Over the last decade, poetry that deals with the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories or, in short, the existence of two warring nations here, has become invisible. Israeli political poetry has a rich history, including Hebrew poets as renowned as Chaim Nachman Bialik, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Yehuda Amichai and many others. It is hard to discount the importance of political poetry in a place like Israel, where this battle continues unresolved, covered in blood. And so there is a particular need to to step back, to be ambitious, and take a look at what is happening here from an ethical stance.
Many poets, including Meir Wieseltier, Agi Mishol, Amir Or, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Ramy Ditzanny and others, have spoke to this matter often. Three significant anthologies on the subject have been published. The first, Poems from the Lebanon War, edited by Hannan Hever and Moshe Ron, appeared in 1983. A second, with the same title, and published the same year, was edited by Yehudit Cafri. The third, With an Iron Pen, compiled by Tal Nitzan, came out in 2005, and in English translation, edited with Rachel Tzvia Back, in 2009. The last vestiges of political poetry appeared in Yitzhak Laor’s journal Mitam, which closed in 2011.
This subject, at the center of attention from the 1980s to the first decade of the new millennium, has now been replaced with something else, perhaps out of despair and perhaps due to a lack of interest. In a flash, political poetry has turned into social poetry, and after that to work dedicated to Jewish intra-ethnic struggles [between Mizrahi Jews, from Arab or Moslem countries, and Ashkenazi, that is, European Jews]. There has been a withdrawal from the attempt to deal with [Israel's] ultimate Other - the Arabs - [and instead there is] a search for the [Mizrahi] Other - so closely identified [with Arabs] that, who knows: perhaps with the [other] Other it might even be possible to make peace?
And so it is important to offer an opinion when a significant attempt is made to restore joint Jewish-Arab life to the the poetry stage. Such is Batsheva Dori-Carlier’s first book, Soul, Search (Poetry Place 2015). (Full disclosure: the writers of these lines is an editor at the press). While the book is not conceptual, and is not devoted to political themes, nonetheless it is hard to ignore its authentic attempt to discuss what has long gone out of fashion, but is still present and requires attention, lest we lose hope.
For example, the poem NEVE SHALOM, SEPTEMBER 2014 that begins with these lines:
Under an olive tree in Neve Shalom it’s impossible
to write “olive tree” without murdering some dove it’s impossible to write
“Neve Shalom” without entering into a war.
It’s impossible to say “I saw a prickly pear bush this morning
on the way to meditation” without quarreling with the thorns
that words send beyond their stone walls, ours,
whose olive tree is this and why is each leaf so significant, stuck in my mouth
like the bitter word of the war that I didn’t start and I can’t end.
The poem treats the rapid deterioration of political discourse in Israel, whose symbols, such as the olive tree and dove of peace, have worn thin. This wear and tear, the poet claims, is first of all an erosion of language that influences our ability to deal poetically and politically with the obstruction squarely facing us at every moment. Unfortunately, this linguistic situation exists in a shameful correspondence to the way the [Israeli] government uses language - to screen out reality, in a proliferation of signifiers that blur meaning and transform the natural environment of the Israeli and the Palestinian poet (the tree, the dove, the name of a community) to something as vague and as hard to describe as the political solution that never arrives. How can the poet write about the landscape if the landscape is a collection of failed cliches?
We see a different angle in MEMORIAL DAY 2007:
I stand on the porch
with my son in my arms.
It’s 11 o’clock
and the first siren in his life
I smell the scent of his thin, silky hair,
remembering his circumcision at the end of the war,
and the rabbi proclaiming:
“His name in Israel will be called: Idan Shalom!”
And the knife sheds a tiny drop of blood.
The fine irony in this poem needs no explanation. The era of peace [the meaning of the poet’s son’s Hebrew name, Idan Shalom] is based on blood; Israeli memory is one of fallen soldiers; the birth of the child is connected to war and thereby mythicized; the desire for peace is a dead end […] The poem brings together two rituals in the life of a male Jewish child: circumcision and Memorial Day. They collide, both connected to dynastic memory, membership in a nation and blood that is spilled in vain. The confluence of such fields in these poems is special in that they do not moralize. There is no Jewish occupier and occupied Palestinian, no wounded Jew and attacking Palestinian.
The understanding that life continues within continual crisis makes it harder to continue to write about this subject, although it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of attending to life lived by the sword, especially when it becomes routine, for example, in the poem, HEAT WAVE IN STOCKHOLM, JULY 2014:
The flight to Israel is delayed, no longer assured
In the morning in the virgin forest
we pick intensely red raspberries and wild strawberries
whose dripping juice makes stains on shirts that may be
removed in the wash but what about the red stains
spreading over shirts
over there, ceaselessly
At the edge of the forest there’s a cliff that’s been
here before us and will remain long after.
The failure to achieve a common Jewish-Arab life here is painful, unfortunate and, mainly, longstanding. The absence of Israeli political poetry in 2017 attests to the deep erosion both of belief in a shared life and a language with which to move toward its possibility. Sometimes it is simply so that we see a mountain in front of us that we don’t think we can climb, and what do genuine poets do in the face of this mountain? They walk around it, point to it and endlessly repeat the words: There is a mountain! There is a mountain! We can’t walk this steep slope without seeing the mountain.