An elite literary journal imploded over an essay about the war
OpinionGuest columnist

An elite literary journal imploded over an essay about the war

Because it dared to humanize Israelis as well as Palestinians

Remnants of a Kfar Aza home that was destroyed by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7.  (Photo by Rabbi Seth Adelson)
Remnants of a Kfar Aza home that was destroyed by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7. (Photo by Rabbi Seth Adelson)

This story was originally published in the Forward.

Guernica magazine, one of the most prestigious literary publications in the United States, retracted an Israeli translator and writer’s essay about coexistence over the weekend.

If that information prompts you to assume the piece in question, Joanna Chen’s “From the Edges of a Broken World,” was stridently Zionist — perhaps even a full-throated endorsement of the devastating bombardment of Gaza, or riddled with Islamophobia, claiming that all Palestinians are Hamas — you’re wrong.

Chen’s essay, which is still readable in an archived version, is a deeply moving piece rooted in profound conflicts she has with Israel, where she moved as a teenager. It expresses grief for both Gazan civilians and the Israeli victims of Oct. 7. The reaction of Guernica‘s volunteer staff, many of whom resigned after the essay’s publication, and the decision to retract the piece is nauseating and unquestionably antisemitic.

If an essay that simply allows Israelis to be human is seen as “an apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine,” as Guernica co-Publisher Madhuri Sastry declared in her Sunday post announcing her resignation on X, the values of the journal, which claims to be “a home for singular voices, incisive ideas, and critical questions,” are, in fact, chillingly devoid of any freedom of expression.

In her essay, Chen, who was born in the United Kingdom, describes the experience of moving to Israel at the age of 16, when her family needed a fresh start after the death of her brother. She was overwhelmed by the language and felt no connection to the land or the people.

When her mother encouraged her to join the Israeli army at 18 in order to assimilate better into society, she refused. “We have the world’s greatest army here,” her mother said. “And I fired back immediately: Who’s we? Speak for yourself. I never served in the army.”

Furthermore, Chen delves into her work to aid Palestinians. She is a volunteer with Road to Recovery, a nonprofit that drives Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank to hospitals in Israel for medical care they could not otherwise receive at home. (Chen wrote for the Forward about this volunteer work last year.) She briefly stepped away from the organization after Oct. 7, terrified that one of Road to Recovery’s longtime members, activist Vivian Silver, had been kidnapped by Hamas, but returned to it two weeks after Oct. 7. (Silver was eventually found to have been killed.)

In the essay, Chen describes unbuckling a Palestinian child from his booster seat while his father retrieved their luggage in her first trip after the start of the war: “Shukran, shukran, thank you, the father said as I cradled Jad in my arms for a moment. And I wanted to say, No, thank you for trusting me with your child. Thank you for reminding me that we can still find empathy and love in this broken world.”

Chen articulates both her anguish for the Gazan poets whose work she has translated — unsure if they are still alive, and fearful that if she texted after their welfare it would incur retribution by Hamas — and the Israeli hostages trapped underground in the dark.

Does this really, as Sastry claims, fail “the only metric we have agreed to abide by: it attempts to soften the violence of colonialism and genocide”?

The bizarre failure of those resigning from Guernica to understand the material that sparked their protest is particularly striking given Chen’s advocacy for literature as a source of connection and understanding.

Translation, Chen writes, is what opened her eyes to the politics of her new home, and to her neighbors, both Palestinian and Israeli. She sees the act of bringing forth text from one language to another — she translates in both Hebrew and Arabic — as an inherently personal act. Literary translation demands not just substituting words from one language to the other, she writes, but “deep reading, attention to voice, to the nuances of language.”

In training herself to listen for the individual textures and intonations of the author’s voice that she was translating, Chen was transported into another world, another understanding. “It enables me to transcend borders and build literary bridges from source to target language, from one people to another,” she writes. “And it was a wake-up call for me.”

It is impossible to understand what, in this language, could possibly be seen as so violent as to prompt mass resignations. In Sastry’s resignation letter, she writes that when she expressed earlier qualms about a prior piece of Chen’s, she was reassured by the rest of the magazine’s leadership that Guernica was committed to “champion anti-imperialist work, and would never act as a mouthpiece for power.” In what way does “From the Edges of a Broken World” violate this mission — aside from the fact that it was written by someone who happens to live in Israel?

To demonize anyone as murderous and oppressive, simply because they live in Israel, is textbook antisemitism.

It is painfully ironic that Sastry sees Chen’s essay as a “mouthpiece for power,” when the entire piece is about building communal ties to Palestinian and Israeli neighbors that defy state power. The relationships Chen describes are not simple: She exchanges worried, and at times charged, texts with Palestinian colleagues after the Hamas attacks. Her husband insists on accompanying her to her first volunteer trip after Oct. 7, until her adult son begs them not to: “If anything happens, we don’t want to lose both our parents.” She shares her own deep qualms about Israel’s military complex.

In allowing the real complexity of living in the Holy Land to exist in her essay, Chen affirms a profound, lived solidarity with Palestinians that goes in the face of Israeli nationalist fervor.

It is a much more meaningful statement of compassion and support for Palestinians than Sastry’s, or any of the subsequent protests voiced by those resigning from Guernica. To understand and aid on the ground will always mean more than to virtue signal from afar. That’s equally true when it comes to Chen’s literary work. Her translations form intimate ties with the literal voices of those who are different from her. It creates a new solidarity, a new community that goes beyond language or nation.

Yet even if Chen’s story were different, to censor Israeli voices for bringing humanity to the Israeli experience is wrong.

Even if you happen to think that the Israeli state is a settler colonialist project, the citizens within it are human beings with unique thoughts, experiences and wildly diverse political beliefs. To remove them from the pages of a literary magazine because of their nationality flies in the face of what good literature is supposed to do, which is to humanize those who are different from us.

To declare that Israeli voices are “mouthpieces for power,” with no regard for what those voices say, harkens back to some of the oldest antisemitic ideas on the books. When Guernica’s staff chose to depart en-righteous-masse, their resignations and statements to that effect only showcased their own moral atrophy. PJC

Nora Berman is the Forward’s deputy opinion editor. You can email her or follow on Twitter @noraeberman. This story originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, go to

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