Poet against War – Aharon Shabtai: A Voice Mocking in The Wilderness

It’s summertime and this means vacation for some of us, and people will be browsing in chain bookstores for the perfect summer escapist read:  mysteries, sci-fi, biographies, anything to take our minds off of work, all that needs to be done, or the depressing state of the world. How alien this is to Kafka’s stern declaration of reading:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. [1]

Recently, I have come to know whereof Kafka speaks.  Last fall and winter, I worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the ISM office in Rafah, someone had posted a verse from Bertolt Brecht:  “In the dark times/ Will there be singing?/Yes, there will be singing/About the dark times.” There was also taped to a wall a review from the New York Times of a collection of poems, J’Accuse by the Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai. [2]  The review itself grabbed my attention: Shabtai is an Israeli humanist and classics prof at Tel Aviv University taking on the Israeli establishment and the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces).

When I returned home to St. Louis, I immediately bought the book and have carried it around as an aide-mémoire: Shabtai reminds me of so much that took place during my ten weeks in the occupied territories: checkpoints, roadblocks, detentions, gunfire on a nightly basis from the sniper towers and tanks, the daily grind of poverty and joblessness, and homes reduced to rubble courtesy of the only democracy in the Middle East.  You have to see it to believe it, friends said who’d previously gone and worked with ISM.  An old adage, to be sure, but one I came to appreciate.  Standing at a checkpoint for two ours in the early afternoon and the sun damn near drove me to mania – what if I had to face that everyday for hours? About the causes for despair in Palestine, most Americans haven’t got a clue.

As I read these engaging and searing poems from the era of Prime Minister Ehud Barak (translated by Peter Cole), Shabtai’s poetric fury reminded me of his Hebrew precursors in sacred writ. So I returned to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magisterial two-volume work, The Prophets, in which he zeroes in on the prophet’s insensitivity to business as usual:

To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice in injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world. Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions. [3]

Aharon Shabtai is akin to a Zen Master who brazenly throws cold water on his slacking students to wake them up.  He feels intensely what the Palestinians are suffering and also addresses the Israeli architects and the agents of the oppression of the Palestinians. In the title poem, which provocatively mimics French novelist’s Emile Zola’s famous denunciation of anti-Semitism and idolatrous nationalism, Shabtai considers that the sniper who kills a Palestinian child is linked bureaucratically to many members of Israeli society.[4]  He writes bluntly, refusing to pay homage to any Jewish exceptionalism:

History has known
foreheads like these –
technicians of slaughter,
bastards in whose eyes
morality is a pain in the ass. [5]

In “Culture,” the poet satirizes an Israeli soldier:

He’s spent time in museums,
and when he aims
his rifle at a boy
as an ambassador of Culture,
he updates and recycles
Goya’s etchings
And Guernica.[6]

In another poem, “Nostalgia,” he refers to Barak:

He’ll help solve the economy’s problems:
The unemployed will man the tanks,
Or dig graves,
And, come evening,
We’ll listen to Schubert and Mozart…
And when it’s all over,
my dear, dear reader,
on which benches will he have to sit,
those of us who shouted “Death to the Arabs!”
and those who claimed they “didn’t know”? [7]

Perhaps it is coincidental but I wonder if Shabtai is consciously invoking literary critic George Steiner’s recognition of the civilized and cruel capacity of Germans during World War II: “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” [8]  Shabtai dares to press the memory buttons of his fellow Israelis.  Again, Heschel’s study  is apposite here: “The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of  pretense and self-pity…. His words are often slashing, even horrid – designed to shock rather than to edify.” [9] Precisely so in Shabtai’s poem “The New Jew,” with even the sardonic German translation:

The new Jew,
der neue Jude,
rises at night,
puts his uniform on,
kisses his wife and child,
and, in two or three hours, destroys
a quarter in one of Gaza’s ghettos.
He manages to make it back
in time for coffee and rolls.
In the paper,
the fresh picture of women and children
picking through islands of rubble,
like frightened hens,
pales beside
the shuttle within
that professional gesture. [10]

A month ago, Israel conducted yet another brutal campaign in Rafah, Operation Rainbow. The result: scores of homes destroyed, well over 40 people killed, which led to international condemnation. There were other “fresh pictures” of Palestinians returning to the remains of their homes. Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid was critical of the operation and had this to say:  “I saw on television an old woman picking through the rubble of her house in Rafah, looking for her medicine. She reminded me of my grandmother who was expelled from her home during the Holocaust.” [11]  Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was predictably indignant at Lapid’s remarks. How dare Lapid evoke that history to today’s righteous action against the terrorists.

In her essay, “Confronting Empire,” Indian writer Arundhati Roy offers encouragement to those people across global civil society who feel compelled to interfere with the U.S. Empire.  She writes, “Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer recklessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.” [12] Consider, then,  “To a Pilot,” in which Shabtai address the Israeli who has long been lauded in the West for the military’s “purity of arms”:

When next you circle
in your chopper
over Jenin,
pilot, remember the children
and old women
in the homes at which you fire.
Spread a layer
of chocolate across your missile,
and do your best to be precise –
so their souvenir will be sweet
when the walls start to fall. [13]

It’s worth noting that Israel procures from the United States F-16s and Apache helicopter gunships to eliminate those terrorists and too bad for those civilians – now dead or maimed – who happened to be in the vicinity. This method of extrajudicial executions is condemned by international law but that doesn’t stop the United States from continuing to do business with Israel while our leaders affirm that we continue to work for peace (while we arm the preponderant Israelis and denounce the besieged Arafat).

Finally, in his poem, “War,” Shabtai unequivocally takes sides, and, to adapt the ethical imperative of Christian liberation theology, he makes a preferential option for the Palestinian people:

I, too, have declared war:
You’ll need to divert part of the force
deployed to wipe out the Arabs —
to drive them out of their homes
and expropriate their land —
and set it against me.
You’ve got tanks and planes,
and soldiers by the battalion;
you’ve got the rams’ horns in your hands
with which to rouse the masses;
you’ve got men to interrogate and torture;
you’ve got cells for detention.
I have only this heart
with which I give shelter
to an Arab child.
Aim your weapon at it:
even if you blow it apart
it will always,
always mock you. [14]

Throughout  J’Accuse, Shabtai (“I’m a disciple of Shakespeare, not Ben Gurion”) is trying to intensify responsibility and jar his somnolent fellow citizens into recognition of what the occupation concretely means to the Palestinians and the Israelis. [15]  This book of 64 pages should get wider circulation in the United States as too few of us in the United States have lucid awareness of the daily, weekly, systematic dispossession of the Palestinians; the bizarre permit system that effectively denies Palestinians the right to build on or travel to their own land; and the ever encroaching “apartheid wall” that, in effect, takes the best land for the Israelis – inside Palestinian territory – and leaves the Palestinians isolated, imprisoned, cut off from other villages, towns and cities.

In Palestine, ISM informed us that, because we were often seeing the vicious side of Israel by our standing with the Palestinians, it was possible we could easily become jaded about Israelis.  We were advised, therefore, if we had the time and inclination, to go to Israel, and see the good parts of it.  Aharon Shabtai is one of the good parts of Israel. He   belongs with that amazing group of Israelis – people like Israel Shahak, Lea Tsemel, Amira Hass, Tanya Reinhart, Neve Gordon, and many others – who have over the years represented the conscience of the Jewish state. [16]  And for Shabtai, it is an activist like Israeli Neta Golan (A cofoudner of ISM) who inspires, so much so he wrote “A Poem for Neta Golan.” Addressing the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet who defied his torturers by singing even while mired in crap in a latrine, Shabtai takes heart:

My dear Nazim,
I’ll learn from you
and sing today
of Neta Golan –
who was thrown
into Kishon Prison
for binding herself
to an olive tress
before the army’s bulldozers
at the village of Istiyya.
Thanks to Neta
I won’t collapse today
into the sewage of Ariel Sharon.[17]

In her latest volume of selected poems, In The Room of Never Grieve, American Anne Waldman writes as the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq in March 2003. But her words also speak accurately of a war that is the occupation and a poet like Shabtai:

The war goes on and this particularly horrific and senseless invasion will reap years of negative snarling karma, and be the paradigm for the next wars, the next imperious interventions. Poets oppose this monstrous aggression and further aggressions with out voices, breath, our wits, our bodies, our words, our cultural, activist interventions. We continue our activity in the nation’s streets and in concert with other outraged citizens of the world.  We as poets witness and continue to proclaim ourselves, in Shelley’s phrase: the true legislators of the race. [18]

When Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan visited St. Louis University this past March, a friend, Cathy Nolan, asked him what he’d been reading. His terse reply: “The Gospels and the poets.”  Reading Shabtai, reading Waldman, reading Berrigan can crack the sea frozen inside us.


[1]  Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans.  Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken, 1977, 16.

[2] Aharon Shabtai, J’Accuse, trans. Peter Cole (New York: New Directions, 2003).

[3]  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 1: 4. Along similar lines, George Steiner muses about the likely reception of those like the prophets and Jesus, bearers of the Judaic prophetic:  “Is there anyone we hate more than he or she who asks of us a sacrifice, a self-denial, a compassion, a disinterested love which we feel ourselves incapable of providing but whose validity we nevertheless acknowledge and experience in our inmost?” George Steiner, “Through That Glass Darkly,” in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 341.

[4]  See the collection of letters, interviews, and articles, Emile Zola, The Dreyfus Affair:  ‘J’accuse’ & Other Writings, ed. Alain Pagès, trans. Eleanor Levieux (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1996).

[5]  Shabtai, J’Accuse, 18.

[6]  Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 16-17.

[8] George Steiner, Language and Silence:  Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967), ix.

[9] Heschel, The Prophets, 7.

[10] Shabtai, J’Accuse, 30.

[11]  Quoted in Lawrence Smallman, “Palestine, Occupation and Self-Criticism,” www.aljazeera.net, May 23, 2004.

[12] Arundhati Roy, War Talk (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2003), 112.

[13] Shabtai, J’Accuse, 32.

[14]  Ibid., 22.

[15] Ibid., 12.

[16] For a selection of hard-hitting analyses and commentary, see Roane Carey and Jonathan Shahin, ed., The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New York: Free Press, 2002).

[17] Shabtai, J’Accuse, 35.

[18]  Anne Waldman, In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems 1985-2003 (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003), iv.

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