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.