Literary Magazine Retracts Israeli Writer’s Essay as Staffers Quit

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.”

“It is about the willingness to listen,” she said, “and the idea that remaining deaf to voices other than your own won’t bring the solution.”

Michael Archer, the founder of Guernica, said that the magazine would publish a response in the coming days. “The time we are taking to draft this statement reflects both our understanding of the seriousness of the concerns raised and our commitment to engaging with them meaningfully,” he wrote in a text.

The essay was published on March 4 and taken down a few days later, according to the Wayback Machine, where the first-person essay is still available in archived form.

Chen, who was born in England and moved to Israel with her family when she was 16, writes in the essay about trying to reconnect with a Palestinian friend and former colleague after the Oct. 7 attacks, and of not knowing how to respond when her friend texted back reports of Israeli attacks on a hospital complex in Gaza.

“Beyond terrible, I finally wrote, knowing our conversation was over,” Chen’s essay said. “I felt inexplicably ashamed, as if she were pointing a finger at me. I also felt stupid — this was war, and whether I liked it or not, Nuha and I were standing at opposite ends of the very bridge I hoped to cross. I had been naïve; this conflict was bigger than the both of us.”

Chen said in the email that she had worked on the essay — her second for Guernica — with the magazine’s editor in chief and publisher, Jina Moore Ngarambe. Over emails and in a one-hour phone conversation, Chen said, “I was offered the distinct impression my essay was appreciated. I was given no indication that the editorial staff was not onboard.”

She still has not heard from anyone at Guernica, she said Tuesday.

Ngarambe, who in 2017 and 2018 worked at The New York Times as its East Africa bureau chief, did not reply to requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday.

In the days following the essay’s online publication last week, several Guernica staffers announced their resignations on X, calling the essay a betrayal of the editorial principles of the magazine, a nonprofit that was founded in 2004.

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.”

Summer Lopez, the chief of free expression programs at PEN America, the writers’ group, said that “a writer’s published work should not be yanked from circulation because it sparks public outcry or sharp disagreement.”

“The pressures on U.S. cultural institutions in this moment are immense,” Lopez said in a statement. “Those with a mission to foster discourse should do so by safeguarding the freedom to write, read, imagine and tell stories.”

In a mission statement on its website, Guernica states that it is “a home for incisive ideas and necessary questions.”

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