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Susannah Dainow
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On loving anti-Israel artists

In the midst of all this loss – lives, ideals, friends –  I cannot bear losing work I connect with, too
Excerpt from an open letter by Writers Against the War on Gaza juxtaposed against view of the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, southern Israel, seen on October 15, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90) (Juxtaposition by Times of Israel)
Excerpt from an open letter by Writers Against the War on Gaza juxtaposed against view of the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, southern Israel, seen on October 15, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90) (Juxtaposition by Times of Israel)

Leslie Jamison is perhaps my favorite contemporary essayist. Her sharp eye for telling detail, her ability to seamlessly weave together personal and third-person narratives, and her rich understanding of how emotion and intellect are intertwined make her a standout among current nonfiction writers. When I heard that her new book, Splinters, was coming out, I immediately preordered it; this is not a gesture I make for many authors, preferring to wait for more reviews and for books to come out in paperback. This new book meant a lot to me.

Leslie Jamison is also a signatory of the Writers Against the War on Gaza open letter of October 27, 2023. The letter discusses at length what it calls Palestinian “genocide,” and calls for continued boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) tactics within the literary community. Perhaps most troubling of all, the letter blames Israel for the Oct. 7 attacks, saying the carnage that took over 1,200 Israeli and non-Israeli lives and around 250 hostages was not “unprovoked.”

I cannot understand how such a fine and supple thinker as Jamison, who in a recent interview with The Millions said “the god I feel I’m always trying to serve is the god of complexity,” can subscribe to such tired, flat, and false narratives about the Israel-Hamas war, in which Israel is the genocidal aggressor and the Palestinians are their, and only their, victims.

According to the website Literary Hub, thousands have signed this fallacious and inflammatory letter, including some well-known artists such as high-profile writer Ocean Vuong. (There are a number of Jewish signatories as well, such as novelist Jami Attenberg; the topic of anti-Zionist Jewish artists requires its own essay.) The positions the letter articulates have become de rigueur in the literary and artistic world; in 2021, over 16,000 culture-makers also signed “A Letter Against Apartheid,” which called for boycott, divestment, and sanction tactics against Israel in the literary and political world. A recent letter, this one addressed to the writers’ organization PEN America on February 14, 2024, was signed by such luminaries as writer and critic Roxane Gay. (Gay also fiercely supported her cousin Claudine Gay in the Harvard presidency scandal amid accusations of antisemitism.)

What am I, a proudly Jewish writer and lover of words, to do? Another Jewish writer I know, in the wake of the October 27 letter, decided to edit her book collection to excise the work of authors who had signed. I admired the absoluteness of her commitment but could not bring myself to follow suit.

Because I also serve the god of complexity, I cannot simply turn away from the meaningful work of artists who politically disagree with me, who may even hate me. I sometimes would like to, sometimes feel like I should take a more absolutist stance and cut these creators out of my artistic diet, but doing so would lessen the richness of my experience of the world. These artists may have taken an antisemitic position – a position I’m sure they themselves would not recognize as antisemitic – but that doesn’t change the impact their work has had on me. That doesn’t change the fact that I would like to continue to engage with their writing as a part of my understanding of the world.

It’s the age-old question of how to separate the artist from the art, only in this case, the question has deep and current political consequences. I wonder if it is perhaps enough to function with an awareness of an artist’s biases and shortcomings. Is it enough to acknowledge Picasso’s deep misogyny while appreciating his nudes? Or does the immediacy of the Israel-Hamas war negate this question? Should I be throwing out my Leslie Jamison instead of preordering her new work? In the midst of all this loss – lives, ideals, friends –  I cannot bear losing work I connect with, too.

And, as a writer, I cannot bear losing work I learn from. When Jamison writes of a new relationship, “[o]ur holy terror. The two words in that phrase were like a pair of scared kids clutching each other in the dark,” my writer’s mind sees ways to create unlikely entanglements of new images, lights up like a menorah.

Teachers and students

For me, Jamison is a teacher. I learn about my craft and myself from reading her resonant descriptions, her incisive self-insight, her sentences that loop through thinking to feeling and back again. Severing my relationship with that teacher would be yet another loss.

Nor can I simply move on to other writers, replace her work with someone else’s. She is singular, a voice unto herself. One of the things I love most about writing is exactly that singularity: what an individual writes cannot be written by any other writer. All work is irreplaceable, just as all lives are irreplaceable. No amount of death or destruction in this world changes that.

Judaism holds a special reverence for the teacher-student relationship; the bond between master and pupil is a key element of what we mean when we discuss the importance of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, as our people survives and thrives. The teacher is meant to abide by ethical guidelines in order to maintain their revered position and authority. Yet, a line of Talmudic argument states that the Torah of a teacher who has erred remains good, like the insides of a nut whose shell has been soiled. Following this logic, Jamison’s work can remain “good Torah,” even as her political actions are repugnant to me. It is a lesson in how to separate the artist from the art.

Jamison has teachers, too, and not always the expected ones. I was stunned to find that she quotes Israeli national treasure Yehuda Amichai in her new book. She goes so far as to refer to him by his last name only, trusting his inimitable style and her audience to fill in the blank, trusting us to be familiar with the master’s work. Jamison is in artistic relationship with an Israeli poet who was also a soldier, yet she signs a petition that has fallen under the influence of those who call for the end of his homeland. The complexity of this relationship is shockingly absent from her politics. What would Amichai think of this American WASP writer who quotes him while disparaging his country’s need for survival? What would Amichai, who fought in multiple wars and wrote incessantly of peace, have me do? I like to think he would have me read.

Another Jewish writer I know confided that The Color Purple, the landmark 1982 novel by Alice Walker, who has made outlandishly antisemitic statements in recent years, had saved her as a youth and thus she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of her copy. This is the power of writing and art, to connect across social barriers such as ethnicity and race and class. If we cut ourselves off from the works of writers and artists who are politically opposed to us, we might also be cutting ourselves off from work that saves us. The bitter irony is that some of the writers of these saving works do not wish to save our people. They do not see the link between connecting with individuals through their writing and a safe and just future for all peoples of Israel-Palestine. They write to connect with readers, but put those connections aside to advocate against an entire ethnic group in order to play politics and signal virtue, or worse, to vent antisemitic frustrations.

Since Oct. 7, the literary world has, to a very significant extent, closed ranks around Israel-Palestine. In response, Erika Dreifus, a Jewish writer and self-described “resource maven,” maintains a list of publications and organizations that have made explicit anti-Israel statements in the wake of the massacre and hostage-taking. That list is now two pages long; it includes magazines and workshops I have submitted to in the past and had hoped to submit to in the future. I imagine that, given my work in this publication, these outlets are now off-limits to me, which has a deep impact on my career as a writer. Furthermore, it makes me feel unsafe – persecuted, even – in what is supposed to be my own literary community. I imagine that, even if I didn’t write for an overtly Zionist publication, I would feel uncomfortable partaking in a literary event endorsing the social, political, and economic censure of my ancestral homeland. But, like any writer, I would like the opportunities, opportunities that are being denied to me because of my political stance and my ethnic identity. I feel cornered, and I feel constrained, and I feel writing these words for this publication, in significant if not physical ways, endangers me.

As well as the lost opportunities, the antisemitism of the contemporary literary world has caused me a great deal of pain. It hurts to watch otherwise great minds accept brainwashing rooted in Soviet propaganda, disseminated by actors such as Iran and Qatar, without considering all sides of an issue. It hurts to be excluded from one’s chosen community. It hurts to be told one’s people is exclusively deserving of fault in an extraordinarily complex situation and will suffer ramifications for this imagined misconduct. (The claim of Palestinian “genocide” is most certainly imagined; even the International Court of Justice found on January 26, 2024 that Israel is not committing genocide but fighting a war.)

Jewish liminality

Jews are a liminal people: historically and even now, we exist at the boundaries of culture, thought, imagination. This position can make it hard to stand up for ourselves because we don’t always know where our boundaries are, and we don’t know who, if anyone, has our backs. Liminality makes it harder to draw a line against cultural output that crosses the sometimes thin line between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. When artists we love express anti-Israel views, it feels like a betrayal not only because we identify with their work, but because artists are also meant to be liminal people; we are meant to have that in common. Jewish liminality is a significant factor in Jewish success in the arts. Making this liminality a point of pride rather than a point of vulnerability is key to modern Jewish survival and flourishing in the diaspora. Or perhaps pride and vulnerability must work in tandem here.

So what are Zionist Jewish artists’ choices in these dark, dark times? Well, they’re not great. We can cut the work of artists we otherwise admire out of our lives; I have already explained why this doesn’t work for some of us. We can engage with these artists through non-paying avenues, or venues that don’t pay them as much, such as the library or used book purveyors, but this can mean long waits for titles we are anxious to read. (Sometimes this works out for the best. I recently happened upon acclaimed Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s latest in a little free library out on a walk in my neighborhood. I picked up the BDS enthusiast’s book free of charge, read half of it, and returned it to the box where I found it, no harm done but for the hours I’d spent reading Rooney’s flat, flat prose. Israeli audiences are not missing anything with the author’s ongoing refusal to translate her work into Hebrew. In a twisted irony, Rooney wrote part of the novel while on a Cullman fellowship, a major award funded by the estates of Jewish philanthropists. Perhaps this is the limit of where I advocate separating the artist from the art; perhaps we as a Jewish community should rethink rewarding work by notoriously anti-Israel artists.)

Furthermore, we can uplift and support Zionist Jewish writers and artists such as Dara Horn  and Eve Barlow, buying their work, attending their shows, amplifying their voices especially where the war is concerned. And we can continue to engage with the artists whose work we love, even as their politics challenge us. It creates some cognitive dissonance, sure, but as Jews we are expert at holding contradictory tenets at the same time. It’s something our tradition teaches us to do, through the pain and struggle of paradox. The world, despite what the signatories to such letters would have us believe, is too complex for less than that.

I’m reminded of the issue of Wagner among early Zionist thinkers. While the composer harbored deep personal anti-Jewish sentiments and also wrote about his feelings publicly, many Jewish contemporaries, including founder of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl, enjoyed his music. Herzl even listened to Wagner to relax while writing The Jewish State. These thinkers made a distinction between the art and the artist. Since the time of Kristallnacht, however, it is de facto policy not to play Wagner in Israel; in the extraordinary time of the Holocaust, the distinction between art and artist collapsed, and to play Wagner came to be seen as disloyal to the Jewish cause. While there is a distinction to be made between the gross, overt antisemitism of a Wagner and the more coded, politically-oriented antisemitism of the pro-Gaza letters circulating in the literary community, there is also a connection: the thread of Jew-hatred runs through them both. (See here for antisemitic elements of criticism of Israel.)

Much as it pains me, I’m on Herzl’s side, at least for now. I like – I need – my world’s complexity; I can’t see dimming it by cutting out the works of people who disagree with me, even when their politics would challenge Israel’s right to exist. I do desperately wish the cost of that complexity wasn’t quite so high right now. Still, I choose not to wash out the colors of my world; I also choose not to bury my head in the sand and pretend these talented artistic voices don’t have their dark political side. Separate the art from the artist, but also maintain awareness of as many sides as possible of the artists whose work we entertain. This awareness protects us from work that is truly harmful. Some would say, we’re already there; that the politics of BDS and calls for immediate ceasefire render the work injurious. I struggle with this position, but I’ve got my eyes peeled and my ear to the ground. I’m not interested in trying to redeem Shylock: when the politics influence the art to such an extent that antisemitism is made manifest in the work, that’s when I stop reading.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.