Israeli Writer’s “Canceled” Essay on Empathy


On March 10, a big controversy erupted when a small magazine pulled down a story from its website… The retraction followed staff resignations in protest of the piece by Joanna Chen, a British-Israeli author and translator. One staffer wrote that Chen’s article “attempts to soften the violence of colonialism and genocide.” …We [The Washington Monthly] emphatically disagreed with the critique and the decision to retract the piece… We contacted Chen when the controversy erupted and asked if we could post the piece.

It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides. But as the days went by, the shock turned into a dull pain in my heart and a heaviness in my legs. At night, I lay in bed on my back in the dark, listening to rain against the window. I wondered if the Israeli hostages underground, the children and women, had any way of knowing the weather had turned cold, and I thought of the people of Gaza, the children and women, huddled inside tents supplied by the United Nations or looking for shelter. I stared up at the ceiling and imagined it moving closer and closer toward me, not falling or collapsing but moving like an elevator descending into the ground.

The horrors perpetrated rose to the surface of my consciousness at these times. I listened to interviews with survivors; I watched videos of atrocities committed by Hamas in southern Israel and reports about the rising number of innocent civilians killed in a devastated Gaza.

There is a limit to which the human soul can stomach atrocities and keep going. On the other hand, turning away from distressing footage taken by Hamas terrorists, by surveillance cameras, and by people running for their lives or sheltering from missiles meant turning away from their pain.

I limited my intake of the news and joined a number of solidarity groups, Zoom meetings in which the people shared their dismay and shock. But they were mostly Israelis and much of the talk centered on their own side. One woman expressed anger that Palestinians she knew through her volunteer work had not reached out on October 7 to ask how she was and whether her family was safe. I shrugged inwardly at this sentiment. The Palestinians in the West Bank were struggling with their own problems: closure, the inability to work, the threat of widescale arrests being made by the Israeli army, and harassment by settlers. No one was safe.

The hand still moves across the page
and on the balcony plants lean
long-necked, into the sun.

Two weeks after the war began, I took the plunge and again began driving children to hospitals. My own grown-up children were against this, but I was determined to go. The night before my first drive since the war started, my husband and I decided he would accompany me, just in case. My son scoffed at this: Go on your own if you must, he said wryly. If anything happens, we don’t want to lose both our parents. We woke up at 5:00 a.m., made coffee, and waited for the program’s coordinator to give me the go-ahead. The rules had changed: instead of waiting in the parking lot of Tarkumia, I was instructed to leave the house only when my passengers had gotten through security. At 6:30, I got the call, and we drove in silence to Tarkumia. The road leading to the once-crowded checkpoint was deserted; since October 7, Palestinians had been forbidden to leave the West Bank for work in Israel.

We arrived at the parking lot, and I got out of the car. A small boy with a shock of black hair and his father were waiting at the other side of the parking lot. I hesitated as a soldier approached me, and I fumbled for my driver’s license, and the details of my passengers sent to me earlier: Jad, age three, accompanied by his father. Suddenly, the little boy waved to me from across the way, and I waved back as they walked over to my car. The father spoke a little Hebrew. We introduced ourselves, quickly strapped Jad into the booster, and drove away.

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