Homage to Orwell: a critique of a New York Review of Books piece that damns Israel

November 20, 2023 • 9:20 am

The New York Review of Books (NYRB) has published a joint letter, presumably written largely by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that incorporates all the usual anti-Israel tropes of the progressive Left, including the ridiculous accusation that Israel is engaged in “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes”.  (If Hamas is guilty of anything, it’s not mentioned.)

There are about 85 signers, most of whom I don’t recognize (many have Arabic names), but all of them identify as “writers and artists who have been to Palestine to participate in the Palestine Festival of literature.”  This apparently gives them special privilege to criticize Israel’s action of self-defense in its campaign to eliminate Hamas.  The letter briefly mentions Hamas’s attack on October 7, but in a very weird way, which motivated a followup article in The Atlantic.

First, the short NYRB piece (click to read):

And the meat of the letter’s accusations. In fact, this comprises all of them. I’ve put in bold the phrases that inspired Gal Beckerman’s Atlantic piece below:

Israel has imposed what it calls a “complete siege” and told 1.1 million people in Gaza to evacuate within twenty-four hours. To where? After six days of bombing that have already killed 2,215 people, 724 of them children, in the fourth major aerial bombardment in the sixteenth year of closure the question—to where?—rings unanswerable around the world. When Israel’s top general refers to Palestinians as “human animals” and the US State Department deletes a statement calling for “a ceasefire,” then we fear we are watching an ethnic cleansing on a scale unseen in decades.

The governments of the USA, UK, France and others are participating in this crime by ramping up military support for Israel as it wages a war that its officials have plainly stated aims to turn Gaza into a city of tents, or even worse, empty of its people. A population of over two million people, mostly from families that were made refugees in 1948, half of whom are children, have been living under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, and to many of them, being told to leave again is not an option. On Saturday, after sixteen years of siege, Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed with over one hundred more taken hostage—some of them friends and family of signatories to this letter. We deplore the loss of all innocent life and now, as we write this letter, Israel is executing the largest expulsion of Palestinians since 1948 as it bombs Gazans without discrimination.

Our words feel small in this terrifying escalation. After so many years and so many deaths we must all, together, say this has to end, and that it can only end with a free Palestine.

Note that the slaughter of October 7 is described as “Hamas militants breaking out of Gaza,” and that’s all they wrote. The rest is criticism of Israel as well as of the UK, France, and the U.S.  There’s plenty to criticize even in this short piece. Yes, the Israeli general’s statement was deeply unwise, but calls for a ceasefire are equally unwise, for those are really calls to end the war, give Hamas time to regroup, and to get the IDF back to Israel. I’m starting to realize that calls for a ceasefire are euphemistic calls for Israel to lose the war.

As for the ethnic cleansing, it’s beyond me how a bunch of smart people could have gotten it exactly backwards. Israel isn’t out to wipe out Palestinians. It could have done so at any time within the last couple of decades, but in fact the Palestinian population is growing rapidly. How can that happen if Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing? They are not targeting all Palestinians, but Palestinian terrorists.  In fact, it is Hamas, and many Palestinians, who have explicitly wanted to—and tried to—ethnically cleanse the Jews. That cleansing is stipulated in Hamas’s original charter, and terrorists target not IDF soldiers, but all Israelis. After Israel is gone, they’ll start on Jews in the rest of the world.

Two more corrections. The “expulsion of Palestinians in 1948” wasn’t as portrayed.  The vast majority of Arabs who fled Israel in 1948 left voluntarily for several reasons: they didn’t want to get caught in the war (five Arab armies marched on Israel and there was going to be fighting); Arab leaders told Arabs to leave temporarily for their safety, assuming that the war would be over in about week, with the complete defeat of Israel;  and, finally, Arabs living in Israel who took up arms against Israel were defeated and subsequently expelled along with their families.  All of them thought they would return shortly when Israel was defeated, but for some reasons that are historically inexplicable (at least to me), Israel, which had no formal army, defeated those five Arab armies. The Arabs could not go home again, though they still claim a bogus “right of return”.

Finally, it’s not true that the IDF bomb Gazans without discrimination. That’s simply a lie: the IDF, the world’s most moral army, targets installations of military value. Again, it is Palestinian terrorists who bomb and kill without discrimination: suicide bombers going into pizza parlors are the archetypal example. So are the rockets that Hamas is still firing willy-nilly into Israel, hoping to kill civilians.

As for what the writers mean by “a free Palestine”, well, that’s open to interpretation. If it’s “from the river to the sea,” that’s a call for the end to Israel. But let’s be charitable and say that the writers just want two states: Israel and Palestine. That solution is a long way off, and while it seems to be the only one, there are not good brokers on either side to forge such a solution.

Enough; let’s move on to the published response.

Ta-Nehisi Coates got famous writing for The Atlantic, but now at that venue Gal Beckerman, senior editor of the magazine, responds to the bits in bold above.  His guideline is George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (everyone here should read it; it’s free at the link), largely about how language can be used to soften uncomfortable political realities.  And that, says Beckerman, is exactly what the NYRB letter does, particularly in the bolded part above. (I’ve already pointed out how the letter distorts history with words like “ethnic cleansing” and “expelled”.)

Click below to read the short response, which is, as the kids would call it, a “sick burn” of Ta-Nehisi and Company. If it’s paywalled for you, a reader found it archived here.

Beckerman’s response, à la Orwell, to the NYRB’s bit in bold above:

Two sentences of the 438-word text have haunted me for days. After deploring Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and fearing for Palestinians who are suffering unspeakable horrors, the signatories stop to describe what in their collective estimation happened on October 7 to unleash Israel’s fury: “On Saturday, after sixteen years of siege, Hamas militants broke out of Gaza. More than 1,300 Israelis were subsequently killed with over one hundred more taken hostage.”

To describe what Hamas did as breaking out of Gaza, as if what happened took place in a spontaneous moment of liberation, is to hide the fact that this was by all accounts a sophisticated and highly planned assault. Hamas didn’t break out of Gaza. Three thousand militants with intent and agency murdered as many civilians as they possibly could with the goal of drawing Israel into a brutal conflict, which is, sadly, precisely what is now taking place. Hamas’s leaders wanted to slow down whatever warming was developing between Israel and the Sunni Muslim states and remind the region and the world that in their eyes there is an existential war going on, one that will not stop until Israel is eliminated. This was not breaking out.

But far more upsetting is that passive voice of the next sentence, a passive voice that reveals a staggering moral blindness. Israelis “were subsequently killed.” Did they spontaneously combust? Were they struck by lightning? Fall down dead at the sight of the militants who had “broken out”? How do we explain this construction other than to call it a cruel abdication of responsibility, a decision on the part of these signatories not to assign any agency at all to Hamas, to blot out from sight the semiautomatic weapons and the knives? “Were subsequently killed.” The long history of excuses for every totalitarian ideology, including the one embraced by Orwell’s “comfortable English professor,” can be reduced to that nasty combination of three words, words from minds who simply refuse to confront the uncomfortable reality that the murder of babies and elderly peace activists was committed in the name of a cause they support.

What the NYRB piece leaves out is as telling as what it says:

Although the writers demand a “free Palestine” and an end to the bombardment, they spare no additional words asking for the release of the nearly 200 hostages taken by Hamas, other than to acknowledge they were captured. The only way to explain this in a statement that evinces such legitimate humanistic worry for the Palestinians is that the hostages, being Israeli—even the nine-month-old among them—are settler-colonizers and not worthy of the writers’ bother. They may have closed their letter by deploring “the loss of all innocent life,” but that sentiment rings hollow after they’ve made clear whose lives they think have value.

Indeed, in a letter that’s devoted largely to deploring “ethnic cleansing” by Israel, describing the “breakout” of Hamas on October 7, and defending apprehensive Palestinian “artists, human rights workers, writers, historians, and activists” (read the first paragraph, not given above), the writers’ claim that they deplore “all loss of innocent life” rings hollow. What you see over and over again in the mainstream media is a short mention of the Israelis killed on October 7—the incident that, predictably, started the war—followed by a long indictment of Israel for defending itself. The Palestinians, assumed to have no agency (something absolutely disproved on October 7), and subject to the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, are sacralized as people of color. As for the Jews, well, who ever cared about them?

One might criticize Beckerman for concentrating on a few phrases in an NYRB letter, but you’d be missing the point that Orwell made:

Is it fair to nitpick at a moment when the death toll is rising, when the placement of a verb seems irrelevant next to all this grief? Not only is it fair; I believe it’s necessary. How we describe what is happening makes a difference in the way we process reality, and opens or closes the door to various possible futures. As Orwell put it in his essay, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” This circularity of language and thought should offer us reason to hope, though. It means, as Orwell wrote, “that the process is reversible.” Words have the power to both grant humanity and take it away—so we should use them carefully, especially now.

In the case of the signers of the NYRB, they know language; what happened is simply that their “thoughts were foolish.”

28 thoughts on “Homage to Orwell: a critique of a New York Review of Books piece that damns Israel

  1. I have little love for the New York Review of Books. They always wrote against sociobiological science in a biased way, so it doesn’t surprise me that they are also anti-Israel.

  2. I see Orwell cited like this too. There’s a clear two-sided game setup – a kind of version of “I know you are but what am I” …

    so if someone says “your writing is Orwellian”, the writer of it will say “No, it isn’t, your writing is Orwellian”.

  3. It is baffling how anyone, but especially people who say they’re on the left, can support and/or excuse Hamas in any of this. It was so refreshing to read Beckerman’s response and this post. Thank you.

  4. “As for the ethnic cleansing, it’s beyond me how a bunch of smart people could have gotten it exactly backwards.”

    A lot of these people aren’t that smart. It’s time to realize that there are a lot of very pedestrian intellects running around in the “anti-racist” spaces and unfortunately in the humanities (which used to house some of the best intellects).

    There is probably an overproduction right now of advanced degrees, leaving a lot of highly credentialed but intellectually underpowered people looking for ways to appear productive…

    1. I agree that there is “elite overproduction” going on, to use the words of anthropologist Peter Turchin. Or to use the words of Peter Medawar, “The spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.”

      1. I disagree, I think that part of the problem is the belief that the ability to think analytically is something which can be taught and applied to all topics universally.

        Critical thinking about a topic requires knowledge of that topic. It is not sufficient to have a cursory knowledge of a topic and to hope that google will allow you to just look things up. You need a deep well of knowledge within you that your brain can interconnect in new and relavent ways during recall.
        Sure logic can help spot obvious problems but it won’t help you if you just don’t have enough of an understanding of the facts.

        Many many university educated people believe that they learned to think critically in University and this helps them understand the news in a savvy and progressive way. However I don’t believe this is true because they lack knowledge on the topics they are expounding they don’t actually have the ability to critically distinguish truth from falsehood, to see through a cleverly constructed rhetorical device hiding the horrifying details behind high-minded language.

        1. “Sure logic can help spot obvious problems but it won’t help you if you just don’t have enough of an understanding of the facts.”

          Problem is, many of these “elite” make basic errors in logic. And, bright people generally have enough metacognition to understand when they are wading into an area that they don’t know a lot about, so in those situations they tend to qualify their opinions appropriately.

        2. It is called Dunning-Kruger after 2 guys who won an IgNoble prize.
          But it was known earlier, eg Darwin noted that the less knowledge of a subject one has, the greater its (mistaken) certainty of opinion.
          I think Trump in particular, but his adolating sycophants as well, fall in the same Dunning-Kruger category.

          Look, I’m an outsider, but I think nobody harmed the US more than DJ Trump over the last 8 decades, or maybe ever.
          We may never know if Trump is a Russian *agent*, but we definitely know he is a Russian *asset*.

        3. Spot on, Benjamin.

          To state it somewhat less elegantly than you did, I will quote verbatim something I came across in my reading of the cognitive science of teaching and learning: Critical thinking is domain specific.

        1. It comes from his devastating review of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’, by that old pseud and charlatan Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which is available online and well worth reading. It includes this other great quote about Teilhard:

          “Its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself”.

          I can think of several contemporary writers about whom that could be said.

  5. I assume charitably the expression “from the river to the sea” Palestinians in Israel as well as their current enclaves. I assume one of the aftermaths of this war is to get Palestinians out of Israel in to their designated regions.

  6. This is a complete aside, especially since most of the writers quoted here are humanities types and probably were not subjected to this, but throughout my undergraduate years I was ‘hammered’ into writing all lab reports in the passive voice. It was clumsy and awkward but I adjusted (‘5 g. was weighed’, ’10 ml. were added’, etc.). It took me many years to break away from that cumbersome style.

    1. As a retired middle school English teacher, I endorse your comment, Patricia.

      Didn’t Pinker address this in his book on writing, “The Sense of Style”?

  7. The account of the October 7 massacre in the NYRB letter leads me to rethink an institution that Ta-Nehisi Coates has elsewhere written about quite a lot. My reframed account, along the lines of the NYRB letter’s language, is as follows.

    Between the 16th and 19th centuries, traders from the Atlantic coasts of Europe broke out of their immediate environs and brought their business model to the African and American continents. Through their efforts, large numbers of Africans were engaged for plantation work and related careers in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern colonies of British America.

  8. The NYRB’s screed was not the first use of the weaselly description of the attack as a “break out” of Gaza by “militants.” I say give credit where it is due, and due it is to Heather Cox Richardson who published the linked essay on her Substack (“Letters from an American”) a mere 24 hours after the “break out” – I’m guessing that this is likely one of the first characterizations of the attack that used this description.
    https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-7-2023. She is an academic historian teaching at Boston College, According to Wikipedia, “[A]s of December 2020, Richardson was “the most successful individual author of a paid publication on … Substack” and on track to bring in a million dollars of revenue a year.” Her readership is enormous. I can’t comment on her record as an academic, but her Substack is usually a grievance list of Republican vices and Democratic virtues. When I read your email this morning, I fully expected to see her name as a signatory. Perhaps she has had second thoughts – I think she received a lot of well-deserved blowback from her readership. In any event, while I don’t believe in cancellation (and because of her success, she is largely immune), I think it is good to know and publicize her views on this, especially given that Israeli corpses were likely still smoldering as she penned her composition.

  9. As for the controversial issue of how hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees, this book is of central importance:

    * Morris, Benny. /The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited./ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    “The question of what in 1948 turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees has been a fundamental propaganda issue between Israel and the Arab states ever since. The general Arab claim, that the Jews expelled Palestine’s Arabs with predetermination and preplanning, as part of a systematic, grand political-military design, has served to underline the Arab portrayal of Israel as a vicious, immoral robber state. The official Israeli narrative, that the Palestinians fled ‘voluntarily’ (meaning not as a result of Jewish compulsion) or that they were asked or ordered to do so by their leaders and by the leaders of the Arab states, helped leave intact the new state’s self-image as the haven of a much persecuted people, a body politic more just, moral and deserving of the West’s sympathy and help than the surrounding sea of reactionary, semi-feudal, dictatorial Arab societies.” (Morris, p. 2)

  10. I suspect that the description of the Hamas attack as “breaking out” comes from the myth of Gaza as an “open-air prison”.

  11. Beckerman shouldn’t be concerned about “nitpicking.” A misleading word here, and then one there, and a factual error in some other place turns the NYRB piece into a political weapon. When all the “nits” point in the same direction, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the words were purposely chosen to deceive.

  12. I have few heroes, but George Orwell is one, because of his integrity in the face of dogmatism, regardless of its source. For example, in Homage to Catalonia, he describes how he went to Spain to fight fascists, but he became disillusioned when the democratic movement fragmented and he observed that the communists were no better the fascists. In an era of pervasive and additive social media, his insights into the danger of tribalism and the power of language to manipulate are more relevant than ever. I find it amusing when the illiberal right and the regressive left proclaim Orwell as one of their own, thus proving they do not understand him.

  13. Jerry: Israel has thrown more bombs in one month over the tiny territory of Gaza than the US in the worst year of the Afghanistan war. They are turning Gaza inhabitable and Israeli authorities have expressed their wish to expel the Gazans to the Sinai.

    1. The Allied air forces dropped far more bombs on Germany and killed far more civilians than Germany dropped on us or killed of ours. That’s how you win a modern industrial war: by destroying the enemy’s means to make war. If civilians are militarized, as we argued during the Second World War that they were, and as Hamas is clearly doing today, the civilians have to die in that effort to wreck the place. Sucks to be them, I know.

      If Gaza becomes unlivable, the Gazans can always swim out into the Mediterranean Sea (if Hamas snipers don’t shoot them on the beach) where they will be picked up by NGO boats and taken to Europe. The proposal to transport them to the Sinai is a good idea to get rid of neighbours you can’t live next to. It’s a non-starter because Egypt wants Palestinians in its country only if they come in coffins.

      Your objections make sense only if you think Israel should somehow be prevented from winning this war. Why not say so?

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