Reviews — From the January 2010 issue

Lines of Occupation

The post-Zionist poetics of Yitzhak Laor

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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.

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