In the summer of 2016, I was invited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman to spend time in Israel-Palestine. They, alongside the Israeli NGO, Breaking the Silence, would assist me with logistics and meetings, but I would otherwise be entirely free to write what I wished. That summer, I saw a great deal in Tel Aviv and Akko, also called Akka, and in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Yatta. In Jerusalem and elsewhere, I met scholars, historians, former soldiers, shepherds, teachers, refugees, peace activists, and writers. I took notes from morning until night and had myriad conversations. I stayed in the homes of beloved Israeli and Palestinian friends, and tried to listen with every part of my being.
In 2017, I published a long essay about Susiya, the Palestinian village in the southern Hebron Hills, and Susya, the Israeli settlement which, under international law, is illegal. Deeply researched and heavily footnoted, I weighed every single word. Seven years later, there is nothing I would take back, including these words:
The conceptual, legal and physical infrastructure of occupation aims to entrench separation, disaffiliation and, most profoundly, estrangement. Physical separation is key if one population is deemed to have a different destiny than another. Something as innocuous as friendship, therefore, goes against the totality of the barriers, the checkpoints, outposts, ID cards, sterile streets, the ‘fabric of life’ and the separation wall. Friendship, such a seemingly flimsy thing, seemed almost a joke in a world of continuous violence.
… The choice, by both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, to trust one another is perilous. Day after day, the mechanisms of life under occupation succeed in their aim: to disavow the possibility of commonality and coexistence. There is a profound loneliness to the Palestinian experience, a heavy irony given that the conflict has been a staple of international news for almost seventy years. Despite worldwide consensus that the Israeli settlement of the West Bank is a clear violation of international law, Palestinians are widely viewed, in North America at least, as the instigators and perpetrators of violence; indeed, as violence itself. Palestinian crimes of hijackings, knifings, suicide bombings and murders have become, for many, the entirety of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the only tragedies to be mourned. At the same time, Palestinian suffering – more than 10,000 dead since the year 2000, including 1,977 children – is to some an acceptable form of collateral damage.
In the years that followed, I found I could not speak or write about Israel or Palestine. Faced with the totalising consequences of the structures I had seen in the West Bank, I had the sense of a tree pressing down on my chest.
I struggle to explain this wordlessness, which comes not from fear but from pain.
I have never been comfortable speaking on behalf of writers in a universal sense. I know only what I ask of myself.
For me writing is a human action, to insert oneself into the avalanche of time, to stand in the way of its movement. To record, to remember, and by recording, to alter. My job, I believe, is to feel. To distill feeling into a space where reader and writer might think together. The reader, too, becomes feeling. Feeling is not at odds with thinking; on the contrary, we must interrogate our feelings and feel the consequences of our thinking.
I believe it is my job to read the ten thousand books, to listen to the ten thousand voices, and to channel something for the living. It is my job not just to refuse empty words but to locate other words. This responsibility to find words in the face of speechlessness is a life’s work. A writer only rarely succeeds but a writer, over decades, accepts the task to try and try again—to communicate despite the continuous denuding of language.
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, many words are considered forbidden. Occupation, apartheid, genocide. These are words I have thought about for decades as I wrote about the former British North Borneo, about the US terror-bombing of Cambodia and the Cambodian genocide, the mass famines and political campaigns of twentieth-century China, and China’s ongoing genocidal policies against the Uyghur people.
On December 9, 2023, fifty-five respected scholars of the Holocaust and genocide warned of the danger of genocide in Israel’s attack on Gaza. On Jan 11, 2024, the International Court of Justice began hearing arguments alleging that Israel is committing genocide. Canada claims to back a “sustainable ceasefire” but these words are empty: Canada voted against a UN resolution calling for Israel to stop impeding relief efforts by UN aid agencies, continues to supply weapons to Israel, and intentionally dehumanizes Palestinians with our policies. Our ally, the United States, which maintains a storehouse for weapons and a military base in Israel, encourages a narrative that it acts as a steadying hand. Yet The Washington Post reports that in the first month and a half of the war in Gaza, “Israel dropped more than 22,000 guided and unguided bombs on Gaza that were supplied by Washington …” and that the United States further transferred to Israel “at least 15,000 bombs, including 2,000-pound bunker busters, and more than 50,000 155mm artillery shells.”
As death and famine stalk Gaza, the tide of anti-Arab expression in words and deeds by Canadians I know and once admired, by fellow writers, journalists, industrialists, scholars, and politicians has shaken me to the core. I would like to know why they—who have suffered nothing, who have never known war—believe they have a right to such bottomless hate. Counting those lost under the rubble, we are now at over 30,000 Palestinian deaths in fewer than 100 days, at least 70% of whom are civilians. Each was a universe; each carried the universe of others. A staggering 103 Palestinian journalists have been killed by the Israeli army, even as Israel refuses to allow the international press to enter Gaza. Meanwhile the use of real and rising anti-semitism to divide communities who are in unspeakable pain, to promote disaffiliation and fear, and to empower avowed white supremacists—in power and coming to power—is chilling. We face the abyss.
I understand better now why I became wordless after writing about Israel-Palestine. I had to question myself: what was I failing to see? I had to ensure that I was not writing from mistaken facts, or from hate or fear. I had to ensure that I held even more firmly to the humanity of all.
Love is derided as the most foolish, naive, weightless, anti-intellectual, shallow, silly source of action. I defy that belief. No political action I have ever seen—in China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Canada and elsewhere—whose source is the desire to avenge or destroy, whose source is hate and revulsion, has ever led to revolutionary change. It has only enshrined the same power in its place, over and over again. The unjust systems we claim to have brought down through hate-fueled violence have never really disappeared. Sooner or later, the mask falls. The weapons have simply changed hands.
In his last essay, Walter Benjamin writes of the weak light of the divine. Each redemption that the present brings to fruition is short-lived and weak, but this weakness turns out to be its strength. Each generation must enact a new redemption. Because love is not force, because it must be continually renewed, it is a basis for hope. We are born into the shape of the past. Unwilling to recognize this, we hear only our pain, and refuse the remedy—fragile, elusive but real—that exists.
For those of us who have been writing for decades, and who have been writing about war, conflict, terror, genocide, who have seen the occupied territories, who trace the past in our present, we bear a duty. It is not a duty as writers, it is a duty as human beings.
This life is brief. We owe something to it, and to those with whom we share this all too brief time. We don’t share gods. We share life.
End this war. As the great soul Vivian Silver, murdered so brutally by Hamas, told her beloved Palestinian and Israeli friends: There is no road to peace. Peace is the road.
 In Hebron, I witnessed what Nathan Thrall describes in a 2016 essay for the London Review of Books, “The IDF had erected more than a hundred barriers to restrict movement; forced hundreds of businesses to shut down; enforced what it calls ‘sterile’ streets, where Jewish settlers can walk but Palestinians cannot (the front doors of Palestinian houses on these streets were welded shut, obliging their residents to use roofs and ladders to get out).” As widely documented by the Israeli press and Israeli and international human rights organisations, the “fabric of life” is a term used by the Israeli government to refer to a segregated and convoluted highway and road system that diverts Palestinian traffic away from illegal Israeli settlements.
 The Times of Israel, “In first, US establishes a permanent military base in Israel,” Sep 18, 2017. The use of Israel to defend Western interests in the region is described in detail by Barnett R. Rubin, Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, in “False Messiahs,” Boston Review, Jan 4, 2024.
 “‘Women and children account for nearly 70 percent of all deaths reported in Gaza even though most combatants are men — an “extraordinary statistic,’” Rick Brennan, the regional emergency director for the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean office, said at an event this month.” The New York Times, “Gaza Civilians, Under Israeli Barrage, Are Being Killed at Historic Pace,” Nov 25, 2023. Further to this citation, to count all Palestinian men as de facto combatants is unacceptable.
MADELEINE THIEN teaches at the City University of New York. Her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won the Giller Prize and a Governor-General’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.