INTERVIEWS June 7, 2024

A Conversation with Masha Gessen

If you know Masha Gessen's work, chances are you feel strongly about it, one way or another. But even those who disagree with their ideas would have to concede that Gessen's critical analyses are well-articulated, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. A prominent journalist, the author of eleven books, and a columnist for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen's name made the rounds in the first part of 2024. You might have seen them announced as the recent recipient of the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought. Or as the writer of the controversial essay, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust.” Or in the many interviews they granted during the international ruckus caused by the essay.

Gessen embodies controversy and contradiction. Much of their writing is critical of Israel, despite the fact that their grandmother, a fervent Zionist, supported Israel. Gessen served as vice president of the free speech organization PEN America, which starkly contrasts the work of their other grandmother, who served as a censor for the Soviet government. Gessen, now infamously, compared Gaza to a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany. This from a person whose great-grandfather served as leader of the Judenrat in one of these 1930s ghettos. 

In their essay “To Be, or Not to Be” (published in The New York Review of Books and anthologized in Best American Essays 2019), Gessen writes that there are many stories to be told about a single life. As a Jewish-Soviet emigre who returned to live in Russia, only to emigrate to America a second time, Gessen has the credentials to back up this statement. “To Be, or Not to Be” examines an idea that appears in more than one of their essays. It's a concept of freedom—that with it comes the joy of adventure, but also a burden of anxiety, because freedom means having to make choices. 

Gessen is a distinguished professor at the graduate school for journalism at City University of New York (CUNY), a distinguished writer-in-residence at Bard College, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship, the Hitchens Prize, and the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Commentary. They came to Butler University in February 2024 and sat down with Booth to discuss anti-politics, mutable identities, and their take on how to address the problem of the Middle East.

Susan Lerner (SL): You've written that you have an obsession with how we think about time and have always wanted to know about the life that happens in between the dates in a history book. I wonder why you think we have the impulse to collapse time this way and what effect you think it has on how we consider the past and how we might imagine the future?

Masha Gessen (MG): I think we have this tendency to collapse the past. It's simpler, a way of telling history. But I think it's also a way of distancing ourselves from history. There is a huge difference between saying that something happened and thinking about how it happened. When you say the Second World War began on September 1, 1939, and ended on May 8, 1945, you kind of elide the in-between. The experience of those days disappears behind the dates when we turn experience into an event. I'm actually most interested in how that influences our ability to think about the present because I think it makes the present exceptional in relationship to the past.

SL: Collapsing time makes the present exceptional?

MG: Yes. We think of all history as a kind of continuum. It all belongs to the past; it is digested into dates first. And the present we think of as not part of history. We don't experience it as dates and events. We experience it as a sequence of stories.

SL: Related to that, I want to ask you about a concept you speak a lot about: complexity. In your book Ester and Ruzya, you write that your great-grandfather was a leader of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto. That your grandmother Ruzya took a job as a censor. Near the very end of the book, you wrote: “In these families there were no longer any heroes, believers, or saviors—just people.” Can you speak to what you took away from digging into the complexity of their lives? I wonder how you see a willingness to embrace complexity figuring into the kind of larger, political narratives we tell ourselves.

MG: It's useful to talk about new autocracies, or would-be autocracies, as primarily anti-political movements. Donald Trump is not offering a different kind of politics; he's offering an anti-politics. He is opposed to the very idea of a conversation about how we live together. Everything that creates alliances and common spaces are things he wants to destroy. That's why I think of it [Trumpism] as an anti-political movement. This kind of anti-politics distinguishes modern autocrats. I think that these are all movements against complexity. Because politics is complicated and messy.

SL: How did writing Ester and Ruzya inform your sense of being Jewish?

MG: I think my sense of being Jewish is always shifting. It's something we don't acknowledge enough, not just in the Jewish culture, but in general when we talk about identity. We talk about identity as if it were immutable, and we don't acknowledge how identity is always something that happens between us and other people—whether it's gender identity or Jewish identity. It's a little bit easier to understand with gender. I think people find it a relief to understand that gender is something that happens between you and other people. It's inseparable from how people perceive you. When I was growing up, a Jewish kid in the Soviet Union, how people perceived me was the entirety of my Jewish experience. Because I had no positive Jewish identity. I had only the identity of a kid who was teased, beaten up. My parents feared that I would be discriminated against in the education system. All of those things had to do with what other people thought about Jews. When my parents left the Soviet Union, what they really wanted was just to not be Jewish.

SL: I find that so ironic because I was one of the kids marching in a line behind the rabbi at the Soviet embassy in San Francisco, fighting for your right to come to America and be Jewish.

MG: Exactly. The people who led refusenik movements were very much people who wanted the freedom to be Jewish—that was not a fiction. But the vast majority of us who got the spoils, who got to actually leave the Soviet Union, just wanted to leave the Soviet Union and not be Jewish. A lot of people did become Jewish after they came to the United States, discovering Jewish tradition, and Jewish community, and the incredible benefits of being part of a community and an intellectual tradition. But we didn't know anything about it, living in the Soviet Union. That makes it easier for me to realize how much my Jewish identity is always evolving. It depends on whether there's community around me, on what kind of kids I'm raising. A lot of American Jews, I think, become more observant, or at least more cognizant of their Jewish heritage, as they start raising kids. I've had very different experiences with all three of my kids. My oldest son was never particularly interested in being Jewish. My middle daughter was always very interested in religion. She's now Muslim, but she's always been engaged in religion and intellectual tradition. When she was growing up, that was a much more intense period of engaging with Judaism. And my youngest kid, who's twelve, has zero interest in a bar mitzvah and is only now developing an interest in an identity as a secular Jew. So that's just one of the examples of how my relationship to my Jewishness shifts.

SL: What would you say it is right now?

MG: Right now, it's obviously tied to the US and world Jewish communities' reaction to October 7 and Israel's war on Gaza. I've found myself asserting my Jewishness more than any time since I was a teenager. 

SL: I have a question not about the conflict in the Middle East but about the conflict among Diaspora Jews. Do you think it's possible for us to find a way to communicate across the divide?

MG: There has to be a way. I've been kind of fascinated with American Jews' reactions to the war in Gaza. Probably one of the most painful things for me to see was American Jews (in November, while marching in DC) chanting “No Ceasefire.” There's a Trumpian cruelty to that chant. There's a fascinating thing that happened to the word “ceasefire,” right? The word “ceasefire” has come to signify surrender and danger rather than what the word “ceasefire” actually means which is a negotiated cessation of fire, usually temporary, and under certain conditions. The only time hostages were actually released since October 7 was during a brief ceasefire, even though that was not a complete ceasefire. 

SL: How do we Jews find each other and some place of empathy or understanding?

MG: There has to be empathy. It's been weird because I see my American Jewish acquaintances who, unlike me, have never had first-hand experience with antisemitism have this trauma response. It puzzles me, but also, I see that it's real. They're not making this stuff up; they're genuinely distressed. There has to be some way to speak to that anxiety. We see the kind of messages that land with these anxieties, like that we have to destroy all of them to keep ourselves safe. Or that any Palestinian baby is a future terrorist. All of these messages go directly to that place of anxiety and aren't subjected to any intellectual critique. So how do we find a way to return to critical thinking, and what is a way to speak to these anxieties with compassion and empathy?

[A long silence, followed by a kind of resigned laughter from both of us.] 

SL: Okay, I'll move on. Your book Where the Jews Aren't is about a failed attempt in the first half of the twentieth century to establish a Jewish autonomous region in Eastern Russia called Birobidzhan. In Gal Beckerman's review of the book, he wrote that you, like many Jews, prefer to inhabit a kind of “Birobidzhan of the mind.” This makes me wonder if you think Jews need an actual geographical homeland or if you side with Simon Dubnow, one of the writers you highlight in this book, whose argument is that the Jewish people are concerned not with a single geographical location, but the protection of their collective individuality “in all states everywhere in the Diaspora.” What are your thoughts on a specific Jewish homeland?

MG: You're going to get me in so much trouble. Simon Dubnow is one of my favorite thinkers. He was a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Jewish historian from the Pale of Settlement who wrote in Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew. He was an evolutionist. He thought about Jewishness in the framework of an evolution of nations. In his framework, the lowest level of national evolution was tribalism, the next level was nation-state, and the highest level was post-nation-state. Dubnow's argument was very well-articulated. He saw Jews as being at the forefront of cultural nationhood. It wasn't just that Jews weren't concerned with land, it was that by not having land, Jews could create a type of nationhood that was not tied to force. That is an absolutely visionary idea. Simon Dubnow was killed in the early days of the Nazi occupation of Latvia at the age of eighty-two. One could make the argument (that was made many times after the Second World War) that part of what put him in such grave danger was the lack of a Jewish national homeland. But I think he would have been greatly disappointed in what happened to the Jews in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century—that some Jews became a nation tied to force. I think that we could go back to Dubnow's ideas and think about peace in the Middle East as something that requires some kind of post-nation-state solution. There are people who have talked over the years about the no-state solution. I think a no-state solution would be much better than a two-state solution. That doesn't mean that I'm arguing against Palestinian statehood. I'm saying that, in my imagination, there would be some kind of solution for people and land that is not defined by creating guarded borders between them. Especially because it does seem impossible to create two states.

SL: If you're not arguing against Palestinian statehood, are you arguing against Israeli statehood?

MG: In the current situation, I don't think I can argue against either. Israel exists. Nobody should be asking the question of whether Israel has the right to exist. If we ask the question, “How is peace achieved there?” I think the intellectually and geographically honest answer is not through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. It's probably through something else. That “something else” may be a confederation. That's not a totally novel solution; there are confederations in the world. Some of them function quite nicely. But there has to be some kind of common politics between Palestinians and Jews who live in that land. And a true common politics would probably require reconsidering ideas of citizenship and reconsidering ideas of nation-state.

SL: There is so much to consider there, but we have so little time, so I'll move on. In your New Yorker piece “The Sackler Family and Mine,” you wrote about how the opioid crisis has impacted your family—specifically your son. Much of your writing is intensely personal. How do you consider whether to disclose personal details about family members, and what are your guidelines about what you're willing to share about yourself?

MG: I think I've drifted away from personal writing over the years. I certainly don't want to put much of myself in my books. But I don't know if it was the right decision to write that piece. I was moved to write it after I read the Sackler family chat history, their WhatsApp. I was just so angry. At the time, my oldest son was really struggling, having once overdosed on Oxy, which he had taken from my medicine cabinet. My daughter was very involved in Nan Goldin's group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). They were fighting the Sacklers in the art world, and it was an incredibly effective organization. I felt like writing that piece could make a contribution to the understanding of what that family had done and how cynical they were about what they had done. Because that chat was just shocking. I think I also wrote it because I was feeling very hopeless about my son. I didn't [want to] imagine what might happen, but he has done really well. He has graduated from college, he's working, and he has a great relationship. He's been clean and sober for several years. I'm immensely proud of him. I don't know that he needs that piece out there on the internet.

SL: I'm sorry I brought it up, but thank you for answering. Okay, here's a question about PEN America, the free speech organization where you were once a trustee. Recently they held an event in Los Angeles during which members of Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG) protested from within the audience. The protesters gathered because the program featured Moshe Kasher in conversation with Mayim Bialik, who is an outspoken supporter of Israel. When the protesters were asked to leave, all did but the Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar, who had to be physically removed from the venue by staff. What are your thoughts on this incident? 

MG: I have to admit I didn't watch the video. I don't know if an offer was extended for her to come on stage and have an actual conversation. That would have been in the PEN tradition and would have corresponded to PEN's values. If that didn't happen, then I think that's shameful. But if she was yelling and stopping the conversation from going forward and she had been invited to join the conversation, with no objections, then I don't see what option they would have had other than to remove her. I don't support anyone shutting down anyone else. I assume they didn't ask her to come up on the stage, but I don't know.

SL: I'm not sure, either.

MG: But I'm almost relieved that I resigned from PEN over a different issue. I wasn't just a trustee, I was vice president. I resigned in May, so I haven't had to resign over its failure to speak up on Palestine.

SL: In another literary incident, earlier this year the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) held its annual conference. Another organization, the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), sent a message to AWP panel moderators. The message invited the moderators to read a statement at their panels that acknowledged an ongoing genocide in Gaza that sits on the heels of decades of Israeli colonialism and apartheid. In response, AWP sent a message to the panel moderators saying that the RAWI message was not an AWP directive, that AWP is committed to an environment free of harassment, and they have a zero-tolerance policy for it. In response, many writers criticized AWP, accusing the organization of racism and cowardice. What are your thoughts?

MG: I have many thoughts. One is that I understand the organizing impulse. The despair so many people have felt about life going on as usual—our nice writerly events and collegiality—while people are being slaughtered and a population is being starved to's unbearable. I think that calling on people to say something about life not being normal is an understandable impulse and a really good idea. But I think there's an art to the open letter and public statement, which is that it should be as short as possible and as specific as possible. While I completely agree with its content, not everybody is prepared to say that the war on Gaza rests on seventy-five years of apartheid and occupation. It does, but asking for people to sign on, not only to the desire to call attention to tragedy but to an entire political worldview, is tactically not very smart. I don't understand why AWP interprets RAWI's request as harassment. I don't know who drafted AWP's statement. And I don't know what was going on behind the scenes. But if all that happened was that people got an email request from RAWI to read a statement, to interpret that as harassment is indeed racist. It suggests the request contains some kind of threat or intimidation. But I don't know if something else happened and if when AWP used the word “harassment,” they didn't mean something else.

SL: On a more casual note, I'd like to ask you about fame. The Forward once gave you the honor of runner-up for Sexiest Jewish Intellectual. And in 2021, The Paris Review published this really sweet piece by Jen Silverman titled “My Gender is Masha Gessen”—  

MG: I did not think that piece was sweet at all.

SL: Oh. Well, I want to hear about that, too.

MG: It was really fun to be put up on The Forward's Sexiest Jewish Intellectual list, even if the winner was BHL (Bernard-Henri Lévi).

[Laughter from both of us.]

SL: Did the BHL taint it just a tiny bit?

MG: It did taint it just a tiny bit, but it was still hilarious. It was clearly something that was done in good fun. The “My Gender is Masha Gessen” piece was just weird. I thought it was a little invasive and creepy. Given how weighted the idea of gender identity is, I felt the piece wielded it in a way that made me uncomfortable. I haven’t read it since it came out, so it's hard for me to be more specific.

SL: In your New Yorker essay, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” you compared Gaza to a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany. The ceremony to award you the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought was called into question, then moved to a different location and downsized. You gave a lot of interviews about this situation. I wonder what the emotional price of that kind of fame was.

MG: You know, it's going to sound odd, but I actually found that to be a very rewarding experience. I knew what I was getting into; I wasn't ambushed. I was prepared. I have the stamina and experience to sit through forty-eight hours of interviews, which is basically what ended up happening. I was just in my hotel room, giving interview after interview. But I felt like I had a lot of weight to throw around, and so people actually listened to my side of things. They mostly wanted to, if not understand, at least give an airing to what I had to say. I felt like I could say my peace; I got listened to. Also, Der Spiegel translated [“In the Shadow of the Holocaust”] and published it in its entirety, which never would have happened without that controversy. A piece like that was, by definition, unpublishable in Germany before this whole thing broke out. So I felt like I won that battle. I think it contributed to the discussion in Germany. The Berlin senate dropped a plan to adopt the (controversial) IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition [of antisemitism] as an official criterion—largely because of the sequence of conversations that happened around that prize. That was the upside of fame to me.

Susan Lerner received her MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University. She serves as assistant memoir editor for Split Lip Magazine, assistant editor for Brevity, and reads for River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and Fourth Genre. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Believer Logger, Painted Bride Quarterly, Booth, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @susanlitelerner and online at