Writing stars such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth illuminated the postwar era, a veritable golden age for American Jewish authors. The People of the Book were storytellers for popular consumption, and publishers eagerly kept those stories coming. What was once a love affair between Jewish writers and the publishing industry, however, is looking more like estrangement in 2021.

There was, for example, the case of April Powers, the black Jewish chief equity and inclusion officer for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Reacting to the spring’s stateside surge of antisemitism that coincided with Israel’s war against Hamas, Powers posted a statement opposing domestic antisemitism. After being criticized by one SCBWI member for “not including a comment about Islamophobia and Palestinian discrimination” and hung out to dry by the organization, Powers departed.

Then there was Haley Neil, a new Jewish young-adult novelist, who reportedly felt compelled to rewrite her first novel, debuting in February. Why? Hostile critics left 1-star reviews on Goodreads, because the story was rumored to take place on a Birthright trip to Israel, a popular tour for young Jews to reconnect with their heritage. Bloomsbury’s director of publicity for children’s books emailed the Washington Examiner, “We don’t comment on specific changes made in the editorial process,” before adding, “It’s worth noting that early commentors were not responding to any draft of the book, as it was not released.”

Most recently, of course, was the brouhaha over Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s announcement that her latest book wouldn’t be translated into Hebrew, unless it could be done in a way that satisfied major anti-Zionist campaigners. (It obviously cannot.) Notably, there was no outcry from the publishing world over this blatantly discriminatory act. Rather, 70 publishers and writers have signed a public letter supporting Rooney.

These incidents, along with interviews of 11 Jewish writers — nine of which are described below — paint an unflattering picture of the publishing industry in 2021. At base, there are two central problems. First, the industry’s preferred parameters for Jewish content are narrow. Second, and more controversially, while there is no official boycott, the literary world writ large appears to have an Israel problem.

This means publishing has become more difficult and frustrating for Jewish authors covering the “wrong” subjects or writing from the “wrong” angle. It also means that readers aren’t necessarily seeing all of the best stories writers have to tell. In other words, this is a cascading problem. It’s not limited to any one writer or genre, and it’s already affecting thoughtful readers, whether they realize it or not.

In discussing the publishing world, it’s worth remembering what several writers noted in our conversations: Publishing is a business. Unfortunately, as in Hollywood, that frequently means publishing defaults to a tried-and-true formula.

Alina Adams, a New York-based, New York Times bestselling writer of romance, mystery, and historical fiction, observed, “With Jews, you know what you’ll get when you pick up a book. ... If it’s not The Nanny, it should be Tevye the Milkman.” Perhaps that explains why Adams has faced resistance to some of her Jewish characters: “I write Soviet Jews, and I write immigrant Jews, not typical American Jews.”

San Francisco area novelist Claudia Long also defies “the mold” as a Jew who grew up in Mexico, a country she has written about. A former participant in San Francisco’s Lit Crawl literary event, Long applied to participate with a group of “Jewish-themed writers” this year. “The topic was immigrant resiliency, about the Jewish immigrant experience in the U.S. at different times, mostly after World War II.” Considering her group’s rejection, Long observed, “There may be Jews, but there’s no one writing as a Jewish voice. That tells me we’ve run into an actual problem.”

Books about the Holocaust seem to be evading the barriers, but that raises its own problem. Long, who recently published a fictional mystery about the daughters of a Holocaust survivor — with an Israeli publisher, after American publishers passed — said “one of the premises [of her book] is that people want their Jews to be humble, grateful, or dead.” American and Israeli novelist Hesh Kestin emailed, “It is a mark of the decline of Jewish participation in culture — as Jews representing Jews or Jewishness — that the most significant theme of publishing is the Holocaust, hardly the most vibrant Jewish representation of Jewish life, or of life.”

Adams summarized, “If you’re doing historical fiction during World War II, Jews are fine — that’s what people want to read — they’re not threatening in any way. Jews are victims, so that’s fine, but Israel is a whole different story.”

It is indeed. There appear to be relatively new, unspoken rules about what can be written about Israel, if it must be discussed at all.

Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and an American Israeli nonfiction writer, described “a growing sense of unease among younger Jewish writers dealing with explicitly Israel-related themes. They’re feeling the industry closing up on them.”

“Just being Zionist is enough to get you stigmatized,” Klein Halevi noted, adding that several nonfiction manuscripts he’s read and is promoting are “very well written, reasonable, thoughtful, even profound, books that even as recently as a couple of years ago would have no problem getting published; something is changing. There’s a mood, and moods are amorphous and are very difficult to resist, because it’s not coming from any one place. I can’t pinpoint what the source is except broadly the obvious anti-Zionist tilt in growing parts of progressive discourse.”

One example of this trend is an American-born Israeli author I interviewed who described how impossible it was to find a publisher for her novel about Operation Moses, which spans Ethiopia, Sudan, and Israel. The novel is “very Zionistic,” but it also “touches on a lot of themes that would typically appeal to progressives — xenophobia, immigration, and racism. ... Multiple agents said, ‘It sounds like an important novel, but I don’t think I can sell it.’”

There’s also American-born Israeli poet Rachel Neve-Midbar, who said that since she started writing 11 to 12 years ago, “I’ve watched it become harder to publish anything Israeli.” Neve-Midbar’s first book of poetry, which included poems about Israeli victims of terrorism, won the Tebot Bach Clockwise Prize for poetry in 2013. However, Neve-Midbar, who sees Israel’s 2014 war as a turning point in publishing, faced headwinds with her second book, which was released last year. “I was told [by publishers] I was too Jewish, too much, coming on too strong, all these buzzwords.” These things tend not to be said explicitly, though, because Neve-Midbar notes, there’s “too much with American politeness for people to tell you what’s going on.”

Neve-Midbar described the hard-left Jewish Currents accepting her translation of an Israeli poet’s poems about family and loss, which they wanted to introduce with commentary that was “harder than I wanted to say things ... [like saying] Israel was colonized.” That nearly finished project was killed without explanation. She also wanted to launch a Middle Eastern, English-language poetry journal that would “bring Arabs and Jews together.” Neve-Midbar and another American “agreed we needed a Muslim [who was] more well-known than we are in the poetry world that would be a draw for people to send us their work. I called a very famous Muslim poet in the U.S. and said we have this idea for a project, we’re looking for a third publisher, not sure if you or someone you know would be interested. He said, ‘Why would I give you another brown-skinned person you can control?’ ... The blowback is real.”

As for Klein Halevi’s own experience, he recalled how it took more than a year to find a publisher for his New York Times bestselling Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. He calls that “a precursor of this moment.” Klein Halevi commented, “It’s not a policy, and many people in publishing might not even be aware of it, might not be aware that they’re participating in an unofficial boycott, but that’s increasingly the feeling and experience of young writers.”

“It’s much easier today to publish a scathing, one-dimensional take on Israel and Zionism than it is a nuanced, balanced, open-hearted attempt to relate to the conflict, and that’s a tragedy.”

Caroline Goldberg Igra, an American Israeli novelist, shared a similar impression. After writing a novel about Anglos in Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, “I found people really didn’t want to talk about Israel.” Goldberg Igra has faced challenges placing pieces about life in Israel, including one about “participating in a triathlon right after the war in May.” She later added, “That’s my feeling, that if I were going to write a scathing criticism of Israel, that it would be much more of interest to a liberal American audience, the people I identify with, because that’s kind of what they want to hear.”

How Israel and Israelis are portrayed matters a great deal to American audiences, as Israeli American playwright Meron Langsner knows. Langsner described his play about “the friendship between an Israeli immigrant and a Palestinian American in NYC in the summer of 2002” as “pretty pro-Israel, but not at the expense of anyone else.” When Langsner “offered to share a reading with a Palestinian writer of a short play” in Boston during a national residency, that writer “told us via their agent that they would not share a stage with an Israeli American.”

Langsner noted the play has “won a handful of awards and was produced at the New York Fringe Festival in 2014,” but he’s also had “multiple directors tell [him] it sounded fascinating, but they were afraid to go near it.”

Langsner concluded, “There is a significant anti-Israel bias in arts circles, so much so that [the] unaffiliated are often afraid to engage with any material that presents Israelis in a positive light. There has been enough negative sentiment against Israel (and now extending to Jewish people in general) that aligning with them is too often seen as picking ‘the wrong side.’”

California-based novelist and poet Sarah Jaffe (a pseudonym), who wrote a novel with both “Palestinian and Jewish point of view characters,” has also seen the reaction to her work change. Her manuscript has “won or been a finalist for several awards,” but agents have been wary. Last year, one called to say, “I love this book, and if it were a different time — but I don’t think I can sell it, because it’s set in Israel.”

Jaffe described having “private conversations with other Jewish writers, mostly adult literary fiction writers, who are all feeling like it’s not safe, it’s not prudent, to get our work out now. ... [There’s] not a lot of openness to it right now.” The upshot of this, of course, is that readers may have to wait for years. Or, they may never see these books.

“It’s very painful to think there may not be a place for my book or anyone else’s,” Jaffe told me. “I want all the thoughtful books in the world, regardless of whether they reflect my politics. How can we possibly get along if we can’t see each other as human?”

Seeing others as human is fundamental to the very idea of literature, which is why this trend is such a threat to the industry. Social media catalyzes cancellation, though, as Hesh Kestin knows.

Kestin was already a journalist and the published author of well-received fiction when his 2019 novel, The Siege of Tel Aviv, blurbed by Stephen King, was canceled. Even though it “was seen as a first best-seller for the publisher,” it was pulled after 13 Twitter accounts protested alleged Islamophobia. Kestin notes that none of the 13 had advance reader copies, and he doubts any of them read it after Kestin later self-published it.

Kestin describes these critics as “in the main neither Muslims nor Palestinians but American left-wing enemies of Israel.” The Islamophobia charge stemmed from the cover using the word “Moslem,” which Kestin says was his publisher’s doing; he wrote “Muslim” in the text. Critics also objected “to the story, which describes the conquest of Israel by a pan-Islamist alliance led by Iran.”

Pointing to the history of Arab-Israeli wars and the Iranian government’s perpetual saber-rattling, Kestin observed that the plot “is hardly something the author made up out of whole cloth.” He also added, “There are at least four heroic Arab/Muslim characters in Siege, while the Israeli establishment is painted as naively complicit in its own destruction.” None of this mattered, though.

Kestin emailed: “Once Siege was accused of racism and Islamophobia, the dozens of critics who had praised my earlier work ... simply disappeared. (American journalism found nothing of interest in a publisher pulping its own popular book because of a handful of anonymous complaints.) As a result, Siege received only six reviews, all glowing, including one from a Palestinian-American novelist and one from a prominent British Muslim media personality. ... Sadly, my most prominent fan, Stephen King, who for over a decade had provided ecstatic blurbs for all my novels ... in the process becoming one of my closest friends, simply turned his back, explaining that he, America’s most popular writer, the writer to whom Siege was dedicated, did not wish to risk standing up to the raging mob.”

Reflecting on his experience, Kestin observed, “Certainly what is judged to be pro-Israel material is no longer in fashion. A generation of Jews has grown up with little to no affection for the Jewish state, not least because it sees in Israel not David but Goliath.”

Kestin added, “Jews have been replaced by other minorities, possibly because Jews have convinced themselves they are not a minority at all, and so are hardly in need of speaking out as a group.” And yet, anyone who’s been paying attention is aware that Jews are not only a minority group, but an increasingly vulnerable one in the West, as the postwar taboo against open antisemitism has receded.

Yossi Klein Halevi observed, “There's an irony that is increasingly haunting me, that even as large parts of the Arab world begin to dismantle the 70-year boycott of Israel, that boycott is now being taken up by parts of the progressive West, and it’s infiltrating the publishing world as well. It’s unfair to say you can’t publish an Israel book in a mainstream [publishing] house today ... but I worry we’re heading in that direction.”

For Klein Halevi, one possible solution would be for “the pro-Israel philanthropic community to think about setting up a publishing house that would take on quality projects ... that are serious and grapple with the meanings of Israel, the dilemmas Israel faces, in a way that combines critique with love.”

For a people who famously love to answer questions with more questions, perhaps the pressing question now is whether it’s time to build that publishing house, because the status quo is intellectually and creatively stifling.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein (@slowhoneybee) is a former State Department speechwriter and an independent writer in metro Washington.