My Brothers, the Poets of Palestine, Strip My Uniform From Me

Poetry has in recent years become one of the key channels of expression among the religious public in general, and among the Jewish settlers in the territories in particular

"Hear O Lord, Thy people Israel is one, and Thou hast loved Thy people Israel/ with all Thine heart, and with all Thy soul, and with all Thy might / And these sons that are being killed for Thy sake all day long / for Thine heart / and Thou hast taught them in Thine heavens / and Thou hast talked of them: / when Thou sittest in Thine house, / and when Thou walkest by the way / and when Thou liest down, and when Thou risest up / And Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon / Thine hand (phosphoric blue numerals), and they shall be as frontlets / between Thine eyes (like sharpshooters' hits) / And Thou shalt write them (in blood) upon the posts of Thy house / and on Thy gates."

A God-fearing individual wrote these words. He wears a skullcap and sandals, he yearns for his God, he loves his country and his people and he lives in the religious Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Poet Eliaz Cohen published this poem, which is entitled "Hear O Lord" in the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon during the terrible days of September, 2001. Among the religious public the poem aroused very emotional reactions. There were those who were angered by the challenge to God and there were those who understood it. A number of rabbis even called and invited him to read the poem during the High Holidays that year.

Poetry, a handy, swift genre to which it is easy to respond, has in recent years become one of the key channels of expression among the religious public in general and among the Jewish settlers in the territories in particular. Prose and other kinds of writing are also enjoying popularity in the settlements, but poetry leads. At yeshivas, at girls' schools and in home circles in the settlements, poetry and creative writing workshops are flourishing. Alongside them there are a number of publications for Jewish-Israeli theory, culture and poetry, most notably Dimui and Mashiv Haruah.

The awakening of poetry in the settlements began back in the mid-1980s. The poems that were written then dealt quite a bit with love of the land, its sanctity, its landscapes and the construction of the settlements, which was perceived as a pioneering act. During the years that have elapsed since then, the ideological infrastructure has changed, but the statement has become more personal and less nationalist. Alongside truly personal matters, the settlers' poetry today also touches upon death, terror attacks, the tunnels road, contact with their Palestinian neighbors and God's place in the current crisis.

Nationalist baggage

The nationalist historical baggage that is behind the poems is not expressed via awe at the landscape and its sanctity, but rather in the levels of the language and the Jewish texts that echo between the lines.

"In our generation, `self-realization' was still considered a dirty word and writing was certainly not a part of serving God," says writer and poet Mira Kedar, a resident of Ofra, "but according to Rabbi Kook there is no contradiction between the development of the individual and the development of the national collective. Young people today can easily combine the values of universalism, which place man in the center, with the values of the nation."

In 1982 Israel Harel established Nekuda, the organ of Yesha (the acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and also the Hebrew word for redemption), which also dealt with cultural questions. "An interest developed and a group of writers emerged - Hava Pinhas-Cohen, Bambi Sheleg, Shmuel Lehrman, Mira Kedar, Yonadav Kaploun and I," says Zippora Luria, an art critic who resides in Ofra. "There was enthusiasm and curiosity, there was a sense that something new was growing here, with a great deal of faith in the Zionist atmosphere, in the connection to the land of Israel, not only on the ideological level but also on the experiential level. The poetry was the first to crystallize out of those places and those experiences."

Seven years later the multidisciplinary journal Dimui edited by Hava Pinhas-Cohen was established. It served as a home for writers from the Jewish world and "a generation of artists that arose after the Yom Kippur War and changed direction from Israeliness to Judaism," says the editor. According to her, the poetry began to blossom as part of the attempt by religious society to integrate into Israeli culture.

The need to integrate arose following the move to the settlements in the territories in the 1970s, which undermined the bourgeois frameworks of religious society. "The rabbis realized that it's impossible to influence and to build without being part of the Israeli cultural context. They gave legitimization to poets like Yonadav Kaploun and others - figures who are not alien to the yeshiva students and with whom it is possible to identify."

This trend was advanced by three national-religious poets, who toward the end of 1994 founded the poetry journal Mashiv Haruah: Shmuel Klein, Yoram Nissinovitch and Nahum Petchnik. Eliaz Cohen, who is now editing the journal (the editing is done in rotation among the members of the editorial board), attributes the flowering of poetry in the settlements to the ideological crisis that occurred in the settlers' society after the Oslo agreements. "This was really a volcanic shock that sent people into their four walls," he says. "The flags were folded up so as not to deal with the pain and disappointment and so as not to exacerbate the break. People withdrew into themselves and started to write."

In recent years, literary writing has begun to receive legitimization from yeshiva heads. A new generation of poets is emerging in the settlements in the territories, graduates of the poetry and writing workshops at the yeshivas and the ulpanot (schools for girls). Many see this as a real cultural revolution: If up until a few years ago the yeshiva students were directed only to religious studies, today the rabbis recognize the importance of personal expression. And when poetry happens in the male sanctum of learning and intellect, it becomes even more legitimate.

Papering the goat pen

Cohen recalls a young poet, a student at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, who sent Meshiv Haruah a poem on a piece of notebook paper that dealt with his intimate relations with God. The poem was published two years later, during which the yeshiva student became a hilltop youth. "Today he sees even `The Song of Songs' as an impure book," relates Cohen. "He was angry about the publication and decided to take action: He papered the goat pen of the stronghold with the issue of Meshiv Haruah in which his poem was published."

"The souls of Palestinians are thickening / becoming pregnant / getting woven in secret / from combinations of the letters / of the words on the radio / and are already standing before me / with no flesh and no bones / with no blood and arms / with no kaffiyeh / playing words to me in high Arabic / strumming me on the strings of guilt. // I take them for a tour of the garden. / Don't forget to prune the cherry tree / and don't sit beneath the vine / in imagined serenity / this house is built on arches / be careful // All the dreams have been shattered / with an axe / and the shells of the words have been peeled / off the earth // so that you won't have diaspora obligations." (Dotan Arad, Mashiv Haruah, fall 2000)

What is distinctive about the poetry of the members of the younger generation in the settlements? It could be said that the geographical expanse in which they live influences their writing, even when it deals with personal questions. In the latest issue of Dimui, poems by two poets at the outset of their literary careers were published - Uri Zvi Tor and Dotan Arad - both of them from Ofra.

"There are a lot of young people who studied with Rabbi Menachem Froman or Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun, who are themselves creative people," relates Hava Pinhas-Cohen. "Like all young people, they are grappling with questions of love and identity, but the place where they live influences their writing. Life in Judea and Samaria in recent years is life on the edge, with a strong awareness of death. There are no other children of 19 who have experienced as many funerals during the past two years as the children of the settlements. In their poems, one can find the awareness of temporariness.

"Their parents have linked them to a place that according to the Jewish myth is supposed to belong to them, and suddenly domestic Israeli politics questions the existence of this home - this is a basic experience that enriches their world and their language. Their existential experience constantly demands a search for answers, and this is evident in the poetry," she says.

"It's an Israeli custom / to lay a stone, and in your grave / is it possible perhaps that you will turn over? / To take a stone, a bit of dust - / a souvenir of a beloved landscape," wrote Uri Zvi Tor, a 21-year-old soldier from Ofra, in a poem he dedicated to his friend David Damelin, who was killed during reserve duty in the territories (Dimui, issue 22).

The love for Ishmael

"My brothers the poets of Palestine / come to me / strip my uniform from me / and over my naked body / inflict punishment: / Come Fadwa Toukan, come / eat my liver / and drip its purple blood on the terraces / to mark the way / Come to me Mahmoud Darwish / from the center of my body / uproot my olive tree / that is in your yearnings" (from a poem cycle in progress by Eliaz Cohen, written during his most recent stint on reserve duty in early 2003 in Samaria).

It is difficult not to ask how sensitive and enlightened people, who speak and write about love, passion, children and God, can live in a place where the fact of their being there is hurtful to others. How does the basic aspiration for equality among human beings live in peace with the aspiration to preserve territorial, political and cultural sovereignty?

The attitude toward the Palestinians is very evident in the poetry of the inhabitants of the settlements in the territories. For the most part this is a very emotional attitude, made up of passion and anger. Cohen writes quite a bit about the desire for intimacy with the Arabs and sometimes expresses an erotic longing for "this land of olives" and its girls. He also believes in the possibility of a harmonious existence between Jews and Palestinians as well as in the advantage of Jewish sovereignty in the region.

"There is a possibility of amity," says Cohen. "If we do not believe in love - what is left? Why stop the love for Ishmael? It is possible and necessary to atone for our father Abraham's expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. After all, the scene in which Ishmael is sent to the desert continues to happen all the time, and it isn't every day that an angel of God rescues the child. I can understand why they mark the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe of 1948) and it's even possible now to improve the lives of the refugees in the camps, to rebuild the camps. It is possible to get rid of extremists, to stop uprooting olive trees, to create an atmosphere of moderation and trust and to create joint responsibility for the region."

The conflict is alive and present in the settlers' poetry. "It is possible to find nuances in the poetry that will surprise the people who have preconceptions," says Zippora Luria. "There is empathy in it for the Arab neighbor, wriggling around the question of whether the fact that I am living here does bad to anyone. Therefore I see the poetry as a precious document that truly reflects life here.

"How is this poetry different the poetry that gets written in Tel Aviv? It has a sense in it of the connection to these places. It isn't exotica and an attraction to a land that you've occupied, but a historical intimacy with Abraham and Sarah and Shechem [Nablus], and with the consciousness that there is something else here apart from yourself. This knot gets into the poetry," she says.

During his last stint of reserve duty, Cohen came upon graffiti sprayed onto a wall by a pair of lovers, Assam and Zohira. He wrote: "No king no God no hero / will save me from all this // perhaps love / that I saw an arrow sent / in the midst of authentic graffiti with blood and soul / on the one end Assam and opposite Zohira / on brown plaster in Kif al Haris Square / the burial site of Joshua Bin Nun / the ancient conqueror of the land." n