Maia Ipp (contributing editor): Last week I read the 2021 memoir In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation by Penina Eilberg-Schwartz with Sulaiman Khatib. The book tells the story of Khatib’s life and his extraordinary political and spiritual education, including the 10 years he spent in Israeli jails for having attacked an Israeli he thought was a soldier when he was 14 years old. We get scenes from his early family life in the village of Hizma, which in Khatib’s youth is still only a 15-minute bus ride from Jerusalem’s Old City before the occupation’s walls and checkpoints would make the journey arduous if not impossible. We learn how and why he was drawn to Fatah as a boy, and how the books he reads in jail start to inform an orientation toward nonviolent resistance. This commitment leads him to dialogue work, and eventually to co-found the remarkable organization Combatants for Peace, in which Israelis and Palestinians who have “taken an active role in the cycle of violence” undertake nonviolent action against Israel’s apartheid system together.
The book engages seriously with questions of strategic political violence, and we see and hear Khatib’s pain of isolation from accusations of tatbi’a, normalization. The careful nuance allows us to understand why Khatib’s critics, even in his immediate family, at times find his work unforgivable. Khatib himself also questions what is lost in forming a shared identity. While the book takes these complex political questions seriously, the personal experience at its center makes those questions alive and felt. The book is also enriched by Eilberg-Schwartz’s own reflections about the process of interviewing and working with Khatib, and about her own journey of political change as a Jewish American. Despite experiencing violence in nearly every form, Khatib articulates a hopeful, if cautious, vision for shared futures in and through the struggle for justice.
Aparna Gopalan (news editor): In the past weeks, many of us have encountered international humanitarian law (IHL)—or the “laws of war”—at every turn as we try to make sense of the genocidal violence Israel is unleashing on Gaza. Concepts like “distinction,” “proportionality,” and “intentionality” have suffused the ether, making a clear understanding of each essential. To this end, I recommend the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)’s recent article “Israel and the Laws of War,” which is a Q&A with IHL expert Neve Gordon.
Like previous MERIP pieces—for instance, Lisa Hajjar’s 2016 article on how Israel has managed to get IHL itself changed in its quest to normalize violence against Palestinians—the Gordon conversation “moves beyond the question of whether violence is legal to underscore the unevenness of humanitarian law as powerful states maneuver within it.” For instance, Gordon notes that “distinction”—the IHL concept that holds that parties to armed conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians—has in practice cast some who do not abide by the principle as “uncivilized or barbaric,” with non-state actors and people on the wrong side of the “color line” bearing the brunt.
Most pertinently, Gordon discusses the recent Israeli attacks on hospitals, explaining that “claims that Shifa and Al Quds hospitals are located on top of Hamas’s headquarters are [not just] preparing the public for attacks . . . [but] also preparing a legal defense based on proportionality and military necessity”—yet another instance of Israel using the principles of IHL as tools of warcraft rather than treating them as absolute limits on violence. Gordon similarly explains the discourse of civilians being “human shields” as an effort to create “killable subjects,” as explored at length in his book with Nicole Perugini, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire.
The interview concludes with Gordon reflecting on why IHL fails to protect people from state violence. IHL only regulates the technicalities of the fighting, Gordon explains, rather than addressing the structural violence that long precedes, and outlasts, open conflict. “We need to keep in mind that it could be the case that more people will die in Gaza in the aftermath of the war due to structural violence than those who have been and will be killed due to eruptive violence,” Gordon says. “The laws of war have nothing to say about that.”
Even more importantly, IHL is the product of an imperial project and is designed only to privilege certain lives at the expense of others. “The law helped cast [the colonized] as barbarians,” Gordon says, “and when they resisted the colonizer the laws of war were deemed inapplicable.” In this context, Gordon argues, IHL is useful not as a collective moral compass or legal strategy. Instead IHL is best used strategically, as a tool to mobilize public opinion against the worst excesses of violence, while always recalling that it is still the master’s tool, and will not destroy the master’s house—nor contain the master’s violence.
Cynthia Friedman (managing director): Since the morning of October 7th, I have been consumed by emotions—especially fear, grief, and rage for the fate of Palestinians in Gaza—as much as I have been consuming photographs, videos, text messages, news updates, “takes,” and in-depth analyses. It feels that there is so little I can do in the face of the massive pro-war machine. Alongside joining protests, donating, and calling my representatives, “bearing witness” to the words and images directly from people in Gaza becomes a fourth way to act. There is a pragmatic imperative to amplify these voices: the hope that circulating images and stories will humanize those under attack, and expedite a ceasefire. But beneath that, I feel an intense spiritual imperative as well: to ensure, at the very least, that they are not holding their pain alone.
In reflecting on this, I want to share the pieces and accounts that have held me. Just four days ago, n+1 published a small selection of translated and transcribed audio clips sent from people in Gaza. The two dozen testimonies range in length from a sentence to a page; the speakers range from youth to elders. The X account GazaMartyrs offers eulogies that would otherwise be eclipsed by the scale of loss: photos and stories about the personalities, dreams, and lives of individuals who have been killed. On Instagram, I follow photojournalists like Mohammed Zaanoun, Plestia Alaqad, and Motaz Azaiza to absorb difficult moments, such as people being dug out from underneath rubble, and joyous ones, especially the outpouring of love for young children.
Alongside the concrete “now,” art can reach into the future. I loved this tapestry from Arif Rafhan Othman; the illustrations of journalists by Nouri Flayhan and Peonica Fernando make me weep; the animated line drawings from James Thacher teach me new things. In trying to sustain my engagement for the long-haul, I have found artists’ work to be a welcome balm.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): Last year, when I reported a profile of US State Department envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, I had a useful conversation with the historian David Feldman, who helped me understand the debate in the field of Jewish studies between “eternalist” and “contextualist” theories of antisemitism. As I wrote at the time, “ ‘eternalists’ . . . understand antisemitism as a phenomenon united by persistent features across geography and time” while “ ‘contextualists’ . . . caution against drawing broad connections between historically distinctive periods of anti-Jewish activity.” This isn’t just academic hairsplitting; these distinct approaches have a host of political consequences. When major Jewish organizations and figures like Lipstadt take an “eternalist” view of antisemitism—seeing it as an enduring virus that will always be with us—they seem to abdicate responsibility for actually figuring out how to fight it. And for such leaders, the logical conclusion of such a view is often that Jews need to have a strong nation-state. “If one accepts antisemitism to be eternal, and not a consequence of social or historical factors, then it is a fact of life that will forever push Jewish people into defensive postures. It will make us more nationalist, more reactionary, more militaristic, and more closed off from the rest of the world,” the historian Barry Trachtenberg told me at the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this historical debate since Hamas’s October 7th attacks. I’ve frequently heard Hamas’s massacres described as a “pogrom,” and thereby just another manifestation of the same antisemitism that has dogged Jews for centuries. While Hamas has at times espoused antisemitic ideas that draw from other antisemitic contexts, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is the October 7th attack akin to the violence in the Pale of Settlement that targeted my ancestors? And should it prevent us from understanding the specific context of October 7th, including the 16-year siege on Gaza, the longtime delegitimization of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation, and Israel’s historic efforts to cultivate Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization?
I was pleased, then, to see an interview this week between Feldman and The New Yorker staff writer Isaac Chotiner. Feldman challenges those who say that contextualizing instances of violence—both antisemitism around the world that has spiked since October 7th and Hamas’s attacks themselves—is the same as condoning them.“Either we give up or we try to understand why people are acting the way they’re acting. Otherwise, the humanities are not really serving a useful purpose,” he said.
Feldman then considers Jewish relationships to state power in order to offer a useful corrective to the dominant narratives around Hamas’s attacks and the current climate of fear among Jewish minorities worldwide. He challenges the aforementioned “pogrom” framing: In Russia and Poland, he explains,“Jews were a racialized minority, relatively powerless,” whereas the “awful” violence against Israelis on October 7th took place in a “state in which Jews are a majority, in which they have state power.” By this logic, Feldman says, settler violence in the West Bank town of Huwara earlier this year is a more fitting example of a “pogrom.” Feldman also uses this frame to discuss the situation of the Jewish diaspora, where Western governments have been both institutionally supportive of Israel and vocally committed to opposing antisemitism. The Jewish community, it seems, is mostly taking issue not with our leaders or state policy, but with broader public sentiment. Feldman sees this in part as a result of the fact that since the post-Holocaust era, mainstream Jewish communities in the US and Europe have successfully made “vertical alliances” with governments, while “alliances with other racialized minorities . . . have often suffered and frayed.” Paradoxically, Feldman argues, this governmental protection could actually bring “danger if people think that Jews are being protected in ways that the other groups are not. And it brings danger because it angers people who are against the state or against the system, however they conceive it.” For a sober, thoughtful model of how to understand this complex dynamic, Feldman’s interview is a must-read.
Daniel May (publisher): Several days after October 7th, I was speaking with a Palestinian friend about how to understand the response to Hamas’s attacks among some of our mutual friends on the left. “Our language in the Palestinian diaspora has moved so quickly over the last decade,” she reflected. “From occupation, to apartheid, to settler colonialism, and now to decolonization. But we haven’t done the work of defining what we mean. Do we mean the end of a state of Jewish supremacy? Do we mean reparations? Do we mean the right of return? Do we mean ‘the colonists’ leaving…?”
In the weeks since our conversation, as hundreds of thousands have mobilized in the streets of the US and Europe to oppose Israel’s killing and dispossession, I’ve been replaying my friend’s questions in my mind. To some, the protests reflect the emergence of a broad and genuinely anti-imperial left; to others, and even to some Jewish progressives opposed to Israel’s war on Gaza, the language present in these demonstrations evinces something more troubling. Whatever one’s reaction, what is clear is that today’s left is explicitly “anti-colonial.” Those of us invested in that left must begin to wrestle through what that might mean.
On Twitter, Franz Fanon is most commonly cited in what passes for discussion on these matters. His most often-quoted work is the first chapter of the 1956 The Wretched of the Earth, which is generally taken to endorse the necessity of violence in decolonial struggle. Fanon suggests that anti-colonial violence is “de-intoxicating” (or, in the English mistranslation, a “cleansing force”) which liberates “the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction.” By some, Fanon is taken to explain Hamas’ violence; by others, he is taken to justify it.
In his superb essay in the London Review of Books, “Vengeful Pathologies,” Adam Shatz troubles these cursory nods to Fanon. Shatz, whose book on Fanon, The Rebel’s Clinic, will be released in January, points out that Fanon was above all a clinician who both participated in the anti-colonial struggle and sought to diagnose its pathologies. As Shatz explains, Fanon understood that violence was at the very center of colonial rule, and necessarily produces violence in response. But this was not, Shatz insists, meant to be an endorsement of this violence: Fanon notably lamented the devastating results of violence on those anti-colonial fighters that participated in it and warned against a politics that becomes defined by the “resentments” that violence produces and unleashes.
Shatz’s reading of Fanon challenges both those who justify or defend Hamas’ horrifying atrocities, as well as those who think that Hamas’ brutality can be stopped through military force. As Shatz writes, “the inescapable truth is that Israel cannot extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence, any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are stuck with each other, unless Israel, the far stronger party, drives the Palestinians into exile for good.” Amidst such overwhelming loss, it is helpful, even essential, to be reminded of that basic truth and that dark warning. The warning describes what must be stopped; the truth points towards the only future worth striving for, together.
Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): The liminal identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel has always been fertile ground for creative work, but few artists have come to define a milieu quite like the musician Faraj Suleiman and the writer and lyricist Majd Kayyal. While their first hit collaboration in 2020, Better Than Berlin, unpacked the lure and alienation of migrating to Europe, their 2023 album Upright Biano powerfully expresses the double consciousness of middle-class Palestinian citizens of Israel who stay behind. In the song “Wtf,” for example, each refrain of “our story” is followed by absurd vignettes—“our story is Charmander wanting to work as a firefighter/And Ashkenazis in Haaretz reviewing knafeh”—in what feel like maxims for their whole generation.
The opening song, “Down With London Bridge,” almost warrants a recommendation of its own. The hilarious 13-minute epic is told from the perspective of a son narrating the long-simmering tension that emerges between his parents due to their divergent responses to Princess Diana’s death: As tears stream down his mother’s face, his father becomes increasingly obsessed by the pursuit vengeance against Queen Elizabeth II for the British role in “destroying our homes.” The stripped-back piano—also the album’s titular symbol of bourgeois comfort—turns into a high-tempo, anthemic call for something beyond the relative comfort of their lives as Israeli citizens, as the father tells his son: “We were created to hope . . . that Elizabeth will fall off her horse and crash.” The son gradually comes to embrace his father’s righteous, addictive anger: “I thought I’d turn out different . . . Like my dad, I want to erase the entire works of Shakespeare . . . For Alice to never come out of the rabbit-hole/For Tony Blair to be bitten by a cobra . . . And for the empire on which the sun never sets to be eaten up by global warming.” Although the narrator’s father never drops his conviction, his parents reconcile after Queen Elizabeth’s death, and the heavy burden of political grievance on domestic life is lifted. Still, other straightforward love songs on the album—such as the tender “Never After” and “Little Thought”—serve as reminders that mundane romantic strife will soon rush into the vacuum. In the sardonically titled “Anthem of Arab Israel,” a chorus of voices sing about an ever-elusive “happiness at home,” yet the fact that “time never puts out the fire” could equally refer to the injustice itself, or the self-sustaining grievance—much like a father in the song who makes “excuses.”
Since October 7th, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been forced into silence by mass arrests, dismissals from jobs and universities, and incitement and mob violence against them. One far-right Israeli news presenter’s indictment seemed to speak to the sentiment underlying this repressive wave: “The age of the ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ is over. It’s Israeli or Palestinian.” While the songs on Upright Biano geographically span an area that stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galilee (it’s more “from the sea to the sea” than “from the river to the sea,” capturing the isolation of Palestinian citizens of Israel from their own people), the final song “If Only I Could,” resists this divided geography, even if the only unity it finds is hypothetical: “If only it would rain in Gaza and the Galilee/We will build your kingdom and take down our tents.”
Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): If you need to pry yourself away from the depressing and debilitating habit of obsessively following news and, worse, social media, but can’t quite bring yourself to escape entirely, I recommend poetry—specifically, the work of the late Palestinian citizen of Israel Taha Muhammad Ali. And along with Ali’s searing, deceptively straightforward poems, you might also read Adina Hoffman’s gorgeously layered biography of the poet, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.
Ali was born in 1931 in Saffuriyya, in an area that had long been the Palestinian cultural center in the Galilee. When his village was razed during the Nakba, he fled with his family. He later wrote, in a voice speaking to a departing lover (or perhaps to the land): “We did not weep / when we were leaving — for we had neither / time nor tears, / and there was no farewell. / We did not know / at the moment of parting / that it was a parting, / so where would our weeping / have come from?” The family eventually settled in Nazareth, where Ali became proprietor of a souvenir shop—“a Muslim who sells Christian trinkets to Jews,” according to Hoffman—as well as a lover of reading. He taught himself to be a writer, and published his first book of poems at the age of 52.
Hoffman—an American-born Jew who has lived in Jerusalem, where she co-founded the (now shuttered) press that first published Ali in translation—set out to write the poet’s biography with a profound question. “I wanted to know how it was that an elderly Palestinian Muslim with four years of formal education, few teeth and a literary obsession . . . could ‘speak,’ as the idiom has it, so powerfully to my experience and to that of so many.” Hoffman’s book answers this question by telling Ali’s personal story with deep compassion and extensive context, mining the centuries-long history of Saffuriyya, the traditions and modern evolution of Palestinian poetry, and the squeezed experience of Palestinians in Israel after 1948.
Hoffman writes with unflinching honesty about her own position with respect to the material she is covering. She began working on the book during the Second Intifada, mourning the loss of a friend in a suicide bus bombing and simultaneously aghast that many she knew “had converted their own fear of such a violent demise into the most unapologetic racism.” And throughout these reflections, Ali remains at the center of the story as a model for turning degradation and anger into an art, and expressing, in Hoffman’s words, “a generosity of feeling that seems almost to defy history.”
Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): At a moment when events in Israel/Palestine are outpacing even the keenest observer, I have found myself thinking about the slowest Palestinian film I’ve ever seen: Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection (2015). The movie repurposes footage of the port city of Jaffa taken from Israeli and American cinema from the ’60s to the ’90s to produce a haunting collage of Palestinian life from the decades after the Nakba. Aljafari draws from source material ranging from the popular Israeli musical Kazablan (1976) to the American blockbuster The Delta Force (1986), digitally disappearing professional actors from the scenes and leaving behind only the unwitting extras—Jaffa’s Palestinian community—thus turning them and the remains of their disappearing city into the protagonists. By excavating deeply personal images from an Israeli and American cinematic oeuvre (including a picture of the home that once belonged to his grandmother, who was expelled from Jaffa, and a repeated, blurry image of his uncle), Aljafari defiantly ruptures the colonial fictions and reasserts instead the Palestinian reality, reclaiming permission to narrate his family’s history.
At 70 minutes long, without plot or character, Recollection quickly becomes excruciating to watch. Aljafari refuses the viewer any stable narrative mooring; even the anecdotes about his family that frame his project are relegated to the end credits. The film’s difficult, disorienting aesthetics force us to consider what it means to pay attention to a project of slow erasure. After all, many of Israel’s violent policies toward Palestinians have long been marked by slowness, which has characterized the infamous “calorie count” to limit food in Gaza, the gradual destruction of infrastructure in the West Bank, and the racialized gentrification in Jaffa that has transformed Aljafari’s spectral city beyond recognition. Given the competition for attention in a globalized world and the algorithmic bias for extremity, the measured strangulation of Palestinians is, frankly, too boring to capture Western attention for long. Only when violence speeds up is the Palestinian cause briefly remembered—and even then, scarcely understood. Recollection takes on the hard work of capturing the violence of the everyday, and Aljafari’s toil trawling through archival footage demands a corresponding labor from viewers as we try to bear witness.
Raphael Magarik (contributing writer): At the recommendation of my friend Stephanie Kraver, a scholar of Israeli and Palestinian poetry, I’ve been reading and rereading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s bracing poem “The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man” (translated by Fady Joudah). The poem itself is gently skeptical of my desire to take refuge in poetry, rhetorically asking its addressee: “Will you not memorize a bit of poetry to halt the slaughter?” And yet, Darwish’s poetry is not the kind that, to use W.H. Auden’s despairing phrase, “makes nothing happen.” Its very ventriloquism is scandalous to a white Jewish reader like me, accustomed to think of Native American voices as ethically unavailable for appropriation. Darwish riskily asserts the possibility of translation between experiences of Indigenous dispossession in radically different contexts—even as the poem’s dramatic conceit implies that it is also possible for the settler to hear from the native.
Although steeped in irony and melancholy, the poem’s core structure remains strikingly optimistic—as suggested by its epigraph, a Duwamish Chief’s self-qualification, “Did I say, The Dead? There is no Death / here, there is only a change of worlds.” There are numerous changes of world here—Indigenous people forced to migrate westward from the Mississippi; Native traditions about a next life; Columbus arriving in a “New World,” with the self-given “right to name our ghosts as pepper or Indian”; and then finally the change of worlds from Palestine to the Mississippi and Seattle, from the lovingly evoked natural world of North America to a world of “the dead and settlements, dead and bulldozers.” I can’t help but wonder whether we are supposed to imagine another sense of the phrase, too: the idea that we might be able, somehow, to change the world and put an end to—or at least somewhat mitigate—this ongoing catastrophe.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Since October 7th, we’ve seen a crushing wave of repression of speech by or in solidarity with Palestinians across Europe. One of the early targets was the Palestinian author—and Jewish Currents contributor—Adania Shibli, who was set to be awarded a major literary prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her remarkable novel Minor Detail (which I read in 2020, in Elisabeth Jarquette’s English translation). But on October 13th, the association granting the award announced that the ceremony would be postponed “due to the war in Israel.” (They claimed that Shibli was consulted, but she later clarified that she was not, and said she’d have preferred to use the occasion to reflect on literature’s role in this moment.) The move, which has been rightly condemned across the literary world, has a particular eerie perversity. As Israeli airstrikes rained down on Gaza, killing thousands of Palestinians, a German cultural institution withdrew from celebrating a book concerned with the anti-Palestinian violence that has structured Israeli society since its founding. The novel—split between the lives of two Palestinian women, one killed by soldiers in 1949 and one obsessed with that story in the present day—dwells on the intricacies of dehumanization: sometimes spectacular, but often hauntingly mundane. It’s sobering to return to this text now, as the horror it traces across everyday life finds its most unthinkable expression.
Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): I’ve been looking for historical parallels—however imperfect—to this moment of horror and possibility in Israel/Palestine, so I turned to what is perhaps the definitive anti-colonial film, Gilo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. For a work that was banned by the French authorities, it is surprisingly even-handed, never resorting to Manichaean caricatures of either the native Algerians or the pieds noirs, the European settlers who lived in Algeria. Its power lies in unflinchingly presenting the humanity and inhumanity of both people, and in never losing sight of the engine behind the violence they suffer and perpetrate, which is colonialism itself.
The film opens with French colonial forces surrounding a group of fugitive revolutionaries from the National Liberation Front (FLN), who are led by protagonist Ali la Pointe. Pontecorvo is clearly sympathetic with the Algerian cause, and with la Pointe as its resolute and principled hero. Yet la Pointe’s foil, the eloquent French Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, is not drawn merely as an antagonist. He wins the audience’s grudging respect by being honest enough to warn his countrymen that they must “accept all the necessary consequences”—meaning the brutal suppression of indigenous resistance—if they are to remain in Algeria.
Pontecorvo captures the violence that colonialism necessitates and ultimately reproduces, dramatizing both the quotidian humiliation of French restrictions, and the way these cycles of repression fuel insurgency: A beheading is met with an assassination; a French bombing in the Casbah produces a reciprocal attack on civilians in the European quarter. With its black-and-white newsreel style, the film looks unblinkingly at these violent episodes, but does nothing to glorify them. As an Algerian woman prepares to set off a bomb in a cafe full of French patrons, the camera lingers on a child licking his ice cream, oblivious to his imminent death. The audience is brought too close to the suffering to be swept up in revolutionary fervor. Yet the film also forcefully dispels the claim that cheek-by-jowl anti-colonial violence is somehow morally inferior to sophisticated and sanitized methods that kill many more people. When FLN leader Larbi Ben M’hidi is asked by a journalist whether it was “cowardly” of revolutionary forces to use women to sneak bombs into the European quarter in baskets, he replies: “Give us your airplanes, sir, and we will give you our women and their baskets.”
In the film’s denouement, the irrepressible impulse for liberation bursts through this narrative loop, as Algerians rise up en masse against French rule. The actors in this scene are ordinary Algerians, reenacting their own revolution only a few years after experiencing it in reality. In the final scene, the gendarmerie asks the Algerian crowd, obscured by fog, “What do you want?” The response is a quivering cry for the most basic human needs: “independence, pride, and freedom.” Behind the fog, the crowd is faceless, and the call is universal; it echoes now in Palestine and beyond.
Aparna Gopalan (news editor): “It seems like things can’t get worse—but when we reach the bottom, it turns out there is another bottom. It’s an abyss.” This is what one of our contributors wrote in our Gaza dispatches from last week, and each day that goes by proves him right. Hundreds dead at Al Ahli hospital; a ferocious night of Israeli airstrikes that extinguished 700 lives; the death toll for Palestinian children nearing 3,000; the real-time genocide denial from the world’s most powerful man. And yet it doesn’t stop. Just this afternoon, we’re hearing that all communications out of Gaza have been shut down as Israel carries out its most intense bombing campaign yet.
Amid this surfeit of horror, I feel a real risk of failing to apprehend its scope, and a fear that if I truly understood the scope it would break me. And yet it feels essential to try. In that effort, the three sets of “Letters from Gaza” (Parts I, II, and III)—published by Protean Magazine, in partnership with the Institute for Palestine Studies—have been an essential read. The letters include the testimonies where artists, parents, scholars, humanitarian workers, and many others in Gaza recount not just their horrific experiences but also the everyday lives they are striving to create amid unlivable conditions, the rhythms they are trying to establish only to have them shatter as the abyss deepens day after day. If you, like me, are trying to wrap your head around the scale of the unfolding catastrophe, these accounts of what it is like to live through it are a good place to start.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): In an interview the other day with a well-known journalist at a mainstream network—an interview which never aired—I found myself in a position that many Palestinians have described over the years, struggling to meet the terms of a liberal common sense which has refused to make room for the Palestinian experience. I tried to talk about what it might mean to really understand the brutal conditions of Palestinian unfreedom, continuing with no end in sight; I tried to raise the alarm about Gaza, and to say with clarity that according to the articles of the Geneva Convention, there is good reason to call this assault a genocide. The journalist held their hand up to stop me from talking, to interrupt this line of thought: They had to ask about the students. The students tearing down hostage posters, the students behaving badly, and the Jewish students who are afraid. (This question, they told me at the end of the interview, came directly from a Jewish colleague in their newsroom, who was taken aback that they were even considering talking to me in the first place.)
To be clear, there is much to say about these campus dynamics, important conversations to be had that we at Jewish Currents intend to explore. But we must keep perspective. In his recent essay in n+1, “No Human Being Can Exist,” Saree Makdisi helps us recover some of that sense of scope as he recounts the vectors of the tragedy unfolding in Gaza. There are already so many trapped under the rubble. Perhaps they are not yet dead. There are children in incubators in the NICU, and there is no more fuel. And as I write this, the world has lost connection with Gaza. The phone lines and internet have been cut. The few messages relayed by satellite report a vicious, relentless attack from the sky while Israel has seemingly begun a ground invasion that no one but Gazans and Israeli soldiers will see. One wants to vomit, to scream, to sleep for years.
I know that Jewish students on campus feel afraid. I know that some college activists act imprudently. I know that antisemitic incidents do increase during Israeli military operations. I see the ways that a political culture of identitarian grievance feeds into these dynamics, flowing in all directions; I also see the resources being poured into the weaponization of Jewish fear to quash pro-Palestine activism on campus. Again, this is all worth discussing. But I fear that the liberal imagination is getting stuck, narrowing the stakes of this world-historical event to the American campus, where many generational grievances have collected, in order to obscure or eclipse the stakes of what is being perpetrated by Israel in Gaza, to abdicate responsibility entirely. To perversely posit young American Jews as the central victims of the earth-shattering violence in Palestine—and, for that matter, in Israel—seems in its own way a form of denial. I found Makdisi’s essay to be the authoritative corrective to this liberal myopia, a way of cutting through the noise and finding the frame. If you need a dose of perspective, I strongly recommend you read it.
This week, we welcome Fargo Nissim Tbakhi in a brand new role at Jewish Currents: artist-in-residence. Over the next year, Fargo will be creating and curating performances to be staged across the country, so watch this space!
Fargo Nissim Tbakhi (artist-in-residence): Lately, I find myself seeking out art that takes disgust, cruelty, revulsion, and other ugly feelings seriously. So I’ve been spending time with the work of the experimental theater director Reza Abdoh, a queer, Iranian-born provocateur whose electrically confrontational theater expanded the possibilities for experimental performance in the United States. Abdoh’s body of work (and work of body) examined the jagged wounds of the American nation in the ’80s and ’90s and tore them open to wallow in the blood.
Quotations from a Ruined City, Abdoh’s last full piece before his death of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 32, is an astonishing piece of such brutality. It is, characteristically, a work of compounding and interweaving fragments, paired with text that moves from poetic to financial to musical. The play begins with two performers’ disembodied heads describing the titular ruined city; as the performance moves they reappear as Puritans, struggling actors, and businessmen, always drawn inexorably back to the city in spite of themselves. Across the work, Abdoh consistently focused on the ways that the body can exert itself on stage and serve as a translation of the various violences which make up the world. The performers of Abdoh’s theater company, Dar A Luz, physically and spiritually collide with one another across evocations of genocide, torture, and something like queer survival.
The play—which was written in collaboration with his brother, Salar—is impossible to describe and almost violent to experience, even with the low-quality video compressing its immediacy. Quotations moves at a frenzied pace, as though it’s trying to match or exceed the speed at which atrocities both daily and historical accumulate. Like all of Abdoh’s work, the performance is suffused with gallows humor, a few fart jokes, and occasional moments of near-sublime grace. In the video of the 1994 Los Angeles performance, someone releases a butterfly from a jar in the middle of the show. The performance ends with two men in dresses embracing one another, and the lines “Remember. Remember. We are bound to the past as we cling to the memory of the ruined city.” The lights go down, then back up as the two remaining performers bow, and then the butterfly flutters directly across the lens of the camera for just a moment. It’s a beautiful, unplanned testament to life somehow persisting inside the borders of a perpetually cruel place.
This interplay of violence and grace is characteristic of Abdoh’s work. In his 1990 evisceration of the Orpheus myth, The Hip Hop Waltz of Eurydice, the title character repeatedly says “The place that you rip open again and again that heals is God.” It’s a fitting thesis statement for his project, and for why we might make art that hurts us. Sometimes the violence slows, and something tender flutters by, just in front of the lens.
Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater feeling as emotional as I did on Wednesday after seeing Ossie Davis’s 1961 satire, Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, a profound and hilarious critique of racial capitalism.
The play—directed by Kenny Leon with unrestrained fervor—follows the tangled efforts of the eponymous hero (played by the charismatic Leslie Odom, Jr.), an itinerant preacher and folkish trickster who returns to Georgia to retrieve a $500 bequest from a deceased cousin, and with it, reclaim his grandfather’s church, where he plans to preach the gospel of freedom. He recruits a naïve young woman (the hilarious Kara Young) to impersonate the cousin—white people can’t tell Black folks apart, after all, he reasons—and demand the inheritance of Ol’ Cap’n (steam-out-of-his-ears blustery Jay O. Sanders), the cotton plantation owner who is holding the cash, as well as trapping local Black people in inescapable sharecroppers’ debt. Several relatives and household members round out the cast, each self-consciously enacting their expected roles to avoid the wrathful violence of Ol’ Cap’n.
When Davis wrote the play, he wondered if his effort to turn stereotypes “inside out and upside down” would go over. Could laughter be revolutionary? He found a satisfying answer when Black audiences howled happily at the original production in which he and his wife and activist comrade, Ruby Dee, starred, and when, in turn, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X attended the show and came backstage afterwards to offer their congratulations. The play also had me laughing throughout its madcap 100 minutes, and left me infuriated by the aptness of its scathing 62-year-old indictment.
Indeed, Davis had initially set out to write a tragedy exposing the “racist arrogance” he experienced growing up in the South. But his work on a play based on Yiddish stories—the surprise 1953 off-Broadway hit, The World of Sholem Aleichem—inspired him to turn “from anger and revenge toward laughter.” Both its writer, Arnold Perl, and director, Howard da Silva, had been blacklisted and barred from their respective jobs in radio and Hollywood movies, so they shifted to the theater to give themselves and other dis-employed leftists some work. Da Silva met Dee at a rally for the Rosenbergs, where she spoke against the death penalty, and offered her a role. Davis came along as stage manager.
Being a comedy, Purlie ends with the hero victorious. In the final scene, the set (designed by Derek McLane) morphs magically from the family’s ramshackle hut into the beautiful light-filled Big Bethel Church of the New Freedom—“part Baptist; part Methodist; part Catholic—with the merriness of Christmas and the happiness of Hanukkah.” Presiding over Ol’ Cap’n’s funeral, Purlie ends his sermon with a timely benediction: “Now, may the Constitution of the United States go with you; the Declaration of Independence stand by you; the Bill of Rights protect you; and the State Commission Against Discrimination keep the eyes of the law upon you, henceforth, now and forever. Amen.” Much of the audience echoed the affirmation, and I was no different. As tears gushed out of me, I heard myself shout “O-meyn.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Has there ever been a book as fascinating, well-designed, informative, and historically important with as dull a title as Data Portraits?
I discovered this book, which was published in 2018, earlier this year, thanks to a recent show at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, “Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair.” This revelatory exhibit featured some of the charts and visualizations on Black life in the United States—with a particular focus on Georgia—that the famed sociologist created with his students and presented at the fair in Paris. Data Portraits, which collects these graphics as well as some displayed elsewhere, is an irreplaceable snapshot of the African American experience.
Each chart in this volume displays important demographic information, from the shifts in the Black population of every state to the comparison of the percentages of white and Black people working in various fields. Some of the graphs have clear and essential political purposes. For instance, one reveals that Black illiteracy, near total under slavery, had dipped lower than the rates in Romania, Serbia, and Russia; Du Bois’s intent was to rebut the “scientific” racist theories of the time, which held that Black people were inherently inferior, rather than merely deprived of opportunities. The images themselves are augmented by informative scholarly essays and, more importantly, by captions that explain the genius behind each, from the selection of chart type to the brilliant use of color. The book makes clear that Du Bois refused to be bound by the normal rules governing graphic display of information. In some graphs—like one showing how many more Black students in Georgia were taking industrial courses (2252) rather than studying education (383) or business (12)—the longest bars snake around the page, rather than simply extending vertically or horizontally, to emphasize the data’s meaning.
Viewing the Cooper-Hewitt show and reading Data Portraits led me to finally read David Levering Lewis’s majestic two-volume biography of Du Bois. All of this has convinced me that he ought to be held in higher regard today. This strange and fascinating man—a founder of the NAACP, an elitist who turned Communist—was also a writer of much unreadable purple prose and an advocate of some terribly incorrect positions, like his support for US entry into World War I (which he believed would open the way for returning Black soldiers to put an end to Jim Crow) and his support for Japanese imperialism (which he viewed as a counter-force to Europe and white America). But he was a man who never wavered in his fight for Black equality, and whose example and scholarship are worthy of enormous respect.