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“The Heart Is Capable of Grieving for Two Peoples at Once”

A Q&A with Joanna Chen about her “Guernica” essay on Israel and Palestine, its baffling retraction, and her plans to write a new essay about the experience

Photograph courtesy of Heidi Levine

Joanna Chen, as you may know, is the Israeli journalist, writer, and translator who recently published a piece in the literary quarterly Guernica that set off a firestorm at the journal, leading to several resignations and an official retraction of the article, which was denounced by various staffers as an apologia for settler colonialism and the mark of Guernica’s descent into being nothing more than “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.”

The essay, which The Washington Monthly republished, is in fact a heartfelt and nuanced reflection on the ongoing tragedy by a woman who spent her time volunteering (and continues to, after a brief post–October 7 hiatus) driving Palestinian children to hospitals. The essay’s sin seems to be that it acknowledges Israeli suffering as well as Palestinian suffering. As Sasha Abramsky put it last week in a bracing piece in The Nation: “If Chen were defending the Netanyahu government’s ghastly and indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, I could understand the hostility. If she were defending right-wing West Bank settlers and their gun-toting supremacism, I could understand the hostility. If she were defending the fascistic words and actions of Israeli cabinet ministers such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, I could understand the hostility. But Chen, who is a lifelong anti-militarist and spends her days shuttling sick Palestinian children to healthcare facilities in Israel, is none of those things. She’s a voice for peace and reconciliation in a country that has gone mad. Yet, by virtue of her showing sympathy for slaughtered and kidnapped Israelis and recognizing the shared humanity of all victims in this conflict, she seems to have been deemed illegitimate by Guernica’s holier-than-thou staff.”

Shared humanity of all victims. If a liberal, humanist politics loses sight of that, it is lost. And if journals and magazines can’t make room for an essay like this, which is not a political polemic and which attempts to look at a tragic and complex reality through a different and less crisply ordered lens, then that is sad too.

I conducted an interview with Chen via email Thursday.

Michael Tomasky: What made you want to write the piece?

Joanna Chen: I’ve been listening intently to voices on all sides since this ongoing horrific conflict began. I knew my essay would be uncomfortable and inconvenient to readers, but for me it is a necessary voice in this broken world.     

M.T.: Describe in a little more detail this work you did driving Palestinian children. How long had you done it?

J.C.: I’ve been volunteering with Road to Recovery for a few years, driving Palestinian children from the Tarkumia checkpoint to Israeli hospitals. Some of the criticism I’ve received over the past week and a half suggests I ought to think exactly why there are inadequate medical facilities in the occupied territories and that I should do something about that. So what do you want me to do? Go demonstrate on street corners or sign petitions? These kids don’t have time for that. They need medical attention now. Any parent who has had to care for a sick child will understand this. I’m not going to stop driving them, I’m going to hold onto my humanity the best I can, person to person.      

M.T.: Your own politics seem certainly somewhere left of center, is that fair to say? Could you talk a little about your political awakening and growth?

J.C.: I was 16 years old when my parents sent me to Israel. I had just lost my only brother, Andrew, in a traffic accident, and I was very much alone. I had no awareness of politics for years; I was struggling to survive.

I worked for Newsweek for 15 years, and during that time I met people on both sides of the conflict. I met politicians, but it was always the people who interested me, the faces behind the slick slogans and quick takes. I met Palestinians in refugee camps, I met Jewish settlers on hilltops, I met bereaved mothers on both sides. I accompanied a senior journalist to Gaza to meet Abu Mazen; I went with the same journalist to interview Ariel Sharon on his farm in southern Israel. I covered demonstrations, but I was always on the sidelines; I was always watching and listening.

I’m not a peace activist. I don’t go to demonstrations, and I’m not affiliated with any left-wing movements. On the other hand, I don’t shy away from the reality. It’s easy to get caught up in your own (real) troubles, your own pain. The Israeli press rarely reports on the dire situation in Gaza of the civilian population, for example.          

M.T.: When the editors read the draft, what did they say initially?

J.C.: Only one editor worked with me on my essay. There’s nothing unusual about this, and I had no reason to be suspicious—this was my second essay for Guernica, and the process was the same. I was given the distinct impression that my words were appreciated.  

M.T.: How did you first hear about these staff reactions?

J.C.: On Saturday night, a friend texted me that a staffer had resigned. I had no indication before then that something was up. When I publish essays, I let go of them, I let them out into the world, I don’t check obsessively to see what’s happening, whether there are reactions. I move on.    

M.T.: Toward the end of the piece, you write, “We learned the importance of acknowledging both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives and the importance of understanding the pain of each side.” Do you think, at bottom, that this was why the piece was attacked, because it acknowledged Jewish as well as Palestinian suffering? And if so, what does that say about discourse around this issue?

J.C.: My essay is uncomfortable and inconvenient to readers because it considers the incredible suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. Some people complained that I stopped my volunteer work with Road to Recovery after October 7, when in fact I temporarily paused: I was scared, I needed time to digest what had happened. Three weeks later, I signed up again. 

Discourse demands a conversation, a give and take. It’s a lot easier to listen to the sound of your own voice, but conversation is a necessary step in order to break away from the vicious circle of violence and hate.

M.T.: What, then, is the conversation that you were hoping to provoke? And I’m curious—given the reaction, do you feel you might have presented anything a little differently? The reaction was intolerant, but has it made you think, well, maybe I could have said this in some different way and communicated my point better?

J.C.: The essay considers how to remain human in a situation where each side in the conflict dehumanizes the other and refuses to see others and their needs and aspirations. I think the reaction demonstrates how difficult it is to see the others’ multifaceted humanity.

As a translator, I know there are several ways to say the same thing, and every way will highlight or showcase a different facet of the narrative. It depends on the context, it depends on the underground life of words and phrases. I choose my words carefully. The incredible reaction to “Broken World” has moved me to write a new essay, because there is always something more to say.   

M.T.: Experiences like yours often shake people and move them to the right, because they’ve seen an intolerant left firsthand. How are you working to remain true to your principles?

J.C.: I do not think in terms of left and right, although I acknowledge their existence. I’m certainly grappling with the current situation, but staying on track is not a problem for me. I’m determined to retain my humanity.      

M.T.: With everyone bracing for carnage in Rafah, with Netanyahu not budging, with Trump saying if he gets back in, Israel gets a blank check, and with Hamas not budging on hostages … do you see any basis for hope?

J.C.: The situation is dire. My words are a drop in an ocean of discontent and hatred, but I believe the heart is capable of grieving for two peoples at once. This is what being human demands of us.

M.T.: A final thought on literature and cancel culture?

J.C.: Literature and art certainly possess a political dimension, but reducing literature to politics creates dogmatic, monolithic writing without the nuances that make literature a tool for reviewing ourselves and the reality we live in.

History has taught us that attempts to censor and suppress literary works only serve to expand readership. The message, rather than being erased, is heard all the more loudly. I see what happened as a way forward. The conversation has begun.