In a conversation that explored the ripple effects of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, a panel of writers with disparate views came together to discuss the challenge of keeping civil discourse alive.

Newly appointed PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan introduced the panel for PEN America’s Annual General Meeting, Conversation Amid Crisis: Sustaining Dialogue in Divided Times. PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel moderated the conversation with award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer Zaina Arafat; journalist and translator Yair Rosenberg; journalist, editor, and cultural critic Judith Shulevitz; writer and former Director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group Nathan Thrall; and author, lawyer, and equity advocate Kenji Yoshino

Yoshino explained the deeply polarizing nature of the conflict by referring to a “controversy scale” outlined in his book, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identify, Diversity, and Justice. That scale posits that the most serious disputes happen when people feel their equal humanity is at stake. “And it’s really, really hard to have that conversation without feeling like our equal humanity is somehow not at stake,” he said.

Arafat, author of You Exist Too Much, agreed, saying a failure to recognize each other’s humanity “is precisely the problem and precisely why the conversation is so fraught around this issue.” Even in a conversation like the one they were having, she said, there seems to be “a complete abstraction away from the humanity of the issue.”

Thrall, author of A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, pointed to the scale of the conflict, noting that the number of children who have been killed in Gaza exceeds the number of children killed in all conflict zones since 2019.

“This is a conflict in which U.S. bombs are being dropped in Gaza as we speak. And so the U.S. has a unique responsibility, U.S. taxpayers have a unique responsibility. The U.S. has given more foreign military financing to Israel than to any other state since the founding of Israel. So there are just very straightforward reasons why Americans should care about this conflict more than others,” he said.

Radically different interpretations of the conflict have created “a war of worldviews,” said Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. She said American institutions like the universities at the center of controversy over statements about the war and antisemitism on campus ought to remain neutral to avoid shutting down open discourse.

And yet the panelists wondered if enforcing rules around speech in a viewpoint-neutral way is even possible, given the balance of power and dynamics at play. Arafat said she once had an editor cross out the word “Palestine” throughout a piece she wrote, because they said Palestine did not exist. Thrall told the audience that editors have told him if they publish his work, it creates weeks of extra work in the form of responding to criticism.

“I’ve been up against a lot of censorship at the level of basic language,” Arafat said. 

Indeed, the panelists disagreed about several terms being used, including genocide, and on what kinds of utterances could constitute antisemitism.

Social media has also intensified the polarization and immediacy of the war, in Rosenberg’s view. “We’re given a medium that only lets you speak in binaries and slogans because you don’t have enough space. You end up pushing the conversation along certain predetermined axes,” he said. He called X, formerly Twitter, “structurally resistant to complex thinking” because of character count limitations.

“Social media doesn’t create problems, but it does supercharge them. Polarization and sloganeering and demagoguery aren’t new, but you get things like this, I think in part, because of the mediums we’re using. Whereas if you have that conversation in person, not before a giant anonymous audience of screaming strangers, you get to different places,” he said.

Although all the panelists felt despair about the conflict, Arafat said writers had a role in advancing understanding of these historically complex and divisive issues.

I think their role is to humanize these issues, to take them away from the realm of abstraction and of mainstream, ratings-driven media, where there are different agendas and we only see single narratives, single stories, and to really proliferate the narrative and to humanize the stories and to push past all of the stereotypes and misrepresentations,” she said. “That’s what I think the role of the writer is, and also to observe, in order to capture those stories.”

The panelists were reluctant to offer a hopeful take, but Arafat found a small reason for hope in the shared emotion felt by those on both sides of the conflict engaged in the discussion.

Yoshino referred to a quote from former PEN America President Salman Rushdie that begins, “A poem will not stop a bullet.” At a time when truth telling by writers is so important, Yoshino said the reverse is also true. “A bullet cannot stop a poem from existing. And that’s where I might pin some of my hope.”