When a magazine makes a ‘fulsome’ apology for doing a Zionism: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on a craven literary retraction

This week I was all set to write my weekly opinion column about Orthodox women in Brooklyn (if not beyond) going on a sex strike in protest of Malky Berkowitz’s ex-husband (in spirit if not all paperwork) refusing to give her a get, thereby keeping her religiously glued to this defunct marriage.

As a topic, it fits with my long-standing interest in the question of whether feminism can ever involve women refusing men that which women alas crave as well. I was going to get into whether anything about the stakes changes when one is talking about religious communities, where arranged marriage is more common, and was anticipating asking my co-host Rabbi Avi Finegold about this on an upcoming Bonjour Chai podcast.

(OK, I still just might.)

I wanted to steer clear of antisemitism as a topic altogether. Instead, the news got in the way.

I was even prepared to set aside the ‘because-Palestine’ Mar. 8 desecration of a painting of Arthur James Balfour, he of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, an incident ably reported on by New York Times reporter (and Bonjour Chai guest) Marc Tracy. For what it’s worth, I do not approve of destroying art to make a point, but I also think there’s something almost (almost) refreshing about anti-Israel sentiment directing itself at non-Jewish entities for once. Better to be mad at imperial historical Brits, or a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony, than to harass ordinary Jews who have done something like dare to sell bagels in Toronto in a shop that doesn’t have a great big FREE PALESTINE sign in the window lest anyone get the wrong idea. Again, not a fan of the act itself, mildly intrigued by the side plot about the painting-defacer wearing a high-end Mulberry backpack, but on the whole, not convinced this was reason enough to set aside the drama of politically motivated mikvah refusal.

But then the Guernica debacle had to happen.

Guernica is “a non-profit magazine dedicated to global art and politics, published online since 2004,” based in the United States and with an all-volunteer staff. Its name references Pablo Picasso’s famous 1937 anti-war painting. So what was Guernica-the-magazine doing, publishing an essay by someone who thinks Gaza and the West Bank should be flattened and that Israel should expand into a global empire, who thinks Taylor Swift music should be replaced with Hatikvah on loop?

Oh wait it did nothing of the kind.

What Guernica did was run an essay by British-Israeli author Joanna Chen. “From the Edges of a Broken World” finds her describing her life before and after Oct. 7–from being a teenager in Israel, newly arrived from England, and unwilling to serve in the IDF–to her current status as an adult who is a member of the same volunteer organization as the late Vivian Silver, driving Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals. It’s an essay about empathy, and the challenges of keeping lines of communication open during a terrible war and an intractable conflict. Chen isn’t writing in some vague sense about ‘the Palestinians’ but about actual Palestinians with whom she either has or did have relationships. She also voices frustrations with fellow Israeli progressives. She is frustrated, to be clear, from their left.

“One woman [in a solidarity group Chen participates in] expressed anger that Palestinians she knew through her volunteer work had not reached out on October 7 to ask how she was, whether her family was safe. I shrugged inwardly at this sentiment. The Palestinians in the West Bank were struggling with their own problems: closure, the inability to work, the threat of widescale arrests being made by the Israeli army, and harassment by settlers. No one was safe.”

The reason the link is to an archived version of Chen’s essay is that “Guernica regrets having published this piece, and has retracted it. A more fulsome explanation will follow.”

Much merriment ensued surrounding the pretentious if strange use of “fulsome.” I for one am waiting for the fulsomeness to come. I have no doubt whatsoever that something long and insufferable will ensue.

The essay led to a bunch of rather hmm mad-on-Twitter (see below), but also, more substantively, to staff resignations at Guernica itself. The in-a-huff quitting of an unpaid job does tend to lack the stakes of the other sort, but maybe now that Guernica has cleansed itself of any association with this writer who is clearly Jabotinsky 2.0 (sarcasm!), things can return to unpaid business as usual.

What is the objection to this essay, exactly? That Chen does not live in Israel and say, Please, Hamas, come for me next, I apologize for existing, you’re right, I’m wrong, please take the land, from the river to the sea, and who cares what comes of me, a colonizing entity who shouldn’t be here or for that matter anywhere else? Would that have been OK for Guernica?

Or was the problem the non-boycotting of Israel to begin with, such that even if she’d written an essay about her desire for Israel to be wiped off the planet asap, had she done so from Israel, or from another location but while having Israeli nationality, she’d have been interchangeable with the Israeli government, and therefore a Zionist entity to be avoided at all costs?

Is the problem quite simply that here is a Jewish writer who has some feelings about Jews being massacred where she lives?

If this essay is too rabidly Zionistic for the charmers at Guernica, where would that leave, oh, just about any other Jewish writer out there?

Thankfully, their decision is getting some pushback. Retracting the essay was, if nothing else, a foolish thing to do.

But let’s say you conclude—and I for one do conclude this—that the retraction isn’t just wrongheaded but antisemitic, given that it makes Jewish contributions to Guernica borderline impossible. Does this matter, one might ask, in light of, well, war?

I don’t like the idea of being a columnist who says the same thing every week, but until I have some reason to think the message has gotten across, I will be tempted to insert some version of this thought into each instalment: a general atmosphere of anti-Jewish nastiness, like the retraction of a personal essay, is not as bad as war, and there’s nothing inherently antisemitic about pointing that out.

But if your aim is to make the world less on Israel’s side (insofar as it is on that side to begin with), you just might want to refrain from acting in ways that remind time and time again of why Israel exists in the first place. I mean does no one else see this?

‘How could you care about people yelling at Jews on a college campus, or at internal grumblings at some volunteer-run literary magazine, with all that’s happening in Gaza?’ By all means frame your thoughts along those lines (not you-you, intentional readers of The Canadian Jewish News, but this is a website and anyone might read what they find on it). But maybe, before preaching to your choir, consider what it accomplishes in the world at large.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.