My grandparents escaped rising antisemitism in pre-WWII Lithuania though most of the rest of their family were killed during the Holocaust. As a writer, I have thought about this a lot, wondering what this means for me, particularly as it took emigration to politically troubled South Africa and Northern Ireland and then finally to Canada before my family found a place of security and safety. Exploring these issues of identity, migration, and persecution in my work, both in novels and in essays, I have come to the understanding that it means I have not only a moral and ethical responsibility to address issues of persecution and genocide, but that I also have a particular obligation to be vigilant.
In my last novel, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, I consider this responsibility and what I could bring to a conversation about not only the Holocaust, but more pressingly, to Indigenous genocide in North America. In the novel, I explore the structural, systemic and indeed historical connections between these two genocides. I knew that by defying the received portrayal that the Holocaust was unique and doesn’t (and shouldn’t) share any commonality with any other historical events that I would be angering or alienating many, particularly in the Jewish community. Among some scholars, there has been a tendency to rank genocides by severity. As if some deaths were more significant than others. As if it made sense to compile a macabre “top ten list” of genocides. My son once darkly parodied this tendency toward rating by quipping, “Oh, that’s a Holocaust and a half.”
I feel that as a Canadian writer it is important for me to bring the historical recognition of the Holocaust as ostensibly “the paradigmatic genocide” to a discussion of other events. My duty isn’t only to protect “my own” but to use any insight I have gained from understanding Jewish history, my family’s history, and therefore my understanding of persecution and genocide to connect with others more broadly. I hope that what we have learned from the Holocaust—with regard to process, pattern and compassion—could also help us to see other events with greater clarity and understanding. I should say that, by the same token, I have also learned a lot about intergenerational trauma and survivors from discussions by Indigenous people.
And so this brings me to a consideration of what is happening in Gaza.
I understand how the events of October 7th, 2023 are traumatizing and worrisome for many Jews throughout the world. For millennia, antisemitism has been a constant presence in the West. The fear of significant persecution and harm has been realized repeatedly. And I know that many Jews have personal connections to Israel; for example, my parents have a good friend who has five out of her six grandchildren serving in the Israel army and of course she is terrified.
However, notwithstanding these concerns, I believe it is always important to use the highest standards of dispassionate analysis in considering what is happening and what is ethically or morally appropriate. What Israel is doing far exceeds what is ethically or morally appropriate and more than an eye for an eye, it is more an entire body for an eye. The Israeli government and military have spoken with unbridled hate and racism. By typifying Gazans as “human animals” they are speaking the language of Nazis. No matter how terrified Jews or Israelis are, genocide can never be justified. Never. Never again. They must find another solution.
I believe that it is my particular obligation as a Jewish writer and one who has written about persecution and genocide to speak out about this. I know that many in my (Jewish and other) community will be angry and upset with me. That they will be horrified that I don’t centre the hostages and the loss experienced on October 7th. It’s not that I don’t understand the pain or want those humans returned to safety. Or that I support Hamas or don’t wish for a different political leadership and solution in Gaza. It’s that I believe the horrifying events happening there meet the definition of genocide. We’re in the middle of a genocide.
I saw a post on social media where the writer asked, “If you ever wondered what you would do during the Holocaust or during slavery, the answer is what are you doing now?” I feel very strongly that it is my responsibility as a writer to try to address what is happening. Much of my creative work engages with identity, history, place and persecution and considers the moral, emotional, and ethical implications. If I believe the subject of my literary investigations are important, how can I not engage in the real world when these issues are playing out in real time before us? It would feel disingenuous not to speak about them and not to make connections between the concerns of my literary work and current events.
I should be clear that how I address events with my writing may be different than how I engage as a writer. Art has a different job than the role a writer may have as a citizen or public voice. Writers make connections, frame experiences, speak to complexity and complication, attempt to go beyond straightforward analyses and solutions, make the world and the human vivid and alive. In what you’re reading now, I’m doing something else. This isn’t “art” created by a writer, but the writer acting as a citizen, as a public voice. I’m not a journalist, but I believe it is my job as one who has an ability to write and to think through issues to articulate, to advocate, to describe, to address concerns, to express empathy, and yes, to call out what I perceive as wrong.
Let me end by expressing my sincere wish for a ceasefire and then a permanent and practically workable end to the unfolding horror. It seems improbable but I believe that with enough imagination, realpolitik, a willingness to think beyond the standard paradigms inherited from the past, and the will to consider the human as well as the exigencies of power, a solution is possible.
Gary Barwin’s most recent work is Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity. His novels include Yiddish for Pirates and Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. You can learn more about Gary at garybarwin.com.