ESTRICH: On ‘From the Edges of a Broken World’

The essay was published by Guernica, which until this week I would have described as a highly regarded literary journal. (It can be found here.) This week, they retracted the essay, saying they regretted publishing it. Why? Because it expressed empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Because it was written by an Israeli woman, a peace activist, a volunteer who drives Palestinian children in need of medical care to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

How dare she express empathy for both sides?

Read the essay. It is beautiful. It is nuanced.

“It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides,” Joanna Chen, the essay’s author, wrote, explaining why she stopped her volunteer work for two weeks after Oct. 7. “How could I continue after Hamas had massacred and kidnapped so many civilians,” she asked, noting that a fellow volunteer and longtime peace activist named Vivian Silver was among those murdered by Hamas. “And I admit, I was afraid for my own life.”

Two weeks later, warned by her son that she was risking her life, she went back to her volunteer work.

This is the woman Guernica’s co-founder — who quit because of the essay’s publication — denounced for writing “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

When, two weeks after Oct. 7, she resumed her volunteer driving, her husband came with her (against her son’s advice, who didn’t want to lose both his parents); she picked up a 3-year-old Palestinian boy at the checkpoint with his father, and drove them to the pediatric unit at Sheba Medical Center. “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.”

This is the essay that Guernica’s former fiction editor Ishita Marwah castigated as a “rank piece of genocide apologia” and caused her to condemn Guernica as “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.”

And what does it say about Guernica that it caved in the face of that criticism, retracting the essay, saying that it “regrets having published this piece. A more fulsome explanation will follow.” That’s why you have to follow the link to the internet archives to read it.

From the river to the sea. In Guernica’s world, there is no place for Israel, and no voice for Israelis. Call it what you will: I call it antisemitism. No place for a woman who moved to Israel with her parents, when she was 16, after her brother died. On social media, she was damned as “a settler who has settler genocidal friends and raised settler genocidal children.”

A dozen editors at Guernica quit last weekend to protest the fact that Guernica published the piece. Grace Loh Prasad, a Taiwanese-born contributor to Guernica, complained: “I am alarmed & upset that my writing has appeared alongside an essay that attempts to convey empathy for a colonizing, genocidal power.” I wonder: Has she seen the pictures of what was done to women and girls on Oct. 7? Has she no empathy for the victims of terrorists who so hate women, who would do this to innocent children? The answer, apparently, is that there is no such thing as an innocent Israeli, that they have no right to exist.

On Saturday, March 16, after Sabbath services at Los Angeles I-KAR congregation, Standing Together’s Alon-Lee Green and Sally Abed spoke to a standing room only audience about the work they do as leaders of a grass roots organization of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis working together in pursuit of peace, equality and social and climate justice. The crowd was rapt, hungry for just this kind of talk. This work has landed them on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) boycott list — the political equivalent of Guernica’s cancellation. It is enraging — and heartbreaking — that those with the courage to try to speak the truth and find empathy in a broken world should by virtue of that become the targets of the gutless wonders and extremist haters who are trying, successfully at Guernica, to dominate the discourse.