Gessen’s Cancellation Can’t Go Unchallenged

Gessen, a queer Jew, is being punished by the German political machine for being too open about the nature of global authoritarianism.

The post Gessen’s Cancellation Can’t Go Unchallenged appeared first on FAIR.

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has built an impressive career in US journalism by being a constant thorn in the side of the Russian state. That journalistic campaign entered a new chapter in November when the Russian government issued a warrant for their arrest (Washington Post, 11/27/23; AP, 12/8/23; RFE/RL, 12/8/23; Newmark School of Journalism, 12/11/23).

Gessen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, gave an interview in which they spoke about well-documented Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha (OHCHR, 12/7/22). The Russian government, forever clamping down on negative press of its military invasion of Ukraine, symbolically declared them an outlaw. (Gessen lives in the United States.)

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen (Photo: Clarissa Villondo)

Gessen has been an annoyance for the Russian government for some time; their book, The Man Without a Face, portrays Russian President Vladimir Putin not as a cunning political genius, but as a simpleton whose ego ruined the country (Washington Post, 4/7/12; Foreign Affairs, 5/1/12). Gessen, who is nonbinary, left Russia a decade ago after covering the country’s hostility toward LGBTQ people led them to fear for their own safety (Business Insider, 8/23/13).

In the post-2016 shock of Donald Trump’s presidential election, a great deal of US media fell into a trance of believing that Trump’s success could only be explained by Russian electoral sabotage. Gessen, refreshingly, took a different approach. Rather than blame one regime for the electoral outcome, they rightfully put Trump in the context of a global movement of authoritarian backlash toward liberalism. Their pieces linking Trump’s success to the rise of authoritarianism in Russia and Hungary remain essential reading (New York Review of Books, 11/10/16; New Yorker, 3/2/21).

Critical reporting on Putin and Trump is highly valued, and not controversial, in US media. Putin is an authoritarian, yes, but one not backed by the United States, and is viewed as an enemy. Trump, for most liberal publications, is an abhorrent aberration in an otherwise flawed but democratic political system.

‘The ghetto is being liquidated’

New Yorker: In the Shadow of the Holocaust

Masha Gessen (New Yorker, 12/9/23): “From the earliest days of Israel’s founding, the comparison of displaced Palestinians to displaced Jews has presented itself, only to be swatted away.”

But when Gessen turned their lens to Israel, they fell victim to pro-Israel censorship. Their recent essay (New Yorker, 12/9/23) on Holocaust remembrance culture in Germany was a self-fulfilling prophecy: As a result of Gessen’s observation that the language that most accurately describes what is happening in Gaza—”the ghetto is being liquidated”—comes from the Jewish experience during World War II, the Green Party–affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBS), which was planning to award Gessen its Hannah Arendt Prize, canceled the event.

The Guardian (12/14/23) explained:

The HBS said it objected to and rejected a comparison made by Gessen in a 9 December essay in the New Yorker between Gaza and the Jewish ghettos in Europe.

In the essay, Gessen, who uses they, criticized Germany’s unequivocal support of Israel, drawing attention to the Bundestag’s 2019 resolution condemning the Israel boycott movement BDS as antisemitic and quoting a Jewish critic of Germany’s politics of Holocaust remembrance as saying memory culture had “gone haywire.”

In the paragraph the HBS draws attention to, Gessen wrote that “ghetto” would be “the more appropriate term” to describe Gaza, but the word “would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.”

The foundation said Gessen was implying that Israel aimed to “liquidate Gaza like a Nazi ghetto,” adding that “this statement is unacceptable to us and we reject it.”

Chilling censorship regime

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (New Yorker, 12/9/23) called Israel’s Herut party—a forerunner of Likud—”a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy, and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Such opinions would likely disqualify her for the Hannah Arendt Prize.

Germany’s political culture of strong support for Israel, deeply tied to its guilt over the Nazi genocide of Jews, has led to a deeply chilling and severely anti-Palestinian censorship regime. As I have previously reported for FAIR (11/5/21), this culture has even taken a grip in US media.

There is a special irony in a prize in the name of German Jewish philosopher and journalist Hannah Arendt, whose work on the rise of German fascism is essential, being withheld from another Jewish journalist for writing about the rise of authoritarianism.

Arendt herself, as Gessen’s essay noted, wasn’t afraid to link Zionist extremism with the “N word,” joining other Jewish intellectuals in 1948 (including Albert Einstein) who protested the visit of Israeli politician Menachem Begin to the United States, denouncing Begin’s Herut (Freedom) party as “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties” (Haaretz, 12/4/14). It seems likely that Hannah Arendt would also be deemed unworthy to receive the Hannah Arendt Prize.

The Daily Beast (12/13/23), New York Post (12/14/23), Washington Post (12/14/23) and Literary Hub (12/13/23) covered the issue. But the absurdity of the situation should be shouted from the rooftops of every respectable newspaper.

Job-costing solidarity

Gessen, of course, isn’t the only media victim of anti-Palestinian censorship since the outbreak of violence began in October. Reuters (10/21/23) reported that

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen said…a Jewish organization in New York City canceled a reading he was due to give on Friday without explanation, a day after he said he signed an open letter condemning Israel’s “indiscriminate violence” against Palestinians in Gaza.

Two writers were forced out of the New York Times Magazine because of their protests against Israel’s military action in Gaza, as the magazine’s editor “Jake Silverstein said the letter violated the outlet’s policy on public protest” (Democracy Now!, 11/14/23).

After Artforum editor David Velasco was fired for posting an open letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians, he told the New York Times (10/26/23), “I have no regrets.” He added that he was “disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure.”

Jackson Frank, a sports writer for PhillyVoice.com, was fired for tweeting “solidarity with Palestine always” (Guardian, 10/10/23). Michael Eisen lost his job as editor-in-chief of the academic journal eLife after commenting favorably on an Onion (10/13/23) article with the headline “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas” (Science, 10/23/23).

The absurdity of Gessen, a queer Jew, being punished in the name of Hannah Arendt, also a Jew, by a branch of the German political machine for being too open about the nature of global authoritarianism should be a wake up call for how degraded our discourse on Israel/Palestine has become. But it likely won’t change minds in most media. At least not yet.

The post Gessen’s Cancellation Can’t Go Unchallenged appeared first on FAIR.

This post was originally published on FAIR.


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