one people to another.”

In the essay, she describes how after October 7th, she texted to a Gaza Newsweek colleague, writing, “Nuha, how are you, my friend?”

And she got an answer that included this, “The water well and oxygen station and al-Shifa medical complex were targeted.

Dogs eat corpses dumped in a Shifa compound.

The complex is subjected to continuous targeting.”

“To which,” she replied, “Beyond terrible.”

“Which,” she writes, “was inadequate.

I was inadequate.”

The correspondence ended abruptly.

Joanna Chen writes, “My own heart was in turmoil.

It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides.”

Finally, Chen writes, she did phone Nuha again, and the two spoke with Nuha’s, quote, “warm gravelly tones,” giving Chen hope that someday some sort of recovery might be possible.

The essay, then, was the essay of a long-time Israeli peace activist, writing about the trauma of all the death and destruction on both sides, and her fragile hope that maybe someday human connection and understanding would allow Israelis and Palestinians to coexist.

On Twitter, Israeli studies scholar and friend of the podcast, Sarah Hirshhorn, wrote, “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?

Obviously, this is just a bigoted decision about an Israeli and Jewish author.

This virtual burning of books is bare-knuckled anti-Semitism.”

Which, even if it is true, offers only part of an explanation for why so many staff members found Joanna Chen’s essay so objectionable that they had to resign over its publication and call for the firing of the editor who decided to print it in the first place.

So, Allison, can you cast yourself into the minds of the people who found the essay to be an apologia for Zionism and genocide?

The case can be made that there is no pressing need to understand the worldview of the editorial board of a small literary magazine like Guernica, but I think it might be useful, and maybe even comforting, to get what makes these critics tick.

Can you help? – I think the statement is, which is why we’re so horrified and shocked by it, colleagues at Haar are saying, “Wow, this is the last straw.

I think I need to go over to the right,” is that just the inherent act of being Israeli is condemnable, no matter what you do about it, no matter how you try to be a human being struggling with the horror of October 10th and what’s happened to Gaza since.

It’s the most personal human experience possible reflected in this essay, so to find this essay unacceptable, the only way I can interpret it is to say that you’re finding being Israeli unacceptable, and I guess, by extension, the existence of Israel as being unacceptable.

I mean, maybe that’s too– – So the problem was they just didn’t do the B in BDS, that really, their complaint against the editor was we should be boycotting all Israelis. – Absolutely. – It’s as simple as that.

And as such, it didn’t have anything to do with the content of the essay one way or the other. – And it’s not a one-time thing.

There are now protests and vandalism against some of the most leftist activist artists who are showing art in New York or giving talks and giving events in New York, so that is now, by extension, I don’t think anything in this mindset can redeem the inherent, uncleanable sin of being Israeli. – Yeah, I think you’re right, but I think it’s a mistake to simply disregard or not try the exercise of getting into their minds, and I, you know, look, when people are screaming genocide, it sounds so absurd, and it’s, I think, a terrible mistake on their part because it allows us to disengage from self-reflection because it’s so obvious that there is no evidence that this amounts to genocide, that there’s an intention towards genocide by Israel against the Palestinians.

The only genocide we see here is in the Hamas charter, and so, in a sense, that allows us to just disregard it as this just simple, ridiculous jingoism. – So, but we’re not disregarding it. – But if you are someone who does accept that what’s happening here is a continuous, is the next step in a continuum starting from the establishment of an Israeli state that involves an effort to destroy, you know, the Palestinian people and that bombing and causing the number of casualties that are reported, even if, you know, we can, again, we can discuss those numbers and tease them apart, and 12,000 are Hamas fighters, and it’s not really 30,000, and that’s, you know, low for a dense urban combat zone.

We have that conversation.

It doesn’t work for people, particularly, by the way, for people who may actually have personal connections in Gaza, so if you’re– – But do what you said, Miriam, and just ignore what– – Yeah, so if– – Don’t bring our side into it.

I’m just trying to understand what it is that they’re thinking. – I think they are saying that this feels too human for me, that this space, which is a space dedicated to anti-imperialism, has no obligation to put forward the narrative, the false narrative, in this case, of a humane person who doesn’t matter what she’s doing.

Her presence in this place is causing, is part of the problem.

Like, it’s, you know, that even, in a sense, by the way, I think the essay’s quite beautiful.

There are passages in there, including one exactly about the process of what translation is, that is so relevant to this, the ability to humanize somebody on the other side of a chasm.

It’s a really beautiful passage.

You know, that does not apply when you’re talking about, say, a Nazi or an architect of apartheid, or, you know, and I can sort of catch it.

I mean, I ultimately will always want to hear, I’m the one that, you know, runs a platform that in which I regularly publish things that disturb me beyond all disturbance.

I call it the discomfort zone.

I believe that we are obligated to be uncomfortable and challenged and try and see this so that at the very least we know our enemy, and at the very best we see something they see that we don’t see. – Well, so all of this is very helpful. – But I get the other way of approaching this. – All of this is very helpful.

I’m still trying to do what you said, and I’m still trying to understand, because in fact, I don’t think it ever really was the case that people said, no, we should not listen to the voice of a struggling German in Nazi Germany, or we should not listen to the voice of a white person who’s struggling with apartheid in South Africa.

I’ve never come across anything like this.

We still, I mean, we’re actually desperately interested in trying to understand the experience of just kind of day-to-day German Nazis, including this Glaser movie that now people are upset about because of the Oscar speech.

We’re quite interested in that, and I remember very clearly throughout the whole time of apartheid, we were quite interested in understanding the tortured experience of someone who felt as though, who understood that their whole life was wrapped up in this system of apartheid and that people were suffering terribly under that.

And so this feeling that it is a terrible crime just to publish these words is still something I’m trying to understand. – So first of all, as far as the Nazis go, I think what is it, tragedy plus distance in this case allows this.

I wonder whether Nadine Gordimer, you know, the South African author, would be valued today, given that she was a white woman, privileged. – So then what changed? – We know what changed.

You know, the barricades went up, the silos were created.

Safe spaces were really, are a real thing.

And I don’t, you know, I don’t wanna get, I don’t wanna be on the side of people who immediately dismiss the need for space spaces or, you know, the need to be woke.

I think being woke is great.

I just think it is being sort of lived in a way that makes, that flattens humanity to into ridiculous oppositions.

Look, you know, it’s this revolutionary approach.

There’s a song that Nina Simone adapted called, you know, “Pirate Jenny.”

And at the very end, it’s a story of a cleaning woman in a hotel who ends up, who goes and slaughters, you know, everybody at the end.

And she says, at the very end, she says, “That’ll learn ya.”

And that was, that is what I think is the vibe that’s happening.

It’s this revolutionary, you know, justification for rage.

And it’s against the backdrop of a deep belief that a genocide is underway in Gaza.

And, you know, people are very, very raw.

I think it’s a horrible mistake.

I don’t wanna, you know, of course, I think it’s a mistake.

I think it’s factually incorrect.

I think they don’t understand this.

I think they don’t understand Zionism or Jews or Israel or Palestinians.

I think they’re doing terrible harm to the Palestinian cause.

And I think they really don’t miss the point about what literature should be at its very best and what, you know, what we should be doing as humans.

Just don’t get me wrong.

But I have been able to get a sense of what that, you know, what is going on that makes me somewhat understand it.

That’s the best I can do. – I think the most generous interpretation of it is that if they were thinking, like, it’s not that this essay doesn’t have a place in the world, it’s that it doesn’t have a place in our place.

Like, this is our, as you said, safe space, or this is for a certain worldview and point of view, and this one doesn’t fit it. – Well, one thing it got was a lot of readers as a result. – I know. – Boy, I wonder how she’s doing. – Oh, it’s being reprinted everywhere.

I mean, it’s ultimately good for her, I think. – She is a friend of mine.

Her husband is a historian of science, the head of the department at Hebrew University.

And she is really, really lovely, which I guess is part of her problem in this particular context.

5 comments on “Retracted

  1. Guido FRANZINETTI says:

    Having read Joanna Chen’s “From the Edges of a Broken World” (see below), and having seen the motivations of those who contributed to the retraction of Chen’s article, I cannot be angry.

    What I see is a symptom of the infantilization of the American Progressive Mind. One does not criticize the blabbering of an infant. One simply moves on.

    1. Noah Efron says:

      I see what you are saying, Guido: that it is a waste of time to try to understand the views of the people who think that Joanna Chen’s essay is so objectionable that no one ought to read it, because there is no real depth to their views. You are probably right. But I cannot help myself, and I am not sure why. I still want very much to know why they think what they think. I feel like maybe it holds a key to something bigger.

      1. Guido FRANZINETTI says:

        I take your point. Understanding how people think is always useful. But in the case of Guernica’s retraction I felt this was more an expression of the childishness of woke culture. Indeed, it would have been interesting to find arguments of SOME kind (however unpleasant) against Joanna Chen’s article. Instead we merely got a rant (at the level of ‘I won’t play with you’). In a sense, I find this childishness – the inability to understand that political issues can be complex – really disturbing, also from a political point of view. They have not even reached the level of “It’s complicated”.

  2. Paul A. Giles says:

    A very insightful and helpful conversation of an almost impossible subject to discuss. Thank you.

    Paul Giles
    Taylors, SC USA

    1. Noah Efron says:

      Thank you for this, Paul. In truth, I still find the whole thing confusing and upsetting. But I am trying to make sense of it and to figure out what it means.

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