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.”