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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.

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.”

According to Laor, the singular Myth of Liberal Zionism is Liberal Zionism itself. Like the beasts Behemoth and Leviathan, a Zionis liberalis is inconceivable to Laor, because whereas his Liberal believes in openness and the policies of empathy, his Zionist—more than a century after Theodor Herzl recalled Palestine as the Judenstaat—believes that millions can be denied their patrimony, dispossessed, abused, and even murdered in the name of Jewish statehood.

As Laor writes in the preface to this essay collection, composed in Hebrew, then translated into French (published by La Fabrique éditions as Le nouveau philosémitisme européen et le “camp de la paix” en Israël), then from French into the following, with the rage intact:

History is always written by the mighty, by the victors. Even if we do not talk openly of bloodshed, of the price of our blood compared to “theirs” in the ongoing equation between sufferings, every discussion about Israel must bear in mind that over 10 million people live in this nation-state and the territories occupied by it. Half of them are Arabs, but almost 4 million of them live under military occupation, with virtually no law protecting them. Fifty percent of all the prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers—in other words, 10,000 people—are “security prisoners,” as Israel calls them, in other words Arabs from the occupied territories who are sitting in prison after being convicted by military courts, or detained without any trial at all. Close to 4 million people are currently living under the longest military occupation in modern times, stripped of the right to vote on the laws that have governed their lives for more than four decades.

Laor’s version of history is to be incensed that history should even have versions. His disdain for the very concept of myriad concepts is informed by a vicious integrity—by his credentials not only as a conscientious objector but also as the son of refugees from the Shoah—and reinforced by his poetic practice. For him, the essential truth underlying historical ambiguity can be found only in and through common language, and one wonders, reading him, whether the ultimate synoptic history of Israel and Palestine would not be a poet’s history, a linguistic history—a version that can be all versions, once the vocabulary has been agreed upon: vocabulary having to do with, for example, the sanctity of “life,” or chayyim, a word that in Hebrew is uniquely plural, and so, as Laor reminds us, cannot be lived by one person, or one nation, alone.Any philological account of this conflict must begin with the name of the younger aggrieved party: “Palestinian” is the word for a people created by the fall of the Ottomans, an empire destroyed in World War I along with two other vaunted houses of the nineteenth century—the Habsburg and the Romanov. Ottoman decline left the Muslim and Christian Arabs living in Palestine to seek for themselves nationhood and a cultural identity distinct from Turkish suzerainty. Meanwhile, the rise of pogroms in Russia, and pervasive anti-Semitism within a host of newly nationalistic countries liberated from the multiethnic inclusivity of empire, turned disparate Jewish populations—from Hasidim in rural Poland and Ukraine to worldly businessmen in Berlin and Paris—into “the Jewish People,” dedicated to re-establishing a country that no Jew had ruled in more than two millennia.

Palestine was then a British “mandate”—that term denoting an indefinite interregnum between colonial rule and colonized self-governance. In 1917, with the war entering its gory senescence, the Balfour Declaration—an open letter from British Foreign Minister Lord Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, Hannah’s grandnephew and the premier Jewish philanthropist of his day—took pains to assert that the newly proposed Jewish homeland shall not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” and so defined the rightful Palestinian inhabitants of Palestine apophatically, or by negation, as what they were not.

That declaration and the subsequent White Papers of 1922 and 1939 were effectively nullified in the wake of the Shoah (much of the Arab world was aligned with the Axis), and by Jewish paramilitaries such as Lehi, Haganah, and the Irgun, which led raids on Arab settlements and British military depots. Israel’s founding, coming six months after the United Nations passed Resolution 181, which advocated Palestine’s partition into Jewish and Arab states, immediately triggered a war when the provisions of that resolution were violated, by Arab aggression and by Israel’s very existence. Israelis call this the War of Independence; Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” Here is another Catastrophe: At the time of this writing, that term, Nakba, previously allowed in Arabic schools and textbooks, has been removed from all curricula in the State of Israel by order of the Education Ministry.

The manipulation of language is no metaphor for political manipulation; it is political manipulation, and every government that has ever sought to convert its citizenry has turned to words—the medium of the media that is also the domain of the poet, who is a veritable president of words. (In Israel the presidency is a powerless office, yet possessed of symbolic significance.) According to Victor Klemperer, by 1933 the German language had swollen with an array of new compounds involving the word VolkVolksfest (a festival of the people, later the Führer’s birthday), Volksgenosse (comrade of the people), Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people), volksnah (one of the people), volksfremd (alien to the people), volksentstammt (descended from the people). Klemperer, a Jew and leading lexicologist of the Reich, along with Karl Kraus, of decayed, feuilletonistic Vienna, are perhaps Laor’s foremost political precursors—Nestbe-schmutzern, or “people-who-dirty-their-own-nests” (leave it to German to have a word for this)—and the best popular theorists of how a change in public language can manifest a change in public consciousness.

Indeed, this reification of language is a tenet of all Abrahamic faiths. Allah, through the angel Gabriel, dictated the Koran to Mohammed; in the Torah the world itself is made by Word: “Let there be light,” and there was, and we’re told “it was good,” and so it is good still. Vitriolic critic of a country that proudly defines its citizenry in the terms of a VolkDas Jüdische Volk—Laor makes the following tally. Since Israel’s inception, more than 400 Arab settlements have been dismantled, and not a few have had their ancient toponyms Hebraicized—Rami to Ramat Naftali, Majd al-Krum to Beit Ha-Kerem, Ja’una to Rosh Pina. This first summer of the Netanyahu government, just as Nakba was deleted from the schoolbooks, the Transportation Ministry proposed to redo Israeli street signs so that even the names written in Arabic would be Hebrew transliterations (e.g., the city of Jaffa would be written as the Hebrew Yafo on Arabic signs, not as the Arabic Yaffa).

These official measures, Laor insists, just legislate the bias with which the conflict is reported in Israel and in those countries, like the United States, influenced by Israeli hasbara, or “explanation”—the Hebrew term for wartime lobbying. According to the Nakdi Report, a set of guidelines drafted by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, the epithet “East Jerusalem” is strictly verboten. During the First Intifada, Israel fought, according to the American press, not an organization like the PLO but “the Palestinians.” Israeli soldiers are regularly “kidnapped,” whereas Hamas “fighters” can only be “arrested.” A Palestinian action is normally “terrorism”; an Israeli action is routinely a “response.” To be fair, the official Palestinian Authority newspaper did, at millennium’s end, call “the Jew” “the disease of the century,” but Laor insists on criticizing only his own.

It isn’t every day that poetry sheds a metaphor, but that is exactly what happened on May 14, 1948, the date of Israel’s founding. By the time of David Ben-Gurion’s proclamation, “Zion” ceased to be a proleptic ideal or symbol and began to be an archaeological site with borders to defend. The imagery of the daily prayer book, and of Diaspora poets like Judah Ha-Levi (“O Zion, won’t you ask after your captives—the exiles who seek your welfare, the remnants of your flocks?”), would be reread as versified prophecy, while new writers—“Sabras,” native Israelis nicknamed after the indigenous prickly cactus—would need to find new metaphors to exploit in a revivified language. Previously a historical tongue wherein each letter controlled a bodily organ and represented an attribute of the Godhead, Hebrew was now put to more mundane uses: finding verbiage for landed things; for flowers, trees, and animals; for politics; for warfare.

Laor’s book begins with a simultaneous study and condemnation of this matured, normalized literature—a corpus of Hebrew letters that didn’t lament an absent patriarchal God or the travails of Exile but, instead, rejoiced in workaday existence. Yet this purported normalcy would degenerate into a type of propaganda in which the Israeli patriot was always in the right, a golden boyman liberating Judaea and Samaria from the Arab hordes in ecstatic self-realization. Canon-building became an initiative of nation-building, as nascent public and government alike clamored for a shira meguyeset—a “mobilized poetry,” able to defend the homeland at a stanza’s notice. Zealous revisionism wasn’t confined to Israeli bookery but also informed such American films as Exodus, starring Paul Newman as a miraculously brawny, virile Jew—half biblical Israelite, half Aryan redivivus. Laor notes, however, that “this trend was somewhat obstructed with the advance of Israeli cinema, perhaps because it was hard to find enough blue-eyed blond actors to fill all the parts.”

If the decades following 1948 found Israelis aspiring to Aryanhood, then the roots of that loathing grew from decades previous, from the Nazi desire to cast European Jewry as entirely Oriental—the infamous Der Stürmer cartoons of the fattish Jew with the hooked nose and tasseled fez, the cigar and ruby rings. Laor argues that the Nazi genocide represented a purgation of this stereotype, and that the Jew emerged from the war intensely Westernized, as if Auschwitz’s fires had burnt away all traces of Otherness and now the Jew was fit to be not just a citizen like all Western citizens but the very paragon of a polis, the Western citizen par excellence. In Laor’s interpretation, if the Holocausted Jew is today regarded as the special guardian of Humanism, then the new Oriental Other or Easterner can be said to be the Arab, and especially the rock-throwing, half-literate Palestinian. Laor accuses the brand names of Israeli letters of continuing to play up these roles, posing as diligent humanists internationally while turning a blind eye to, or even encouraging, the bloodshed at home.

Laor’s polemic engages divergences of East and West in two ways. He accuses his peers of advocating a vague peace in translation, in such forums as Le Monde and Die Zeit, then vociferously supporting recent incursions domestically, in Hebrew. He further accuses them of discriminating between putatively Eastern and Western influences within Israeli Jewry itself. Although Ashkenazim, or European Jewry, constitute a minority of Israelis, their traditions have always been privileged. Despite the presence of the Sephardim—Jews ingathered from Arab lands, for whom Arabic was a primary language—culture for Israel still means Kultur, the cult of Bildung: Beethoven, Rembrandt, Goethe, with maybe a Russian or two, or Marx, included for good measure. This primacy, in turn, is evinced as the subject of most exported Israeli fiction—how European “we” are, how well-educated, how polished. Israeli writers like to mention that Tel Aviv boasts the highest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world.

According to Laor, it is precisely this identification with the West that allows Oz and Yehoshua to be perceived as “liberals,” perhaps even to be “liberals,” yet to distort the facts mercilessly: Oz claiming in the foreign press that the Camp David accords failed because Yasir Arafat insisted on being granted the Right of Return (the right of Palestinians to return to confiscated lands, which critics rightly fear would overrun the country and outpopulate the Jews), whereas Laor (and subsequent intelligence) claims it was because Israel refused to negotiate shared custodianship of Jerusalem; Yehoshua insisting on a binational Pax Semitica, even while recommending an embargo on Gaza and justifying sanctions against the West Bank, agitating in Haaretz in 2004 for “not a desired war, but definitely a purifying one. A war that will make it clear to the Palestinians that they are sovereign,” and threatening “all the rules of war will be different . . . we will make use of force against an entire population.”

By contrast with the Ashkenazi, Israel’s Sephardi or Mizrahi (“Eastern”) majority are largely absent from Israeli fiction, even from that of writers born to Mizrahi families, like Yehoshua, whose mother was born in Morocco and whose father’s people have lived in Jerusalem for five generations. Laor takes Yehoshua to task for disavowing his heritage, and he censures Oz, born Amos Klausner, son of a renowned Russian family of Judaic scholars, for writing novels that praise Jewish Europe, or Jewish Europeans in Israel, while ignoring a sizable swath of his country’s demographic.

Laor—whose own father, a Galician immigrant to Germany, changed his surname from Laufer upon emigration to Palestine—is particularly perplexed by Oz, a writer who denies his origins in life yet cleaves to them on the page, eulogizing in his memoir, _A Tale of Love and Darkness, _those Jewish “Europhiles, who could speak so many of Europe’s languages, recite its poetry, who believed in its moral superiority.” Oz does this, Laor maintains, to make a statement about the qualifications of the victims of Nazism, despite the fact that most of the Jews the Nazis exterminated were far from being urban poetasters or linguists. Just as wherever Jewish literary history is discussed the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz is emphasized over the Arabic of Jewish writers like Anwar Shaul and Murad Michael, in popular iconography the image of a Lubavitcher rabbi appears intimately bound to that of Einstein, or Freud. To Laor, these reductions and lacunae imply a schizophrenia, a desperate reinforcement of older, weaker Jewishness as a stereotype of both what to venerate and never to be, commingled with a racist fear of Arabness that resolves itself in the institution of a synthetic Israeli identity.

Israel is the only country in the world whose politics were initially a poetics. Anytime a ground operation or air raid is launched, the orders implement the dictates of national verse. When Jews first ruled Jerusalem, there was no call for poetry. Then, with the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 a.d., Jewry was thrust into history, or Exile, with a return to Jerusalem representing the end of history, as if the Messiah were not a person but the reunification of a People with its Land. In Exile, Mosaic law gave way to textual interpretation, which gave way to secular letters. Religion turned to a religio poetae—a faith in poetry, or aesthetics, with wordmakers serving as surrogate priests. Their liturgies were odes to a Zion past, and their panegyrics will live forever even if Zionism won’t. The tragedy of Zionism is that history will outlive it, and that governments can never accomplish what should be the province of metaphor, or the divine.

That tragedy is best embodied in translation. Here is “A Citizen of the World,” the only poem of his that Laor quotes in this collection of prose that comments on prose:

We didn’t grow up where our fathers grew.
They didn’t grow up where
their fathers grew. We learned not to
feel nostalgic (we can feel nostalgic for any tombstone
decided upon) we don’t belong
anywhere (we shall belong with ease to anything
when demanded) we move across
countries, we sleep in fancy
hotels, we sleep in cold
barns, we love only to be
loved, we rape only
to be remembered, we enjoy
only to register ownership, destroying
mainly villages, declaring ownership
then leaving, hating peasants, mainly
peasants (if necessary, we’ll also cultivate
the land)

It’s unfortunate that Laor’s word choices in the last lines remain silent in English: “we’ll also cultivate/the land.” The solution to this problem is the solution to the entire Middle East. The last word in the Hebrew is Adamah, “land” in the sense of earth, ground, soil. An agricultural word, a common dirt–under-your-fingernails word, whose root, Adam, relates it to the name of the first man, made of mud, made of clay dug from Eden. The other way of saying “land” is Eretz, though it’s more like saying “Land” (the patriotic phrase is Eretz Yisroel, the “Land of Israel,” never Adamah Yisroel). Lacking capital letters, just as it lacks superlatives, Hebrew suggests differences of importance by near-synonyms, or by compounds. Eretz—used earlier in the poem, here translated as “countries”—is grasping, metaphysical, scriptural: Moses tried to enter the Eretz but failed; Joshua conquered the Eretz in the book that bears his name. The Land of Eretz is a biblical grant, an ethereal encryption of a heart’s ideal, whereas the land of Adamah is a profane place to feed your flesh and water your blood—emphasizing its corporeality, the word for “blood,” dam, is contained in Adamah—the impermanent ground beneath our feet; a temporal tract, or plot, which we could cultivate, “if necessary.” Hebrew poetry since the time of Titus called for an Eretz, modern realpolitik realized an Adamah, and the poets of Laor’s generation found that their grand subject could only be their loss of grand subject—the decapitalization of the Land/land their fathers had labored so hard to capitalize.

If the land of Laor’s poem is Adamah, the poem’s “we” cannot be taken to mean Jews, who live for an Eretz while maintaining residence in Brooklyn and citizenship worldwide. Instead, this “we,” it must be assumed, are Israelis who “didn’t grow up where [our] fathers grew,” and so Laor means to speak only for, and to, Israelis of his own age and circumstances. It often seems that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is just this, a textual problem. If so, then the muddle of meaning that must be analyzed lies in parsing not Palestinian from Israeli but “Israeli” from “Jew.” Only once those epithets have been dissevered can some sort of dialogue begin, between two political entities and not between two (or three) religions, or Peoples. Until then, “Israel” will continue to be vilified as a word that means something other than what it should, while all critics of Israel will be accused of anti-Semitism.

Some poets have tried to write the future; others have tried to rewrite the past, or erase it. Although a good poem does not necessarily have to be a moral poem, a good state is necessarily a moral state. So anarchical as to be apocalyptic, so sensitized to the lamentations of others as to negate his own birthright, Laor in his essays asks not another Jewish Question but rather a universal question: Can a Zionist act morally if morality dictates Zionism’s erasure?

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