Why Is the Literary World Silent on Gaza?

Anis, I’m disturbed by the banner image you chose which paints Israel as a [sic] evil monolith—this is a particularly disturbing image as it draws on the antisemitic trope of blood libel. But beyond that, the image shows the Star of David with an impaled child—again, this pulls on some of the very worst anti-Semitic tropes.

– Natalie Lyalin

Me: I find the image just fine. The overwhelming majority of Israelis support Netanyahu’s genocide. The image suggests that for the sake of Zionist ideology Israel is crucifying Palestinian children. You step in only when there is the slightest chance of anything being misinterpreted as “anti-Semitic.” As a writer, have you had anything to say all these months about the genocide? Have the actual deaths and dismemberments of thousands of Palestinian children, impaled on the flag of Israeli racism, bothered you as much as this image?

You might have noticed the complete silence of any major literary figure—and until very recently, when the campus protests took off, hardly any leading mainstream intellectual or academic personality—since the present holocaust began seven months ago. What’s striking is the sudden and complete muteness of these same well-known gatekeepers of outrage about any of the issues that used to trigger them for the last many years. Their performative gestures about trivial culture war issues have utterly disappeared from the media and general discussion. I think their last big bout of outrage may have been about Barbie, a few months before the latest and most inhuman Israeli annihilation of the Palestinian people began, when the coast was still clear.

Together these two facts, the silence on the holocaust as well as the total disappearance of the liberal outrage machine for the duration that this genocide continues, tell us all we need to know about the actual place of the literary community in the wars of empire. They had been repeating the empire’s talking points on Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, but that posture too has been rendered mostly invisible in the wake of the Gaza holocaust. It suggests something about the magnitude of the horror that has been unfolding for seven months now that the usual dynamics of conversation among those in the literary community with large platforms and audiences have had to be suspended. At the same time, I know from past experience that they are quietly watching and studying, waiting to reappear at the opportune time, more empowered than ever before with their valueless virtue signaling about issues that matter to no one in real life. Had the worldwide agitation against Israel shown the least signs of actual anti-Semitism (rather than the imagined one university administrators and AIPAC-funded politicians in America rail against), or had the campus protests strayed outside the bounds of the most politically correct behavior, we would already have heard from the literary gatekeepers—and they wouldn’t have spared any of us.

Although Israel’s slow genocide of the Palestinian people has been a matter of record for eighty years, including the same type of violence inflicted on the people of Gaza and the West Bank after Israel decided to end the hoax of the Oslo “peace process” once and for all and chose to destroy any remnant of Palestinian civil authority and medical and educational capacity in the early to mid-2000s, the scale and intensity of the current violence against innocent Palestinian men, women, and children is something none of us has ever witnessed before. It is not a good idea to compare the intensity of one genocide against another, but reporters who were present at the scene in the former Yugoslavia describe the quantitative scale of the present holocaust as fifty to one hundred times greater than in the savage Balkans of that era. All of this, unlike the genocides of the nineties, has been live-streamed every moment of every hour for seven months, and yet we haven’t heard a word of substance from the kind of literary figures who would have been outspoken in matters involving identity politics in the past.

Which is all the more interesting because identity politics has been the bread and butter of literary activism for more than two decades now, and the Palestinian situation would seem to check off every single one of the triggers on the activist menu: racism, settler-colonialism, abuse of women and children, inhuman policing, in short outright annihilation of a colonized people. But of course Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslims, particularly outside the U.S., have generally not been the focus of American activism, as is true about brown people in general, although the tendency toward blindness is infinitely more manifest in the Palestinian case. Consider the amount of anger the video of George Floyd being choked to death generated—at least in the initial stages, when protest looked like it would be contained to parameters deemed acceptable by middle-class homebodies—against the infinitude of violence in Gaza on public display in every form of media for seven straight months. Clearly, the lack of visibility isn’t the problem, and in fact, the visibility of this oppression is the problem for the gatekeepers.

Intersectionality, as I wrote in an essay many years ago, carves out a special dispensation for Zionism, which is not racism according to leading intersectionalist theorists; in that respect, the present holocaust is a threat to these theorists, and camp followers like Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and others who have made it their lucrative business to advocate racial tone-policing in the professions. Confronted with actual genocide, they have had nothing to say, just as they have never had anything to say about anything genocidal, or even a lower order of crimes, the empire might commit against the outcast and irredeemable.

I’ve searched long and hard for some flicker of life among the dormant observers of this genocide who continue to behave, so many months into the annihilation, as if nothing whatsoever is happening. You can look at your own favorite writers and you will probably notice the same pattern. It’s becoming hard to even remember who the vocal ones used to be before the Gaza holocaust happened, but check up on them one after the other and assess their record.

I scrutinized Margaret Atwood’s Twitter account going back to October, only to learn that she has continually been rehearsing all the Democrats’ hysterical cliches about Putin and Russia and Ukraine and Trump, meaning  that she is only repeating the empire’s rationales for the other forever war we’ve got going on at the same moment. You will not find a single tweet on Atwood’s account about Gaza.

Roxane Gay was one of the more regularly featured writers on the New York Times’s op-ed page for the past several years. I had heard nothing from her about Gaza, and her Twitter account is now accessible only if she lets you in; however she did write, after six months of silence, a very strangely worded op-ed about Gaza, and then shut up again on the op-ed page. The article she wrote was an argument against the efficacy of open letters, which is to be interpreted in the context of the open letter to PEN addressed by discontented writers, in the news at the time. That letter has now been signed by more than 1,300 writers, although one notes the distinct absence of major writers, and the disproportionate presence of Arab, Muslim, and Asian writers, in addition to a large number of younger, emerging writers, many publishing with small presses, rather than the big guns. Gay’s op-ed repeated many of the genocide-justifying stereotypes routinely offered by U.S. State Department spokespeople, making sure not to omit blaming Hamas, and indulging in the familiar litany defenders of the outlaw Israeli state have always offered: both sides are at fault, the situation is too complicated, partners must be found for dialogue on each side, nobody has the right to exert moral certainty. That, in fact, is the big lie, and I challenge her followers to see through the deception. Gay is laying the groundwork for her own future past the holocaust, in effect canceling whatever her signature to the PEN open letter might have represented—already getting on the right side of those with power.

Prominent, semi-prominent, obscure writer, you’ll find the same pattern. Claudia Rankine, of Citizen fame, has had nothing to say about the genocide, even as she has been conducting herself publicly on the anti-racial platform. Jennifer Egan registered her nod on behalf of the literary establishment by defending PEN, the only organization according to her that will stand up for the freedom of writers (except for actual Palestinian writers being killed). J. K. Rowling, although she is no literary writer, has been obsessed with the trans issue for a while; she found time to register her hatred of the Islamic regime in Iran, while saying nothing about the genocide. Joyce Carol Oates loves to get involved in all kinds of controversies, and is as logorrheic on Twitter as she has been for sixty years of novel-writing, but all I could find was the “both sides have a point” (no, not in genocide) and “let’s have a debate without preconceptions” verbal blather Gay rehearsed for her fans. Ayad Akhtar made a splash with Homeland Elegies, a novel about American racial inequity, but I have found no public utterance of his with regard to the genocide.

These are just some random examples, but if any writer at the top of the leagues—and we know who they are—had taken a stance on Gaza, we would have known about it. We need to realize that these heartless people, who are carrying on with their narcissistic personal celebrations and milestones as if nothing of note were going on in the world, are the decision-makers, the authorities, the alleged moral exemplars, who are going to determine your fate if you are trying to get established in the profession, or your colleagues and friends if you have already established yourself. The moral stink is unbearable. These demons are your publishers, your editors, and your teachers, blessed with the morals of the IDF. Do you really want to be close to them in the future? At what personal cost, now that you know better than ever who they are, realizing that they won’t lift a finger in the face of an indisputable genocide?

The best we can say is that the campus protests have at last given license to a few literary writers to make the mildest of statements, as if to go on record for the sake of future reference, providing them plausible deniability. Many others, however, have taken the surge of university encampments as a cue to signal to their presumed Zionist overseers that they’re on their side. You may have noticed them doing so, in conversations or on social media, by uttering such vague sentiments as “It’s all very disturbing,” signifying that they’re not on board with the campus rebellion, without, of course, going so far as to reject the existence of the holocaust outright (although that, I suspect, cannot be too far in the future, once the present Israeli onslaught reaches its conclusion).

Some writers I know took the brief lull, before the final stage of the assault in Rafah would compel writers to shut up again for a while, to lambast those insisting that people take sides in what is supposed to be a conflict driven by ancient hatreds (a lie that is obvious to anyone who knows the history of Jews in medieval and even modern Islam). Commencement time provided an occasion for some writers to express how disturbing the situation was, without needing to specify exactly what they found disturbing; they are just going on record for the sake of those who are monitoring their allegiance. A more explicit denunciation of protest (just as happened in the aftermath of the George Floyd uprising), of any suggestion of cutting off the U.S.’s special ties of patronage toward the Israeli apartheid state, can be expected to occur in the next stage of dealing with the remnants of the Palestinian people, which is coming soon. Colson Whitehead was one of the few who stepped away from his role as commencement speaker at UMass Amherst, but only gave the rationale of police excess against student protestors. These narrow bounds will get much narrower soon.

Out of curiosity I tracked the social media postings of one Yerra Sugarman, a creative writing PhD, whose example I believe is representative of what I’ve observed. Seven months ago came the proclamation of horror at the babies allegedly beheaded by Hamas, a lie repeated by many to this day. Then the denial that Israel had targeted and destroyed the first of the major hospitals (of course, this became run of the mill soon enough, so there were no further comments on the systematic destruction of hospitals). In the early stage of the genocide, Sugarman uttered declarations about savage Muslim terrorists, and then the lie about Hamas using humans as shields (in fact, IDF soldiers have frequently made it a practice, such as during the subjugation of West Bank towns, to use innocent civilians as shields as they go about their house-to-house military aggressions—yet another instance of Zionist projection). Then Sugarman complained about the alleged cowardice of Guernica magazine editors in pulling a Zionist apologia, an essay I personally found sickening for its settler-colonial arrogance and patronization (I thought the Guernica editors were absolutely correct in resigning to protest the publication of the essay, although writer Meghan Daum defends the essay for its “moral ambiguity”—all the certainties of identity politics go out the door when it comes to Palestinians ). Then you heard from her about PEN America being on the wrong side of history for letting some writers get away with boycotting the awards ceremony and calling out its non-existent stance toward the genocide as moral depravity. As I have seen with others like her, Sugarman now constantly reminds you about Jewish writers being harassed and blacklisted and their writing in danger of being disappeared, when anyone who has been part of the publishing world knows how ludicrous this proposition is. She nauseatingly doubles down on promoting Jewish writing at this particular juncture as though it were in danger of going extinct, as though it were an act of heroic resistance. By this point in the genocide, writers like Sugarman make no mention of Gaza, because it simply isn’t possible to talk about it anymore. Note that during this litany of narcissistic complaints, there hasn’t been one word of compassion or remorse, during seven months of a live-streamed genocide, about any innocent Palestinian blasted to death. This signifies a psychotic disassociation from awareness of the kinds of images none of us has seen before in our lives.

A bit of context about literary writers, now nearly one hundred percent ensconced in the academy, and their engagement with politics. Once we stopped having writers who found nourishment in life and activity outside academia—i.e., real writers—writers in the eighties and nineties generally advocated removal from politics. Theodor Adorno’s misinterpreted dictum that there was no writing after Auschwitz was often used to justify disengagement from politics and restriction to domestic affairs in novels and literary writing in general. Even in the early George W. Bush years, it was rare to find a writer who engaged in any way with the wholesale destruction of civil liberties in pursuit of a chimeric war on terror, including such abominations as torture and the mass annihilation of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Later in the aughts, academic identity politics merged enough with literary writing that writers at last had a ready-made politics, which was generally the empire-supporting politics of the Democratic party, making out the equally neoliberal Republican party to be the enemy. This trend reached a culmination during the Trump years as academic identity politics and literary writing merged completely, so that writers, in order to be popular, generally wrote texts to buttress one or another theoretical proposition of identity politics, being very careful never to engage in any kind of class analysis. To this day, any understanding of neoliberalism, our actual reigning political economy for the last forty years, is beyond the grasp of most literary writers.

Enter Gaza, and all writers can do is look for clues to their masters as to what they are supposed to say. In a sense, Bill Ackman and others who came down heavily against the mildest defense of social critique, as represented by Claudine Gay of Harvard, were threateningly dictating the terms for how literary writers should behave in this matter. Months before the campus protests took off, students had already been warned that they could say goodbye to lucrative jobs with employers who were watching those taking a stand. The recent campus protests have provided the tiniest of windows to a few brown writers to call for a ceasefire, but they have not gone out of their way to make themselves heard, and have refrained from any critique of Zionism per se, or the American sponsorship of the holocaust. Note that it was ordinary students, not intellectual leaders on campus, who took the lead, although by now many among the faculty, particularly those outside the social sciences and humanities, are visible supporters of the campus divestment movement.

It is the literary guardians above all who have shown that they have no heart and soul when confronted by the most devastating images of death and dismemberment any of us have ever known or will know. Having been to several book festivals, academic conferences, and even the main literary writers’ conference during the period of the genocide, I have noted that participants are often interested in expressing horror at the genocide, but they will do so privately, as though there were great risk in voicing such opinions. We should ask ourselves, who are we afraid of, and what is this terror? At the Texas Book Festival in November, when the holocaust was still in its early stages, no leading writer who took the stage made a fuss about it, even if a rare few brown writers might have said a word or two during their own events. A massive demonstration occurred at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, which was joined by many members of the public attending the festival. At a border studies conference in San Antonio in the spring, there was much more sentiment against the genocide expressed privately, although again public mentions were rare. Earlier, at the AWP conference in Kansas City in the winter, young writers held a large protest rally in the heart of the conference, but hardly any established writers joined in; the AWP organizers quickly sent a wishy-washy email assuring the participants that AWP had nothing to do with the pro-Palestinian protest and expressing concern for the mental well-being of those who had had to witness the spontaneous outburst.

As writing has become completely assimilated in academia, and more specifically in its neoliberal identity politics theoretical apparatus, it has ceased being of relevance to politics. Literary writing—except for the rare dissenting Arab or Muslim or Latin American voice willing to stand up, although, again, hardly anybody prominent—has had nothing to say about the greatest crime against humanity we will witness in our lifetime. Once Israel finishes the job by destroying all the infrastructure of Rafah in southern Gaza, which would mean that it would have succeeded in turning the entire Gaza Strip, from north to south and the middle, into the parking lot Zionist agitators in America promised at the beginning, then we will face the future, the aftermath following the acute phase of the genocide.

It is then, during the middle of another election where we will be promised that Trump will be worse (how could he possibly be worse than sponsoring and funding a genocide?) and Biden must be elected at any cost to preserve democracy, character, and decency, that at last the writers will be heard from again. They will perform their usual shtick, resorting to tried and tested cliches favored by the empire, while coming down hard on all those who have stepped out of line. The moments of interregnum, when we writers of color who have the moral high ground find our ideas resoundingly correlating with history (as during the brief George Floyd moment), don’t last, so that when I am able to speak freely about the genocide, as do others outside the literary field, it represents a rare opportunity when we have a break, which won’t, however, last beyond the crisis. Indeed, the Floyd protests led ultimately to more funding for police, not less, and a vicious speech crackdown.

Interestingly, if the genocide had been timed differently, and the election were occurring now, there would be silence among literary writers even with regard to that, because there is very little space to utter rehashed political opinions as long as the genocide goes on. But they will search for relevance as soon as the opportunity presents itself, and will try to go back to their performative gestures, which were always hollow, as those among us who understand these things have known. Only their vocal gestures testifying to forms of exceptionalism will appear as greater absurdities than they ever did before.

I put nothing past them, and wouldn’t be surprised if they quickly rewrote the narrative of what just happened in these most intense months of the genocide, converting it into an exclusive tale of anti-Semitism among dissenters and protestors, which they will then seek to punish at unbearable costs. That does seem to be the likeliest outcome we can expect from this dehumanized lot.

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism