Reviews — From the January 2010 issue

Lines of Occupation

The post-Zionist poetics of Yitzhak Laor

Discussed in this essay:

The Myths of Liberal Zionism, by Yitzhak Laor. Verso. 192 pages. $22.95.

How great is the God Who allows a poet to be born at the same moment as his nation! Let us praise Him! Let us praise Him with flute and timbrel! Let us praise Him by criticizing Israel!

Yitzhak Laor—Israel’s most celebrated dissident, and perhaps its greatest living poet—was born in 1948 a month before the founding of the Jewish State. The town he grew up in, Pardes Hannah—Hannah’s Orchard, named not after the biblical Hannah, mother to the Prophet Samuel, but after Hannah Rothschild, scion of the orchard’s funding family—is today a scruffy backwater redeemed only by its bright groves of citrus trees. Forsaken halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Pardes Hannah in 1948 was a Jewish oasis surrounded by Arab villages soon to be destroyed. By the time Laor could have been conscious of his neighbors, they’d vanished, through intimidation and by force. Gone were their orchards. Gone were their citrus trees.

Laor was first recognized for his resistance—the most modern of mediums. As students at Tel Aviv University in 1972, Laor and fellow reservist Yossi Kotten became the first two Israel Defense Forces soldiers to invoke “selective refusal” (in Hebrew, sarvanut selektivit) with regard to their compulsory military service. The line they drew in the sand was the Green Line, the border that separated Israel from the lands it took during the Six-Day War: Laor and Kotten refused to serve in any mission perpetrated in what are now called “the Occupied Territories.” This act of becoming a “Refusenik”[*]—retrospectively marking a generational shift from the happy heroes of 1948, 1967, and 1973 to the grunts mired in Lebanon in 1982—proved a national sensation, prompting popular condemnation and earning Laor a short term in a military prison. But it also proved his seriousness as a political voice and gained readers for his poetry—politician-readers, soldier-readers, even lay readers.

[*] “Refusenik” is the sardonic invention of radical journalism. The original Refuseniks were Soviet Jews refused the opportunity of aliyah, or moving to Israel. In Hebrew, “conscientious objectors” are sarvanim, from the root serev, “to refuse” or “to decline.”

For more than three decades, Laor has ignited controversy, and the success of his verse, novels, stories, and the play Ephraim Goes Back to the Army has given rise at times to outright paradox: when he won the 1990 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry, Israel’s highest such award, Yitzhak Shamir, then prime minister, refused to sign the official declaration. Laor should not be read as the bane of officialdom, however, but rather as the stern comfort of the Israeli soldier who can no longer pretend to be the courageous warrior; his poetry is both the balm of those who serve only the orders of their own conscience and the prophetic exhortation of those he describes in his poem “Balance”:

The gunner who wipedout a hospital the pilot
who torched a refugee camp the journalist
who courted hearts & minds for murder the actor
who played it as just another war the teacher
who sanctioned the bloodshed in class the rabbi
who sanctified the killing the government minister
who sweatily voted the paratrooper
who shot the threetime refugee the poet
who lauded the finest hour of the nation
who scented blood and blessed the MiG. The moderates
who said let’s wait & see the party hack
who fell over himself in praising the army the sales clerk
who sniffedout traitors the policeman
who beat an Arab in the anxious street the lecturer
who tapped on the officer’s back with envy of the officer
who was afraid of refusing the prime minister
who eagerly drank down the blood.? They?
shall not be cleansed.

The translation is mine, because no English translations of Laor’s poetry have yet appeared in a book of his own, and where they have appeared, on the Internet and in left-leaning poetry anthologies, they have been poor if not incorrect. The decision of who gets translated into English is often less a matter of quality than of politics—the lack of a market for translated literature requiring its subsidy by a writer’s home state—and one can imagine Israel’s unwillingness to promote a writer like Laor abroad.

It comes as both a disappointment and an inevitability, then, that Laor’s first book to make it into our language is nonfiction, published by Verso, Anglo-America’s preeminent radical press. The Myths of Liberal Zionism is a work of political critique as literary criticism, a treatment of statecraft as an adjunct to poetic craft, and it is also an attack on the famous writers of Laor’s generation, whom he reads as providing humanitarian cover for Israeli abuses. Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, even David Grossman, who lost a son in the 2006 Lebanon war—Laor accuses these and others of sanctioning, through impotent dissent and empty rhetoric, the tragic status quo. Novelists who pen pietistic eulogies but have never resisted their governance; public intellectuals who absolve liberal guilt but have never directly opposed the moral compasses of their readership—“They shall not be cleansed.”

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