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Self-censorship as institutionalized stupidity


Here’s a discouraging little story of our time:

Guernica, a small but prestigious online literary magazine, was thrown into turmoil in recent days after publishing — and then retracting — a personal essay about coexistence and war in the Middle East by an Israeli writer, leading to multiple resignations by its volunteer staff members, who said that they objected to its publication.

In an essay titled “From the Edges of a Broken World,” Joanna Chen, a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry and prose, had written about her experiences trying to bridge the divide with Palestinians, including by volunteering to drive Palestinian children from the West Bank to receive care at Israeli hospitals, and how her efforts to find common ground faltered after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent attacks on Gaza.

It was replaced on Guernica’s webpage with a note, attributed to “admin,” stating: “Guernica regrets having published this piece, and has retracted it,” and promising further explanation. Since the essay was published, at least 10 members of the magazine’s all-volunteer staff have resigned, including its former co-publisher, Madhuri Sastry, who on social media wrote that the essay “attempts to soften the violence of colonialism and genocide” and called for a cultural boycott of Israeli institutions.

Chen said in an email that she believed her critics had misunderstood “the meaning of my essay, which is about holding on to empathy when there is no human decency in sight.” . . .

April Zhu, who resigned as a senior editor, wrote that she believed the article “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’) a non-issue.”

I’ve read Chen’s essay, which is archived here.

It’s an evocative and moving piece of writing, which conveys deep sympathy for all the victims of the Israel-Hamas war.

I suppose it’s inevitable that it would cause various trained parrots to squawk about “colonialism” and “genocide,” as if the mere invocation of those words justify censoring the work of an Israeli writer, because after all she is a colonialist oppressor by definition, even if she regularly risks her own personal safety to help get life-saving medical treatment to Palestinian children.

To combat such reflexive stupidities is among a writer’s many obligations.

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