Skip to main content

There’s a story often told about Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. In black and white and shades of grey, his monumental anti-war mural depicts the aftermath of the 1937 German and Italian bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, in support of Spain’s nationalists. As the legend goes, when a Nazi officer visited Picasso’s apartment in German-occupied Paris, he pointed to the mural.

“Did you do that?” the Nazi asked.

“No,” Picasso responded. “You did.”

Less well known, certainly until this week, is the online literary magazine named after Picasso’s masterpiece.

Guernica, a magazine that publishes work about “global art and politics,” suffered mass resignations following its publication of “From the Edges of a Broken World,” an essay by Joanna Chen, an Israeli writer who translates Arabic and Hebrew poetry and prose.

Born in Britain, Ms. Chen has lived in Israel since she was 16. She refused mandatory military service there and volunteers for Road to Recovery, which takes Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals – the same organization, Ms. Chen notes in her essay, for which Canadian peace activist Vivian Silver volunteered.

In other words, she is hardly a warmonger.

Still, her Guernica piece was decried. Not just by some readers, but by staffers at the magazine, who volunteer their time – or did, because many consequently quit.

Guernica’s now-former co-publisher Madhuri Sastry tweeted that she was “deeply ashamed” of Ms. Chen’s “hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

The now-former fiction editor, Ishita Marwah, wrote that by publishing the piece, Guernica had become “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.”

Under fire, Guernica pulled the essay, saying it regretted having published it, and promised a more “fulsome” (improper use of the word, but whatever) explanation soon.

You may be wondering: How awful could this essay have been? Did it cheer on the killing of thousands of Gazans, including children?

No. “From the Edges of a Broken World” – still archived online – is about navigating this catastrophe as an Israeli who has managed to forge a shaky and, yes, unfairly hierarchical co-existence with Palestinians.

There is one passage in particular that many have pointed to as evidence of the essay’s awfulness. Ms. Chen writes about a neighbour who, after Oct. 7, tries to calm her children, frightened by the sound of warplanes: “I tell them these are good booms.”

There are, of course, no good booms in war. These booms are from bombs killing people in Gaza. Ms. Chen knows they are not good. Perhaps the neighbour she quoted does as well. These are the lies mothers tell for their children in wartime. That is what makes this observation powerful: it offers a window into the ugliness of war, even from the safety of the other side.

The piece is critical of Israel and some Israelis. When Ms. Chen recounts a friend admonishing her for giving blood for Palestinians in 2014, she is showing us something disdainful about Israelis.

What was Ms. Chen’s great crime? Was it presenting herself as a white, liberal saviour? Or was it simply being Israeli, and daring to write about her experience?

Online, below a note about the retraction, Guernica tells readers about its “uncompromising journalism.” It adds: “If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.”

Can Guernica survive this? A more important question: Can free and honest artistic expression survive this moment?

Palestinian artists’ voices have been silenced. And it seems impossible to present an Israeli perspective – even a sensitive, nuanced one, like this essay – without being denounced for it.

At the intersection of art and politics now sits a flashing red light that will only allow some voices through. Don’t we want to hear all perspectives? To examine and be challenged by the shades of grey amid the often black-and-white discourse?

Picasso’s Guernica is a protest depicting chaos and grief, including a mother wailing to the skies as she holds a dead baby. To look at it through today’s lens is to conjure the hell that Gaza is being subjected to by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.

Ms. Chen did not do that.

Nobody’s saying her essay is a Guernica-level masterpiece. And it presents a perspective from the other side, as it were. But that doesn’t mean it should be disappeared.

There is a full-size tapestry replicating Guernica at the entrance to the Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In 2003, a blue curtain was hung over the work, as the U.S. argued for support to invade Iraq. That was a crucial moment when the Security Council, the U.S. government, and everyone watching on TV needed to see that wailing mother and her dead baby.

Art about the Hamas-Israel war is urgently needed. Covering it up is a mistake and a distraction.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe