Zoe Strimpel

Literary lemmings now coalesce around Hamas

Instead of flying the flag of freedom, too many Western writers are parroting propaganda


A copy of D H Lawrence's novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' photographed ahead of the obscenity trial against publishers Penguin Books at the Old Bailey in London, September 13th 1960. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 18, 2024 14:55

There was a time when literature and its creators were associated with the subversive. Books were banned because of content deemed dangerous to the prevailing regime. In Germany in the 1930s, this was anything by Jews and intellectuals. In Britain, censorship laws made the publishing of work containing explicit sex illegal until Lady Chatterley’s Lover broke through the prim legal carapace. In Soviet dictatorships, particularly Russia, writers had to toe the party line or die; in North Korea today, a cabal of novelists are under orders to write stories glorifying the Dear Leader. In much of the Islamic world too, subversion is also punishable by death. Just ask Salman Rushdie. PEN International’s tagline is: “Promoting literature and defending freedom of expression worldwide since 1921.”

Today, writers in the West – the freest in the world – ought to be flying high the standard of that freedom, embracing independence of thought and unusual thinking.

Instead, we’re seeing the grim opposite, a lemming-like coalescence around the propaganda machine of Hamas, Palestinian activism and the worst of so-called progressive sloganeering. Far from promoting “freedom of expression worldwide”, the literary world of today has embraced a cruel campaign of bullying, banning and boycotting anyone it deems associated with Israel, namely Jews. This uniformly venomous response to Israel’s self-defence could not be further from the spirit of subversion that used to define the writerly world. It’s as boring as it is nasty.

On cue, as soon as Israel began its campaign in Gaza, writers slavishly united in “vilifying the Jewish state, or Jewish writers,” according to Erika Dreifus, a writer living in New York who has curated a site for Jewish writers that now offers a list of magazines for them to avoid.

It’s worse – more pointed, more aggressive and nastier – than one might have imagined, at least in the pre-October 7 world, where antisemitism at least wore something of a mask, albeit a transparent one. Take the deeply unfortunate resignation of Jina Moore, formerly editor of the literary magazine Guernica, who had been forced to retract an essay she had published by the British-Israeli writer Joanna Chen. The essay had been an emotional narrative of the desire to co-exist with Palestinians and was eminently left-wing and peace-embracing. But Chen herself was deemed too Israeli and therefore an apologist for “genocide” in Gaza.

Over a dozen Israeli or pro-Israel literary figures, from agents to writers to publishers, told the Times of Israel that they are being bullied: de-platformed, hounded and disinvited from literary events. The great and the good are among those ganging up: Michelle Alexander, the esteemed queen of anti-racist criminological theory, feminist campaigner Roxane Gay, and Naomi Klein (a Jew who ought to know better) all trumpeted their withdrawal from the PEN World Voices Festival because of PEN’s “inadequate response to the unfolding genocide in Gaza.” It wasn’t enough for the writers to denounce “Israel”, or for PEN to keep out of it: any association with an organisation that failed to be sufficiently explicitly “anti-Israel” was too revolting and toxic for these fine ladies to be associated. The ironies of a black feminist campaigner, an anti-racist and a Jew vowing undying solidarity with an Islamist regime of violent homophobic, misogynist, racist psychopaths over the free and diverse country next door are numerous and unpleasant.

How many furious open letters has Israel’s defence of itself spawned, especially since October 7? Too many to list. The open letter to PEN signed by Alexander and co also griped that PEN America had featured Mayim Bialik, ex-Jeopardy co-host and Big Bang Theory star, at a PEN Out Loud event in Los Angeles in February. Bialik is a Jewish Zionist. Case closed.

Children’s publishing, with its bombastic pains to be “inclusive”, is ferociously anti-Israel too – Jewish children be damned. Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression summed up the sorry state of what used to be the home of the avant-garde – the domain of the inventive against the prevailing ideological winds. “The idea that certain views are too harmful and we shouldn’t give them any space is moving into sectors like publishing,” said Terr, “which is populated by college graduates from elite schools — schools that do the worst on free speech issues.”

Over here in Blighty, things are just as bad. The iconic magazine Granta published a roundtable with anti-Zionists moaning about Germany’s strong stance on antisemitism. Kishani Widyaratna, publishing director of the grand house 4th Estate shared a video of author Mona Chalabi casting doubt on whether rape and sexual assault took place against Israeli women on October 7. At the grassroots level the yearning for Israeli obliteration has seen groups like Book Workers for a Free Palestine demand a cultural and academic boycott and a number of small publishers blaming Israel for what happened on October 7.

Behaviour since October 7 suggests that power of the pen has been perverted to to spread poison rather than freedom. Not only are the groupthink automatons of the antisemitic literary world dull and conformist, they’re in no position to write anything other than worthy woke dross. Their ancestors would be ashamed.

April 18, 2024 14:55

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive