How ‘Zionist’ Became a Bad Word in Publishing

This month, an account on X with the handle @moyurireads and 360 followers published a link to a color-coded spreadsheet classifying nearly 200 writers according to their views on the “genocide” in Gaza. Titled “Is Your Fav Author a Zionist?,” it reads like a cross between Tiger Beat and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The novelist Emily St. John Mandel, the author of “Station Eleven” and “Sea of Tranquility,” earned a red “pro-Israel/Zionist” classification because, according to the list’s creator, she “travels to Israel frequently talks favorably about it.” Simply for posting a link to the Israeli chapter of the Red Cross, the novelist Kristin Hannah was deemed a “Zionist,” as was the author Gabrielle Zevin for delivering a book talk to Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization. Needless to say, the creator of the list — whose post on X announcing it garnered over a million views within a few days — encourages readers to boycott any works produced by “Zionists.”

The spreadsheet is but the crudest example of the virulently anti-Israel — and increasingly antisemitic — sentiment that has been coursing through the literary world since the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7. Much of it revolves around the charge of genocide and seeks to punish Zionists and anyone else who refuses to explicitly denounce the Jewish state for allegedly committing said crime. Since a large majority of American Jews (80 percent of whom, according to a 2020 poll, said that caring about Israel is an important or essential part of their Judaism) are Zionists, to accuse all Zionists of complicity in genocide is to anathematize a core component of Jewish identity.

Over the past several months, a litmus test has emerged across wide swaths of the literary world effectively excluding Jews from full participation unless they denounce Israel. This phenomenon has been unfolding in progressive spaces (academia, politics, cultural organizations) for quite some time. That it has now hit the rarefied, highbrow realm of publishing — where Jewish Americans have made enormous contributions and the vitality of which depends on intellectual pluralism and free expression — is particularly alarming.

As is always and everywhere the case, this burgeoning antisemitism is concomitant with a rising illiberalism. Rarely, if ever, do writers express unanimity on a contentious political issue. We’re a naturally argumentative bunch who — at least in theory — answer only to our own consciences.

To compel them to express support or disapproval for a cause is one of the cruelest things a society can do to writers, whose role is to tell society what they believe, regardless of how popular the message may be. The drawing up of lists, in particular, is a tactic with a long and ignominious history, employed by the enemies of literature — and liberty — on both the left and the right. But the problem goes much deeper than a tyro blacklist targeting “Zionists.”

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