From Hard Times to Bad Times

Poet Haim Gouri takes the State of Israel personally. He is troubled by what he calls the prevailing wickedness, but still believes in the justness of our path.

"How are you doing, Gouri?" he was asked numerous times this past summer, and always hastened to reply: "Lousy." During the war in Lebanon, he barely slept. He was glued to the media reports, and lamented, agonized and got worked up over everything: the situation we were in, all the media prattle, the conduct of our leaders in the war. And now, too, he says we are still right in the midst of the storm. The story isn't over yet.

Haim Gouri takes the State of Israel personally. The man who wrote poems and songs that became part of the lifeblood of Israeli poetry - "Here Lie Our Bodies," "Bab al Wad" - treats Israel with a kind of seriousness that's hard to come by these days. Nothing passes him by casually. Including the last war. Or as his daughters like to say, "Dad works overtime in caring." The interview with him also came about after a series of conversations, questions, investigations, exchanges of views, exchanges of ideas. At first he didn't want to be interviewed at all; he ascribes such importance to words that he feels the need to be cautious with them - "These questions touch on places of pain, and you're judged on your answers."

When he does accede, he can speak at length about the War of Independence or about our relations with the Arabs, tell a story from the past, quote entire poems - Tchernikovsky, Alterman, Shlonsky - and refuel himself with a pipe and a cup of strong black coffee. An aroma of tobacco and mint pervades his small study next to the balcony. Gouri writes on a computer, but the old habits are still in evidence when he goes over a printed text of his with a pen, making corrections by hand.

Add me to the lepers

"One of the poems that has enthralled me my whole life," says Gouri, "is the poetess Rachel's 'Yom Besora' ('Day of Good News'), in which she alludes to the tidings of the lepers from the Second Book of Kings. She writes: 'But I will not want news of redemption/ If it comes from the mouth of a leper.' Twenty years later, in July 1946, the Irgun blows up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The next day Haaretz published a front-page article headlined 'The Horror,' and Rachel's poem appeared in it. This poem expresses the brutal collision between the absolute and the historic - between the moral imperative 'Thou shalt not kill' and the history that is soaked in blood and violence. Later on, in my poems I ask Rachel to add me to the four lepers from the Second Book of Kings. Because I, too, was among them, among the spillers of blood, among the fighters. I was a part of wars whose justness I believed in."

Gouri has lived his whole life amid a web of contradictions that continues to this day.

"I grew up in a real socialist Zionist home," he says. "Even back in Russia my parents spoke and wrote a wonderful Hebrew. They were vegetarians and naturalists, and they were pacifists. I attended the School For Workers' Children, two years behind my eldest sister and Yitzhak Rabin, who were in the same class. We were raised on zealous Zionism and Hebrew Labor on the one hand, and on the Brotherhood of Nations - with the Arab worker - on the other.

"I remember the protest watches in the orchards of Petah Tikva and Kfar Sava, in which Shlonsky and the greatest writers participated, on behalf of Hebrew Labor. Shlonsky derided employers of Arabs for caring more for their personal gain than for the homeland. This hurt the Arab worker. As a boy in Emek Hefer I witnessed the drying of the swamps, the planting of the orchards by my uncle and his comrades, but I also saw the Arabs who lived there - on the land that was purchased by the Jewish National Fund - uprooted from their land, sometimes violently. My mother cried for two weeks after she saw two fellows from the 'Association for Hebrew Production' scattering in the street crates of cucumbers and tomatoes that belonged to an Arab peddler who'd come into our neighborhood.

"On the front page of Al Hamishmar the slogan 'For Zionism, For Socialism, For the Brotherhood of Nations' appeared. This web of contradictions is still going on today, and I'm already an old man. Zionism, as is known, did not come to fulfillment via the Brotherhood of Nations. It is still at the height of the hundred years' war. And not much of Socialism is left in Israel. Israeli society, shamefully, is a society of intolerable class polarization."

Third floor, no elevator

Everyone who knows him calls him Gouri. He was born Haim Gurfinkel; when he was young, his friends took to calling him Jouri. In 1945, when he published his first poem in Al Hamishmar, Avraham Shlonsky dropped the apostrophe from the Hebrew gimmel, and he became known as Gouri.

In recent months, Gouri and his wife Aliza have been busy transferring his archival material to the Jewish National and University Library. They are sorting thousands of papers and documents, correspondences with writers and public figures, chapters of memoirs, newspaper clippings, reviews, interviews, manuscripts, drafts. Sometimes Aliza reads him a poem or an essay he wrote 30 years ago and Guri listens in astonishment, as if encountering it for the first time.

He notes the inherent contradiction in his being both a poet and a journalist, quoting the midrashic saying, ehoz bazeh vegam mezeh, al tanach yadkha, about doing two things at once. "I wanted to be wherever things were happening. There was something dybbuk-like in this need."

A good number of new poems have also been accumulating on his desk. The new cycle is entitled Eival (after the mountain connected with the biblical curse). A publication date has not yet been set for it. "Sometimes I feel like that's it, I've finished writing, but afterward I feel the total opposite," he says. Currently, he is also working on a comprehensive collection of articles that he wrote about the relation between poetry and time, on the encounter between literature and history.

In another month, he'll be 83. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1923, and as an adolescent, studied at the Kadouri Agricultural School. In 1941, he enlisted in the Palmach, and served in it for eight years. In 1947, he was sent to Europe and commanded the Israel Defense Forces' first paratroop course in Czechoslovakia. Then the War of Independence began and Gouri returned to Israel and joined the 7th Battalion of the Negev Brigade. He took part in the conquest of Be'er Sheva and Abu-Agila in Sinai, and in the liberation of Eilat.

He and Aliza have three daughters and six grandchildren. They live in Jerusalem in a simple building, on the third floor with no elevator. He goes up and down the stairs with relative ease.

His first book of poetry, "Flowers of Fire," was published in 1949. Then came "Till Dawn," a book of poetry and a diary of the war. Throughout the 1950s he worked as a journalist for Lamerhav and Davar, published many books of poetry and prose, and also made three documentary films about the Holocaust and the founding of the state - "The 81st Blow," "The Last Sea" and "Flames in the Ashes." In 1962 he was awarded the Sokolov Prize for Journalism, and in 1988, the Israel Prize for Literature.

In the course of his life, his political views have changed. In 1967, he was active in the establishment of the Movement for Greater Israel. However, in the years after the Six-Day War, when he saw the wrongs of the occupation, he gradually parted with this vision. Still, in 1995, he was one of the founders of The Third Way movement, which opposed a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He eventually abandoned that platform as well. In recent years, Gouri has taken part in struggles against administrative detentions, home demolitions and expulsions.

Then, this summer, came the second war in Lebanon. "I differentiate between hard times and bad times, and these are bad times," he says. "People often seek me out as if I'm one of the elders of the tribe, wanting to know what I think. We've been through harder times than these. The siege of Jerusalem in '48 was harder than this recent sitting in shelters. And also than the terrible terror attacks of recent years. In hard times, a nation often reveals its hidden strengths. It's toughening. But wickedness has a crumbling effect. We're living in a period of wickedness: score-settling, a war of general against general, minister against minister, inquiry committees, informing, leaks, alibis, 'He did it, not me.' This has no remedy."

Lost wars of attrition

You believe Israel was justified in going to war this summer. Yet how, in your view, was this war different from the rest of Israel's wars?

"The War of Independence won sweeping national consensus right from the start, after November 29. We were attacked and we had to fight or be annihilated. Not a single protest song was written in that period. There were a few songs of black humor - 'When we die they'll bury us on the hills of Bab al Wad/ There they have snipers who shoot bullets/ Bullets that pierce armor.' Only toward the end of the war were there any cracks in this unity. S. Yizhar wrote 'The Captive' and 'Hirbat Hiz'a' and sparked an uproar. It's painful, but Hebrew literature would be lacking if these stories weren't written. For the first time, a crack formed in the culture of the besieged and the just.

"Mivtza Kadesh (The Sinai Campaign) was a war of choice, and aroused controversy - mainly regarding the collaboration with the British and French. The glorious Six-Day War earned total agreement. The debate about its implications only began on the seventh day. This was a war that unified the country between the sea and the Jordan River, but critically divided the people, and the same dispute has continued to be exacerbated until today, 40 years later - we and the Arabs, the borders of the state.

"Then came the Yom Kippur War. This was a war for survival and I took part in it as an education officer in an armored division in Sinai. I was 50 then. In December 1977, I visited Egypt for the first time in my life. I went there with a delegation of Israeli journalists that traveled to Cairo after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. There I met a leading Egyptian intellectual, Dr. Hussein Fawzi, and we talked about the Israel-Egypt wars. He said the Egyptian assault on Israel in May 1948 was a historic crime. And then he said something else that I'll never forget: 'In the Six-Day War you humiliated us. Our wives were ashamed of us, our children scorned us. Had Israeli intelligence read the Egyptian poetry that was written after 1967, it would have known that 1973 was inevitable. Every good intelligence officer must read poetry.'

"And we hadn't read it. And we're not reading it today, either. If we were reading it today, we'd understand the Arabs have changed. In 1947, Gandhi (Rehavam Ze'evi) hung a picture of the Jerusalem Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini in the cultural room at Kibbutz Maoz and wrote underneath: 'Our Motto: Ishmael is a fool.' No, Ishmael is not a fool."

As for the first Lebanon War, Gouri agrees in retrospect that it was "diplomatically foolish and morally criminal," as Yossi Sarid said at the time, noting that the Israeli intelligentsia opposed the war from the beginning. "I was serving as a reservist then and I wasn't among the people who warned against it. I'm not proud of my position then. Maybe it happened because of my deep connection to the IDF.

"The last war earned national agreement right at the start, including among the Zionist left. Without going into the details of the military moves, I thought that an Israeli response was necessary, that we must not surrender to a provocation and to self-perpetuating blackmail. It's an unbearable moral dilemma, but the release of prisoners - as in the Jibril deal that will go down in infamy - is interpreted as capitulation to terror. There's a vast difference between releasing enemy prisoners every so often as a political gesture, and giving in to blackmail. Had we consented to Abu Mazen's requests before the Palestinian Authority elections, and freed prisoners, it would have been interpreted as a gesture of goodwill toward him, and maybe it would have had an effect on the outcome of the elections."

In retrospect, does this war now seem to you to have been a failure?

"Time will tell. Our forces have come under fire in every war. Screw-ups and shortages of supplies have always occurred. But if it turns out that the UN force really does separate us from them, and the Siniora government gains strength and becomes sovereign, and if Hezbollah's power is weakened - then this war will look different. But we're still beset by the feeling that there has been a weakening of the IDF's power as a deterrent force."

During the war you were upset by the revelation of so much information in the media.

"The press I was raised on was loyal to the point of concealing the truth. It was a media that didn't publish things, out of a sense of patriotic responsibility. The media today is immeasurably better. Today everything is revealed in a second. At the same time, during the war there were more than a few instances when military and state secrets were revealed. Secrets from the 'Holy of Holies' - the security cabinet - were leaked by its members even before the forum had convened. These are things that should not be done.

"I'm not a historian," he adds. "But I've noticed something: In all the moving battles, we've won, while in all the wars of attrition we've been defeated. It's hard for us to withstand this type of battle. It's hard for us to develop the IDF's skills against guerilla warfare, or against mass demonstrations and against women who shout in the alleyways of poverty and despair, and against children who say - as happened to me when I was in Gaza during the first intifada - 'Soldier, kill me but don't beat me with a stick, I'm not a dog.' Since the Six-Day War, we've been beset by the difficult disagreement that derives from our ruling over another people. And this disagreement is a decisive part of our whole experience, to this day."

If we don't act like idiots

A big part of his national reckoning now has to do with Israel's Arab citizens. "This should be said, as the High Holy Days are upon us: We did not grant them true partnership. We maintained a intolerable discrepancy in living standards, in education, in human dignity. An Arab friend once said to me, 'Don't put us in Sayeret Matkal or in the reactor in Dimona - but do put us in Mekorot (the national water company). Do put us in Israel Electric. Give our youth a way out."

He recalls something else that an Arab acquaintance from the Galilee once told him: "'When you Jews ought to be generous, you're stingy, and when you ought to be determined, you're irresolute.' How right he was. I always hoped that an Arab-Israeli identity would be formed. But I think that we didn't genuinely and courageously formulate the array of duties and privileges that derives from this identity. At the same time, many Israelis have a hard time taking in declarations like that of Sheikh Raed Saleh about an Islamic caliphate whose capital is Jerusalem, or the secular vision of MK Azmi Bishara of a pan-Arab Nasserism of which Israel is a part."

To Gouri, the essential thing is the justness of the path. "If people want to attack me as a member of 'that' generation, and to tell me the State of Israel was born in sin, I refuse to accept that. I belong to the most persecuted and oppressed nation of all. Yes, injustices were committed in the course of the war. Yes, great destruction was visited upon our neighbor. Hebrew literature did not ignore horrible acts. But you cannot say our foundation lies in injustice and that we have no sovereign right to exist here.

"The return to Zion is one of the most extraordinary and surprising historic phenomena that has ever occurred. Let another nation come and prove that it was more decent than we were toward its enemies. The majority of Israeli public opinion is still outraged by injustices, the media deals with it, the Supreme Court demands redress, the society judges. But to deny a nation its sovereign right because its neighbor doesn't accept it? Where in the world does any nation make its existence contingent upon its neighbors' agreement? Nations fight one another, and then comes a moment when they've emptied the last dregs of the cup of poison, when they've exhausted the bloodshed. There is no logical reason for this not to happen in this region, too, which is the cradle of civilizations.

"I believe that we have the power to defend ourselves, as long as we're not idiots and don't fall asleep on the watch. And at the same time, we should strive for a compromise, for a brotherhood of nations. I know how important the recognition of the justness of the path is, because this process is a tortuous one. But it's impossible to live without faith in man's ability to rise above, in the brotherhood of nations and in a more just society."