This piece is part of our Wit­ness­ing series, which shares pieces from Israeli authors and authors in Israel, as well as the expe­ri­ences of Jew­ish writ­ers around the globe in the after­math of Octo­ber 7th.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives.

The spring of 2024 seemed a crazy time to take off for six weeks to go to Israel. I had a book com­ing out soon, I was try­ing to make head­way on an essay col­lec­tion; I’d fall­en behind on a slew of oth­er com­mit­ments and, to top things off, my hus­band and I were fac­ing a mini-moun­tain of unex­pect­ed home expens­es that would squeeze our dis­cre­tionary funds.

But the war with Hamas had been rag­ing for months and all I did was con­sume the news. Friends were going to Israel to pick toma­toes and sort clothes for evac­uees. I’d lived in Israel twice in my life; for three years decades ago and, more recent­ly, for five years as a vis­it­ing writer at a uni­ver­si­ty. All I want­ed to do was get on a plane.

Three days after arriv­ing, I met an Israeli friend at Hostage Square, a plaza out­side the Tel Aviv Muse­um of Art. Every Sat­ur­day night thou­sands of Israelis gath­er there to demand the gov­ern­ment do more to release the hostages. After we walked through the heart­break­ing art instal­la­tions, the claus­tro­pho­bic repli­ca of a tun­nel, the fence sta­pled with posters of the hun­dreds still in cap­tiv­i­ty, we went to a near­by cafe. 

So how are you man­ag­ing?” I asked my friend. 

My friend sighed. We had met years before when I gave a talk at the teacher’s col­lege where she worked.

How is any­one man­ag­ing?” she said. Then she leaned into the table. For­get us, what about you?”

What about me?”

In Amer­i­ca. It’s almost as bad for you there as it is for us here.”

It was a con­ver­sa­tion that would be repeat­ed with near­ly every Israeli friend I talked to. The hostage posters vio­lent­ly ripped off tele­phone polls in New York City. The scream­ing pro­test­ers block­ing high­ways and air­ports. The cam­pus demon­stra­tions that would only get worse. It had shocked my Israeli friends. This was not sup­posed to hap­pen in Amer­i­ca, the coun­try that, despite its flaws, they’d looked to as a mod­el of tol­er­ance and safe­ty for Jews.

At first I waved off their con­cerns. I’d say some­thing like, It’s not as bad as it looks. News­pa­pers and web­sites make a lot out of it to sell copies and get clicks.”

Then I’d return to my flat and con­tact my pub­li­cist and say, You know that cul­tur­al cen­ter you’re think­ing of reach­ing out to for an author talk in such-and-such city, such-and-such col­lege town? Maybe skip it.” My book, Dis­placed Per­sons: Sto­ries, is a col­lec­tion of Jew­ish sto­ries, half of which are set in Israel. Though it was com­ing out from a press that had award­ed it a lit­er­ary prize, there was no mis­tak­ing the spe­cif­ic sub­ject mat­ter. For months, the lit­er­ary world had been blow­ing up. The book­fair of an annu­al con­fer­ence for aca­d­e­mics in cre­ative writ­ing (8000 atten­dees) was tak­en over for two hours by pro-Pales­tin­ian demon­stra­tors with bull­horns. PEN Amer­i­ca was attacked for refus­ing to can­cel an appear­ance by May­im Bia­lik. My hus­band said to me: Those venues prob­a­bly won’t invite you. Or if they do, no one will come. Or if peo­ple come, it might be ugly.” Try­ing to arrange such appear­ances seemed unwise. 

But then it hit me. How could it be that I even had to think this way? Had I ever encoun­tered such a thing before?


In 1978, I was a young lawyer in a rur­al Mass­a­chu­setts town. Though many of my law school class­mates had decamped to Wall Street or Wash­ing­ton, D.C., I’d been drawn to the area’s nat­ur­al beau­ty, the low-key lifestyle, and the down-to-earth Main Street lawyer­ing. One Decem­ber evening, over din­ner with a local attor­ney who worked in Con­necti­cut, the attor­ney said to me, The nativ­i­ty scene on the cour­t­house lawn – it’s a vio­la­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. You should write to the Select­men about it. I’d do it, but I don’t prac­tice in the town.”

I was­n’t so sure. The attor­ney and his wife were home­own­ers and paid prop­er­ty tax­es; I was just a renter. But I sent a polite note ask­ing the Select­men to recon­sid­er the dis­play in future years. 

With­in days an arti­cle appeared in the town paper to the effect of Local Lawyer Oppos­es Christmas. 

My boss got angry phone calls. Threat­en­ing notes appeared in my mail­box. My phone rang in the mid­dle of the night. I went to stay with a friend. When I told my father about it, he was sor­ry I had to expe­ri­ence that but not sur­prised. Though he wore his Jew­ish­ness light­ly, he and his broth­ers had changed the fam­i­ly name in the 1930s from Levy to Lee­gant because of uni­ver­si­ty quotas. 

Soon after the arti­cle ran, I went to the local Reg­istry of Deeds to file some doc­u­ments. The man in charge, a mid­dle-aged flirt who liked to wink and gab every time I showed up, took me aside and said that, as a friend, he had to ask: What was I doing? Nobody cared about the First Amend­ment. Did­n’t I under­stand that this was a Chris­t­ian country?


Days after my hus­band and I returned from Israel, a dis­play of hostage posters on the lawn of a house in my heav­i­ly Jew­ish sub­urb was defaced. The Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion held a webi­nar to explain the set­tler colo­nial struc­ture of Zion­ism” to pub­lic school teach­ers. A review­er inter­view­ing me about my forth­com­ing book said she need­ed to be care­ful not to use cer­tain words when she wrote it up lest the piece attract vit­ri­ol or be review-bombed.

Into his eight­ies and frail, my father, a life­long New York­er, refused to stop tak­ing the sub­way even when it was dan­ger­ous because, he said, it was his city, where he belonged. Half a year after my con­ver­sa­tion with the man in that Mass­a­chu­setts Reg­istry of Deeds, I picked up and went to Israel. I thought I’d stay six months. I stayed three years. Unlike my father, I was­n’t sure where I belonged.

Forty years lat­er, bring­ing my book of Jew­ish sto­ries out into the world, I’m once again not so sure.

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Joan Leegant’s new col­lec­tion of Jew­ish short sto­ries, Dis­placed Per­sons, won the New Amer­i­can Fic­tion Prize and was pub­lished this month. She is also the author of a nov­el, Wher­ev­er You Go, and anoth­er sto­ry col­lec­tion, An Hour in Par­adise, which won the PEN/​New Eng­land Book Award, the Wal­lant Award for Jew­ish Fic­tion, and was named a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. For­mer­ly an attor­ney, Joan has taught at Har­vard, Okla­homa State, Hebrew Col­lege, and Cor­nish Col­lege in Seat­tle where she was also the writer-in-res­i­dence at Hugo House. For five years she was the vis­it­ing writer at the Shaindey Rud­off Pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty while also giv­ing talks across the coun­try on Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture under the aus­pices of the State Depart­ment and serv­ing as a vol­un­teer ESL teacher for African refugees in South Tel Aviv. For more about Joan and her work vis­it: www​.joan​lee​gant​.com.