No Rattling of Sabers

[ Middle Eastern Studies ]

No Rattling of Sabers

An Anthology of Israeli War Poetry

Translation and introduction by Esther Raizen

Hebrew poetry written in response to the wars in which Israel was involved during the last fifty years.

1995

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ISBN: 978-0-292-77071-3

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In this collection, Esther Raizen explores the significance and value of Hebrew poetry written in response to the wars in which Israel was involved during the last fifty years. The anthology includes the works of many poets, some as well known as Nathan Altherman and Yehudah Amichai and others less known. The poems, presented in both English and Hebrew, depict war as viewed by the soldier, as reflected upon by civilians, and as a force giving rise to the creation of poetry.

Raizen explores in an introductory essay the issue of whether poetry written with a defined political message and in the context of certain historical events can function adequately on the aesthetic level. She also tracks the changes in the characteristics of Israeli war poetry from 1948 to 1991, beginning with the glorified patriotism expected in the 1930s-1940s and progressing to the critical ideas in the later years, during which poetry is characterized by understatement and cynicism.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Poems
  • 1948-1967
    • Prayer (Haiim Gouri)
    • The Death of the Man in the Field (Haiim Gouri)
    • Behold, Our Bodies are Laid Out (Haiim Gouri)
    • The Ones Forgotten (Haiim Gouri)
    • To the Memory of a Comrade (Hillel Omer)
    • Word from the Gray Soldiers (Hillel Omer)
    • A Squad in the Land (Hillel Omer)
    • Around the Campfire (Nathan Alterman)
    • The Silver Platter (Nathan Alterman)
    • Memorial (Uri Zvi Greenberg)
    • Splendor from the Splendid (Uri Zvi Greenberg)
    • Poem of Blessing (Uri Zvi Greenberg)
    • The Ones Living by Their Virtue Say (Uri Zvi Greenberg)
    • Hagomel (Uriel Ofeq)
    • And My Brother Was Silent (Amir Gilboa)
    • Forced March in Summer (Yehoshua Zafrir)
    • The Sappers (Haiim Hefer)
    • We Left Slowly (Haiim Hefer)
    • Eulogy (Moshe Tabenkin)
    • God Has Mercy on Kindergarten Children (Yehudah Amichai)
    • Two Poems About the First Battles (Yehudah Amichai)
    • Rain on the Battlefield (Yehudah Amichai)
    • An Anonymous Squad (Yehiel Mohar)
    • Between Sickle and Sword (Yehiel Mohar)
    • For the Fighters--A Lament (Ayin Tur-Malka)
    • Heralds of New Jerusalem (Ayin Tur-Malka)
    • Mirror of the Battle (Ayin Tur-Malka)
    • Memorial Service (Ayin Tur-Malka)
    • The Time and the Response (Nathan Alterman)
    • The Dust of Poems (Nathan Yonathan)
    • Without the Boy (Nathan Yonathan)
    • Into a Dead Zone (Mati Katz)
  • 1967-1973
    • On Silver Wings (Naomi Shemer)
    • Parade of the Fallen (Haiim Hefer)
    • The Paratroopers Are Weeping (Haiim Hefer)
    • In the Night (Karmela Lakhish)
    • Missing Out (Eli Alon)
    • If There Is a God (Eli Alon)
    • Leave-Taking (Eli Alon)
    • In The Mount of Final Repose (Eli Alon)
    • Always in Anguish (Eli Alon)
    • [I sat upon the ground] (Abba Kovner)
    • [My comrades] (Abba Kovner)
    • My Child Smells of Peace (Yehudah Amichai)
    • We Have No Unknown Soldiers (Yehudah Amichai)
    • Wildling Peace (Yehudah Amichai)
    • A Place of Fire (Zelda)
    • How Mucha Word Could Help (Zelda)
    • On a Stone Pillow (Haiim Gouri)
    • Setting-Up Camp (Yonathan Gefen)
    • Settlement (David Avidan)
    • Twenty Years in the Wadi (Dan Pagis)
    • When You Grow Up (Anadad Eldan)
    • Dead in a Bereft Horah (Yehiel Hazak)
    • Wake (Yehiel Hazak)
    • Military Call-Up (Meir Wieseltier)
    • Love is Progressing (Meir Wieseltier)
    • Return (Yoseph Sarig)
    • Memorial Day, 1969 (T. Carmi)
    • The Other Days (Haiim Hefer)
  • 1973-1982
    • The Young Dead Soldiers (Haiim Hefer)
    • Only 20 Years Old (Gideon Rosenthal)
    • On the Readiness for Sacrifice (Reuven ben Yoseph)
    • Around the Water Near the Birds (Yair Hurvitz)
    • Again a Drab Khaki Light is Coming Down: Elegy (Meir Wieseltier)
    • Military Funeral in the Heat of Day (T. Carmi)
    • [I saw you] (Yehiel Hazak)
    • Current Account (Haiim Gouri)
    • Since Then (Yehudah Amichai)
  • 1982-1991
    • From the Songs of the Land of Zion and Jerusalem (Yehudah Amichai)
    • Your Socks (Raiah Harnik)
    • And At Night (Raiah Harnik)
    • Coffins (Eli Alon)
    • Eulogy (Amichai Israeli)
    • Friends (Nathan Yonathan)
    • My Hand is Extended for the Peace of the Galilee (Ramy Ditzanny)
    • Legging Behind (Ramy Ditzanny)
    • A Brand Plucked from the Anti-Tank Fire (Ramy Ditzanny)
    • Complicated and Innovative Orthopedic Surgery (Ramy Ditzanny)
    • Piggy-Back (Ramy Ditzanny)
    • You Don't Kill Babies Twice (Dahlia Ravikovitch)
    • At a Time Like This (Alex L.)
    • On the Desire to be Precise (Natan Zach)
    • To Live in the Land of Israel (Aryeh Sivan)
    • Unpleasantness During a Memorial Service (Aryeh Sivan)
    • To Wither like Weeds in an Easterly Wind (Aryeh Sivan)
    • Concerning the Rehabilitation of the Disabled from the Wars of Israel (Aryeh Sivan)
    • Teacher of Defeated Hebrew Language (Eitan Kalinski)
    • 1936-1986 (Eitan Kalinski)
  • 1991-1994
    • A Siren of Love (Asher Reich)
    • War Night 6 (Ilan Sheinfeld)
    • At Nightfall, 11/27/91 (Pinhas Sadeh)
    • Like Beirut (Haiim Gouri)
  • Notes
  • Biographical Information
  • Bibliography
  • Author Index
  • About Esther Raizen

American interest in Israeli literature is on the rise—the works of prominent writers, especially those using the medium of prose, are often available in English translation in the United States shortly after they have been published in Israel. Quite a few poetry collections of individual poets and a number of anthologies of translated Hebrew poetry are available in the United States, some of them in bilingual form.

Such collections often tend to minimize the inclusion of political poems, considered by many to be an inferior branch of the art because of its subordination of imagery and aesthetic values to social messages. Since such poems are very often written in response to specific incidents, understanding them may well depend on historical information, and their existential significance is, at most, limited. A corresponding critical attitude is non-existent when prose is concerned: writers expressing explicit political views in their works, such as A.B. Yehoshua or Amos Oz, have little difficulty maintaining their prominence in the Israeli literary pantheon.

Although war poems are not necessarily political in nature, only a high degree of aesthetic camouflage applied to their imagery makes their acceptance as significant pieces of poetry possible. The overt messages in "I have lived twenty years upon this earth. It was good, and I want to keep on, simply keep on living" (Rosenthal, Only Twenty Years Old) or "Not thirsting for battle did we go to war" (Sarig, Return) are considered a disadvantage when compared to the covert message in Again a Drab Khaki Light Is Coming Down (Wieseltier), a poem whose significance is revealed only by its repeated reference to the color of military uniform. Rosenthal and Sarig are too emotional, too sentimental. The reader who knows that both lost their lives in battle is even more so. This, again, is a disadvantage when the prevailing standards of the medium favor the suppression and disguise of emotions, with their revelation only in the least direct manner.

Thus, considerations of artistic value may well explain the absence of war poetry from collections of translated poems. American readers are therefore rarely familiar with the work of Israeli poets who write such poems. Because their work is popular with the general public, and possibly because many of their poems were set to music, as is very often the case with war poetry or poetry of protest, these writers have been frequently referred to in Israeli literary circles as "versifiers," in an apparent attempt to distinguish them from "real" poets. Writers like Aryeh Sivan, Ramy Ditzanny, or Eli Alon, who produced a significant body of political poetry, have often been referred to as "enlisted poets," a semi-derogatory epithet which was originally applied to poets serving as spokesmen for the Israeli political mainstream, and now to those who write political poetry in general, be it associated with the political mainstream or, as is often the case, in opposition to it.

Political poetry is, however, a legitimate, compelling manifestation of human experience. The role of war poetry in conveying such experience, both individual and collective, is of special significance where Israel, a country in which the realities of war are ineradicably engraved in the collective psyche, is concerned. The constant threat to the nations existence, the never-ending sacrifice of the young, the uncertainties brought about by the political instability in the region, and the constant need to test the values of democracy and justice against the effects of long-term friction with the hostile population in the territories gained after the 1967 war, are intensely reflected in Israeli poetry. Israeli poets have provided notable representation of the elemental experiences and emotions associated with life under constant duress, coupled with memories of historical catastrophes. The study of Israeli war poetry may serve, therefore, as a window into a prime constituent of Israeli existence, with a significance reaching beyond that of poetry per se.

Dedicated to war poetry of the last fifty years, No Rattling of Sabers includes the works of both poets of prominence and those less known. Selection did not solely involve poetic merit as judged by aesthetic criteria, but also recognition of a common need among ordinary people to express themselves in the medium of poetry, an inclination that seems to grow at times of national strife. In addition to poems taken from collections by individual poets, this book draws on sources not readily available to readers outside Israel-newspapers, magazines, journals, and memorial volumes. Thus, this compilation reflects a wide variety of emotions associated with a virtually permanent state of war, and represents varied levels of aesthetic awareness and expression. Thematic consideration was given to three salient points: war as viewed by the fighting soldier; war as viewed by civilians, including reflections of the world of parents, wives, children, and teachers; and, war as a force giving rise to poetic impulses. Another principle of selection stems from an endeavor to illustrate interrelatedness among works written throughout the period. This interrelationship, manifested by duplication in imagery and expression, is readily recognized by readers capable of handling the Hebrew text, and, to some extent, by readers of the translated poems as well.

Poems are presented in a loose chronological order that illustrates both the continuation and the changes of attitudes and themes in the course of some fifty years and seven major wars: the War of Independence, 1947-1949; the Sinai (Kadesh) War, 1956; the Six Day War, 1967; the War of Attrition, 1967-1970; the Yom Kippur (October) War, 1973; the Lebanon War, 1982; and the Gulf War, 1991.

Translation is an art which involves a great deal of compromise. Some poems were excluded from this anthology only because they would not lend themselves to translation. In others, included, the compactness of the Hebrew mode of expression, the uniqueness of its idiom, and the many intentional ambiguities that are inherent in the language and often serve as the basis of its kaleidoscopic imagery were at times compromised for the sake of clearer communication with the English-speaking reader. Sense took precedence over sound, so no attempt was made to replicate the occasional use of rhyme and rhythm, to the detriment, in some cases, of the effect of the poem. Lexical choice, manipulation of imagery, and line structure were maintained as closely as possible to the original, with the intent to present the poems as poetry rather than prose translation. Biblical quotations and allusions, typical of Hebrew poetry, were preserved whenever possible, with wording based on the Revised Standard Version or the King James. References to pertinent Biblical verses are included with the notes for some poems.

January of 1991 found the State of Israel in the agonizing position of a sitting duck. Directly impacted by the Gulf War, yet prevented by political circumstances from providing their own defense against SCUD missiles flying in from Iraq, the Israelis were repeatedly rushed into makeshift sealed rooms in anticipation of incoming missiles carrying chemical warheads. They watched with horror unfamiliar scenes of local destruction and mass exodus from potential target areas, and, like the rest of the world at that time, turned to the international and local media for information, advice, and succour. "What are our writers doing at a time like this?" was a favorite topic of discussion in Israeli newspapers during that period of turbulent routine.

Writers, like everyone else in Israel, struggled to maintain their mental equilibrium and withstand the pressures of war. They were interviewed frequently, and they wrote—mostly about writing and reading preferences. Ruth Almog stated in an interview:

I do not respond to current events, and what is happening today will be expressed in writing only years from now, if at all. I do not wish to think about writing right now—this does not seem to be a good time. Now one just needs to survive (Hameiri 1991).

Nathan Yonathan wrote:

Strong sheets of plastic belong to life more than any word or poem do. Yet there, in the chill of the bomb-shelter, after everything has been sealed, emanates a strong, almost erotic need for the touch of words (Yonathan 1991).

Indeed, newspapers were bombarded with contributions, often the outpourings of civilians-turned-poets, and literary critics were busy debating what and how one should write during wartime. Moshe ben Shaul decried the barrage of poetry on "the situation":

What is written now about now, today about today ... with no perspective, even that of a few hours ... remains meaningless. What is meaningless will be soon forgotten (ben Shaul 1991).

And the critic Orzion Bartana explicitly declared that literature is not among the areas which tend to flourish in wartime, when writers are forced to provide a high degree of externalized imagery "in order to ensure their coverage by the media" (Bartana 1991).

The emotional pressure during war, lack of perspective, and tenacious adherence to certain themes and communicative effects were generally viewed as detrimental to the creation of good poetry, in particular the political poetry and war poetry written concurrently with the war itself. Only the poet David Avidan, who in the course of some forty years of an active career had achieved mastery in highly publicized, externalized writing, challenged openly: "The concept of political poetry as poetry marching towards politics, in a sacrifice-like act—and at the expense of the values of poetry per se—is not acceptable," he wrote, and called for openness of mentality, energy, and language to allow the gain of enrichment by "extra-poetic" language materials (Avidan 1991).

That exchange to some extent echoed a well-known controversy which took place some fifty years earlier, when the onslaught of World War II brought about a heated public debate between the three prominent Hebrew poets of that time: Leah Goldberg, Abraham Shlonsky, and Nathan Alterman. Goldberg maintained it was a poet's duty to write during times of catastrophe and great despair, thus giving both expression and support to the good and exalted dimension of the human spirit. She viewed the realities of war, however, as undeserving of poetic attention. "Forever," she wrote, "is a field of wheat greater and more beautiful than desolate land, run over by tanks, be the aim of these tanks as lofty as it may be" (Dorman 1990). Abraham Shlonsky—sensitized by the Soviet methods of creating mass culture and popular support for the government—like Goldberg, renounced the creation of war poetry. Moreover, he insisted that in times of war poetry should not be written at all, "just as one should not play music in a house of mourning, just as one should not turn on the lights in a besieged city. Because total blackout is imperative for defense" (ibid.).

Unlike his two contemporaries, Nathan Alterman declared it necessary to give expression to the realities of war, like all other realities. "Good literature," he wrote, "is never a step-mother to her poems, war poems included" (ibid.). In retrospect, the popularity of Alterman s political poems in his newspaper columns attests to his keen sensitivity to national sentiments, which demanded and actively sought both representation and guidance from writers of prose and poetry. Nevertheless, the critical stance that puts aesthetics above all else clashed with Alterman's popularity, opening a line of criticism which since the 1950s was used in support of challenges to his dominance and merit as a poet. As a matter of routine literary critics have considered it necessary to search for evidence of absolute aesthetic quality in war poems lest those be considered merely popular, sentimental, or immature.

Debate on the duty of the poet as a citizen periodically arises in circumstances of national stress, and while poets generally tend to withdraw from mixing poetic expression and public activity, demand on part of the general public for such expression is strong and inescapable. Writers are often reminded that

... they are obliged to simply do their work, like the soldiers and bureaucrats, like rabbis and prostitutes ... the question whether ... writers, instead of drenching themselves in tears, should douse themselves in gasoline and in the city square, is a good question. And the answer is: Yes. And let them blaze... (Edeliest 1990)

Conflicts between poets and their potential public and debates over the merit of war poems are by no means limited to Israel. Indeed, they were quite prevalent in the Western world during and after each of the World Wars. The romantic perspective, which emphasized theme and idea as expressed by a writer, gave way at the beginning of the 20th century to the evaluation of prose and poetry through their aesthetic structure and poetics. Study of poetry via the perspective of personal or social circumstances had gone into eclipse. Because of their special nature, war poems have never lent themselves completely to this line of criticism, and have remained in something of a gray area. For example, while the need for "having been there" was never a prerequisite for acceptance of war poems (Edward Hirsch, Andrew Hudgins, and Mary Jo Salter were all born in the 1950s, yet wrote recognized war poetry painting the horrors of World War II), actual wartime experience has always been a bonus point, and statements such as "Archibald MacLeish served as a captain of field artillery in World War I," or "Richard Hugo flew thirty five missions as a bombardier in Italy," or "Robert Lowell was a conscientious objector during the Second World War," (Stokesbury 1990) are very common in the literature.

World War I was fought between many nations, involved millions of people, and demonstrated the enormous impact of new weapons of mass destruction. The magnitude of horror revealed during the war gave birth to poetry of great distress, which struggled with a need to define the nightmarish experience in existential rather than personal or national terms and portrayed war in all its senselessness as an absurd, suffocating reality.

The universal tones of World War I poetry were generally replaced by more personal and private avenues of thought in the work of World War II poets. Those writers met with pressure to produce poems, pressure from readers whose expectations were based on familiarity with World War I poetry. They were faced with the need to repeat a message already fully delivered during that earlier conflict. While the need to express the repeated and manifold-magnified horror was there, the capability to do so seemed to have been hindered both by the fact that patriotism and heroism were diminished by the recurrent catastrophes that proved the world had learned nothing, and by a language usage which had become too dull to express in new terms what had already been obvious two decades before. As a result, poetry of World War II, being written during the high tide of modernism, was largely characterized by a nonchalant, cool, laconic, wry, and often sarcastic tone. With time, however, this tone mellowed and shifted back to the more straightforward, dramatic tone: some of the best American poems pertaining to World War II were written ex post facto, even a generation or two after that war. The time lapse and subsequent violent events such as the Vietnam War gave the artists ample opportunity to immerse themselves in the magnitude of the calamity and come out with a bold, direct expression thereof.

In one way or another the two World Wars and the Middle East wars fought during the 20th century touched the core of Jewish existence and became central components of the national experience. World War I, which had no significant "Jewish accent" to it, took place during years of great agitation within the Jewish national movements, and highlighted the scattered and alienated existence of Jews, who often found themselves fighting on opposite sides in the war. This reality added a special historical perspective to the war experience of the Jewish soldier, who was hard-pressed to decide whether that war, with all its cruelty and senselessness, was his war at all. Such contemplation forcefully inserted a measure of historical "sense" into the crumbling world. The historical perspective which was dramatically highlighted by the realities of World War II and the Holocaust, and which progressively coincided with the developing sense of urgency within the Zionist movement—added a positive element to an experience which was, in essence, negative.

The Holocaust brought forth a strengthened national identity, which eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel, a symbol to many of strength, independence, stability, and hope. The Jewish poet could not, therefore, relate to the horror only—the historical significance of the war demanded expression as well. And indeed, Hebrew war poetry written during World War II and in the early years of the Jewish State was characterized by the need for synthesis of the horror with the message of deliverance. This need gave birth to poems that, although not ignoring the death and the agony, tended to minimize them by weighing them against national necessities and gains. Statehood and independence were seen as dramatically offered to the nation by those who had died, and accepted with solemn appreciation and promises to cherish their memory. The strong ties between soldiers, expressed as a solid, sublime entity in the term re'ut (camaraderie), were second only to the bond with the land.

Thus, while in the wider external literary milieu patriotic images gave way to a cynical and wry tone, Hebrew war poetry was anything but cynical. Yet the exalted imagery was generally subdued and stern, and symbols such as "kingdom," "domination," or "holy hearts" (as in the poetry of Greenberg and Tur-Malka) were rare. Simplicity, which was one of the trademarks of the Palmach (the pre-statehood elite military unit) dominated the imagery:

The yoke, as simple as earth,
They carried without a backward look.
No shofar was sounded before them,
Nor were their heads stroked on a winter night.
No. With sleeves tied around the neck from behind,
Only their sweaters embraced them.
(Alterman, Around the Campfire)

Ten boys,
They are like the homeland: rough, with stammering manners, plain stride, in love,
There are wise ones, and there are buffoons, and there are ones weighty with integrity, knotty!
Yet the heart of all is laughing! Because it lives!
Not battle heroes,
No fancy uniform nor splendor,
But in the rugged tunic, the spiked boot,
In the knitted Palmach cap!
(Omer, A Squad in the Land)

Death was recognized in its totality, and so was bereavement. The forever-young dead became a cherished, exclusive group, a source of inspiration for generations of schoolchildren, who, year after year, would recite Alterman's Silver Platter or Gouri's Behold, Our Bodies Are Laid Out and Prayer. Camaraderie carried with it the promise of immortality, which somewhat eased the pain over the loss of life. Like it, poetic expression in itself was viewed as a step towards immortality, a commemoration fitting for the young dead as well as from their living comrades, a link between worlds which are ultimately separate. The Ministry of Defense, for example, published a series of official memorial volumes, Parchments of Fire, that included numerous poems and prose pieces written by fallen soldiers. As the years passed, however, the other side of this bond between the cherished dead and the living became apparent: the ever-demanding, almost threatening existence of the dead became something of a trial in the collective memory:

And this is your sign: because you were cut off as if by a sickle
At the feet of the nation, with your arms spread as if towards happiness—
That nation will not run away from foes, it will not be able to run,
Because your hands will be clasping its feet in the dark ...
(Alterman, In the Month of Aviv)

The glory of the dead was often painted in ominous colors (Tur-Malka, For the Fighters—A Lament, Gouri, Behold, Our Bodies Are Laid Out), and the power of words proved to be disappointingly weak, both in offering consolation and in preventing normal life from unfolding without the constant reminder of the dead and their sacrifice (Zelda, How Much a Word Could Help; Omer, To the Memory of a Comrade). Although the existence of Israel as an independent state fulfilled the expectations of the Jewish people, statehood failed to answer the hopes for peace. The early fifties were marred by terrorist attacks from across its borders, and the 1956 Sinai War was soon to follow. While morale boosters such as Hefer's Sappers or Mohar's Anonymous Squad were extremely popular, Israeli war poetry from the late fifties on became increasingly characterized by understatement, cynicism, and skepticism, much like poetry of World War II, and also by bitter self-criticism. The constant need to fight became a recognized fact of life, without much glory attached to it:

The sickle cuts and the sword cuts
our lives are a harvest in the morning of a nation,
He who carries sheaves in the shimmering field
Also carries another sheaf—his life—for his people.
(Mohar, Between Sickle and Sword)

The 1967 war, however, transformed the mood within the Israeli populace. The feeling of a trapped country that must fight for its existence gave way to enormous relief and a sense of power and vindication. Nevertheless, even amidst the victory celebrations, a book was conceived which gave expression to the apprehension, doubts, and shock of the young soldier faced with the horrors of war and resenting the constant need to fight. Siach Lochamim (published in English as The Seventh Day) was decried by many as a defeatist document, but opened the way for other forms of written expression that reflected a wide range of sentiments, from doubt to outright criticism. The war, which produced an endless parade of victory albums and memorabilia, also gave rise to poems by Eli Alon, Yehudah Amichai, and others who, perhaps much earlier than the rest of Israeli society, realized the enormous cost of the victory and boldly challenged the happiness and feeling of comfort prevalent in the Israel of that time. The long War of Attrition which followed the 1967 war gave rise to a protest movement in which many artists, among them poets, were actively involved. The surprise and near-catastrophe of the 1973 war, and the strong opposition to Israel's involvement in Lebanon during the early 1980s, brought about great despair. At the same time the events encouraged strong political involvement on the part of poets, who explicitly criticized the politics of the Israeli government while denouncing the horrors of endless bloodshed and sacrifice. War poetry adopted, as a result, a strongly political stance, which had been uncommon before the 1970s. The 1973 war produced Reuven ben Yoseph's Voices in the Golan Heights, a collection of war poems which openly challenged the highly cherished call for individual sacrifice for the sake of the nation:

And greater than the readiness to sacrifice
Is the eagerness to kill, and you have no compunction
when a tank swells in the gun-sight and your finger
Releases its diminutive shells to drive
The enemy from the land, but you have to stop,
For the tanks are fleeing and the halftrack is still and you
Are looking forever to the heavens and knowing there is naught
Greater than the readiness for sacrifice.
(ben Yoseph, On the Readiness for Sacrifice)

Although diverse political positions were taken by Israeli poets, most of them had identified with the political strata represented by the labor movement. Poets of the fifties and sixties, who showed growing dissatisfaction with the path taken by the Labor party, often chose to limit the scope of their poetic response to political events, perhaps by that means expressing their dissatisfaction and, perhaps, trying to avoid the image of popular versifiers. The 1977 elections which brought into power the rightwing government propelled Israeli poets into action. They also gave life to the Israeli peace movement which had been marginal prior to that time.

The main wave of political poetry hit Israeli society during and after the 1982 Lebanon War, the first war openly protested while it was still in full sway. Poets found themselves obligated to fight against the "irresponsiveness and plotted silence which are found at times even among those opposing the war... against the narcotic jargon of the official media" (Hever and Ron 1982, Epilogue). The massacre by Christian militia of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilah refugee camps, which drew into the streets of Tel Aviv some 400,000 demonstrators against the Israeli involvement in Lebanon, was also a catalyst for poets like Dahlia Ravikovitch, who wrote You Don't Kill Babies Twice, one of the most widely recited poems of the 1982 war and a strong indication of the political turn taken by war poetry. Other prominent poets, such as Natan Zach and Yehudah Amichai, openly broke the taboo on writing war poetry and publishing it while events were still in progress. Two anthologies, No End to Battle and Killing and Border Crossing, published shortly after the war, were openly critical of everything-from the political decisions, to the behavior of the Israeli soldier, to the indifference of the Israeli public. In mid-1983, after the release of the government-sponsored commission of inquiry report on the Sabra and Shatilah massacre, and with the Israeli army deeply involved in guerrilla war inside Lebanon, a force led by families of soldiers emerged within the peace movement—Parents Against Silence. More than any other single event, Prime Minister Menahem Begins statement on television, claiming that "the Beaufort [fortress] was captured without [Israeli] casualties," mobilized parents and friends of soldiers who were killed in that battle and became a high point of mistrust in the government and of disillusionment. Yaakov Gutterman, a bereaved father, published an open letter to Begin in which he urged him to resign, and to accept full responsibility for the death of his son and his comrades. A vigil lasting for some five months in front of Begins house announced daily the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the war. Raiah Harnik, whose son Guni was also among the fallen in the battle for Beaufort, became a leading figure in the protest movement, and expressed, in her painful lines addressed to a grandchild who would never be born, the trauma of a nation which had lost trust in its leadership and hope for a future:

Your father, my child, was carried off by the wind
Of the mountain. In a foreign land
Your father remained, my child.
Somebody made a mistake, my beautiful son
And now you will not be.
(Harnik, And at Night)

Yet poetry of protest, which surged in the early 1980s, did not last long as a form of expression for most of the poets. Many of them again resorted to lyricism, perhaps as a sign of despair, of recognition that words can barely provide outlet, let alone help. Among the few who still continued to write war poetry and political poetry were Ramy Ditzanny, Eitan Kalinski, and Aryeh Sivan, who asked in his A Poet's Dilemma:

What will a poet, who suspects that his king
Is nothing but a demon, do?
Will he sit at his desk, write a good poem
In which he will expand his testimony, enrich and improve it,
And will express in it, in imagery concocted in exact dosage
Of revealing and hiding—
As required by the art of correct poetry—
The horror which crawls upon its belly in it
Like a viper?

This open challenge to "the art of correct poetry" has remained unanswered. During the Gulf War, David Avidan and Pinhas Sadeh were among the only veteran poets who found it necessary to express themselves in regard to the situation, and the arena was largely left to younger poets like Ilan Sheinfeld or to "amateurs."

The special circumstances of the Gulf War transformed the nature of Israeli war poetry. The distress and despair typical of earlier poetry were still there, yet the poems were clean of cynicism and self-criticism and their political overtones were muted. The solemn, somber tone of early poetry returned with a twist: the Gulf War was the first in which the feeling of historical inevitability, for better or worse, was replaced by the sense of helplessness. The rush to the sealed rooms and the use of gas masks gave rise to apocalyptic imagery and strong allusions to the Holocaust, allusions which up to that time had been largely kept out of war poetry. Poems turned inward, became locked in,

Now I will close myself for the night in my sealed room,
With the haunting voices which came to visit me
From the time we were burnt in Auschwitz.
(Sheinfeld, War Night 6)

and, while in earlier decades hope was vested in the future, during and after the Gulf War eyes were turned to the dark past:

At us, the eyes of our fathers and mothers are gazing.
Innumerable eyes, for two thousand years now, from the ghettos of Worms and Mainz,
Toledo, Nemirov, Kishinev, Treblinka, Auschwitz.
And their eyes—what do they say? Their eyes are saying: Children of ours, grandchildren, happy are you.
For you do not dig grave-holes for yourselves in the snow, nor burn in furnaces of fire, like us.
For you are not torn apart by the teeth of dogs, nor impaled within your mother's belly.
For you have power, and you dwell upon your own land.
You are our consolation... insofar as any kind of consolation is possible.
(Sadeh, At Nightfall)

War poetry of the early nineties is characterized by great fatigue and quiet despair. Memorial Day of 1994 was marked by Amichai's painful dirge entitled Now Who Will Remember the Ones That Remember? Haiim Gouri's Like Beirut, which concludes our anthology, summarizes both the personal perspective of a poet who has struggled with war for over fifty years, and the collective emotions of a nation which is desperate for change:

Like Beirut I worship other gods,
Half-destroyed.
Growing deaf, growing gray.
And there is no sign in me of a cease-fire, of a short respite,
Of sharpshooters' repose.

Various sentiments are associated with war, and many of the universal as well as the particular are reflected in this volume of Israeli war poetry. It provides insight into the moods of a nation troubled by memories of historical catastrophes, strongly driven to survive and prosper in the turbulent Middle East, and fully comprehending the price of living in a constant state of war. Determination to survive, and live by the sword if need be, and going to battle against ones will have always co-existed in the Israeli psyche. This special combination has produced poetry which is perhaps best characterized by what is absent from it—there is no rattling of sabers. Israeli war poetry is that of quiet strength, simple words, and emotions which are expressed on the "revealing" rather than the "hiding" side. As such, even if not quite in line with "the art of correct poetry," it is presented here for the reader.
Esther Raizen
November 1995

To Dani and his friends

Behold, our bodies are laid out—a long, long row.
Our faces are altered. Death looks out of our eyes. We do not breathe.
Twilight dwindles and evening falls over the mountain.
Look—we do not come upright to tread the roads in the last light of sunset.
We do not make love, we do not strum strings in softly gentle sound,
We do not shout in the groves when the wind comes streaming through the forest.

Behold, our mothers are stooped and silent, and our comrades hold back from weeping,
And there are explosions of grenades nearby and fire and signs of an impending storm!
Will you indeed bury us now?
We would rise, coming out as before, and we would live again.
We would stagger, awesome and great and rushing to help,
For all within us is still living, and racing in the arteries, and fervid.

We did not break faith. See, our weapons are held close with their cartridges empty, out of bullets.
They remember our words to the very last. Their barrels are still hot
And our blood is splattered along the paths step upon step.
All we could, we did, until the very last one fell, no more to rise.
Will we indeed be blamed if we remain dead at evening time
With our lips fixed to the hard stony ground?

Look—what a great wide night.
Look—the blossom of stars in the dark.
Scent of pines. You will bury us now, with clods of dirt on our faces.
Here, among the bristling barbed wire, the trenches, here we are all together.
New day, do not forget! Do not forget!!
Because we carried your name until death closed our eyes.

Behold our bodies are laid out, a long row, and we are not breathing.
But the wind, full of breath, is strong in the mountains.
Morning is born, and dew-bringing sunset exults.
We will still come back, we will meet, and return like red flowers.
You will recognize us at once, as the voiceless "Mountain Platoon."
Then will we blossom. When the scream of the last shot shall have fallen to silence in the mountains.

 

A native of Israel, Esther Raizen is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This anthology offers 93 poems, arranged in chronological groupings that coincide with the major wars and conflicts in which Israel has been embroiled. . . . The collection charts the change in attitude in Israeli fighters and sufferers, from those in the early days sure of their mission and the worth of their sacrifices to those involved in the more recent conflagrations. Difficult questions arise in the poetry about the motives and justification for Israeli actions. Each poem is ably translated, with the Hebrew text on the facing page. . . . Highly recommended."

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