Haim Gouri, Renowned Israeli Writer and Poet, Dies at 94

Haim Gouri was a prominent figure among Israel's founding generation. He received the country's highest honors for his work, including the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Haim Gouri in 2009
Haim Gouri in 2009Credit: \ Daniel Tchetchik
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Haim Gouri, the renowned writer and journalist considered one of Israel's most important intellectual thinkers, died Wednesday at the age of 94. Gouri received several of Israel's highest accolades for his work as a writer and poet, including the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize.

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Gouri was a prominent figure among Israel's founding generation, and his work is inextricably linked with much of the State of Israel's national ethos. He will be laid to rest on Thursday at 1:30 P.M. in the special section for those honored by the city of Jerusalem (Yakirei Yerushalyim) in the Har Hamenuchot cemetery.

A number of his most famous poems became some of Israel’s most beloved songs, particularly those about the War of Independence in 1948 and the founding of Israel. He became well-known to the Israeli public for his journalistic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961.

He published 12 books of poetry and 10 works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as translations, journalism and documentary films.

Haim Gouri in 2004.Credit: Alex Levac

President Reuven Rivlin said both he and his wife mourned Gouri, the "nation’s contemporary poet." calling him “a man who became a symbol. The poet of independence, the poet of friendship, a warrior and intellectual.”

Rivlin called Gouri a guide and a teacher of life, and a member of the generation that founded Israel. He added that Gouri became the founder of Israel’s greatest poetry and written works “through which he strengthened the moral and fundamental foundations of our existence here as a people, as a nation.”

“We loved him greatly, his wisdom and his Israeliness,” said Rivlin. The president sent his condolences to Gouri’s widow Aliza, known as Alika, and his family.

Haim Gouri and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.Credit: Mark Neyman / GPO

Gouri was born in 1923 in Tel Aviv in British Mandatory Palestine. His parents, Gila and Yisrael Gurfinkel, arrived to Israel on a ship from Odessa in 1919. He grew up in a non-religious, socialist Zionist home. His father was a labor leader and politician who served as member of the Knesset for Mapai from its beginning in 1949 until his death in 1965.

“Even back in Russia, my parents spoke and wrote a wonderful Hebrew,” he told Haaretz in 2006. “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.”

Gouri went to the Kadoorie Agricultural High School; after graduating in 1941, he was one of the first to enlist in the Palmach, the elite pre-state strike force of the Haganah. He picked up the nickname “Jouri” in the Palmach. Later, as a platoon commander in the 1st Battalion, he participated in a large number of underground military operations against the British. These included bringing ashore illegal Jewish immigrants from the ship “Hannah Szenes,” the 1946 attack on the Stella Maris radar station in Haifa, and the same year, an operation called Night of the Bridges, in which the Palmach tried to blow up all the railway bridges connecting Palestine to its neighboring countries.

At the same time, he called himself the “court poet” and wrote a number of well-known poems, many of which were later turned into popular songs.

In 1947, at age 23 and with experience with weapons, fieldcraft and explosives, he was sent by the Haganah to Europe to aid Holocaust survivors and prepare them for aliyah to Israel. He later wrote that his work was to turn the “remnants of the survivors into an organized camp on its way to the Land of Israel.”

He remained in Europe and the newly founded Israel Defense Forces sent him to Czechoslovakia, where he was a commander in the first paratroopers course for the IDF, which trained Jewish soldiers who served as paratroopers in the Allied armies during World War II, along with refugees from Hungary. “To take a Holocaust refugee and turn him into a paratrooper is a great thing. When I parachuted with the survivors I understood that this was why I was sent there, to reach this moment,” he said.

When he returned to Israel he joined the Palmach’s Negev Brigade as a deputy battalion commander in the 7th Battalion. He participated in the capture of Be’er Sheva and was later the deputy commander of the forces that captured Eilat. During a temporary truce in the War of Independence, he went to Jerusalem, where he wrote two of his most famous poems, which helped make him one of Israel’s cultural legends.

One was “Bab el-Wad,” in memory of the soldiers who fell in the Sha’ar Hagai area while fighting to keep open the road to blockaded Jerusalem; another was “Hareut” (Fellowship). Both songs were set to music and are still performed today, especially as part of ceremonies and commemorations. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had said “Hareut” was one of his favorite songs, and it became a symbol identified with his assassination.

“People don’t realize how many were killed in the war. We lost one percent of the population in the War of Independence, 6,000 people, the vanguard, the finest of the finest,” said Gouri. Until his dying day, Gouri said he felt the War of Independence was still going on. “All the wars are the result of 1948. All the time, we are in a state of war. It has created an entire culture here.”

After the war he moved to Jerusalem and began studying Hebrew literature, philosophy and French culture at the Hebrew University. His first volume of poems, “Flowers of Fire, Years of Fire,” appeared a year after the war, in 1949. Then came “Till Dawn,” a book of poetry and a diary of the war.

In addition to his poems and novels, he also translated plays, poems and stories. He won the Sokolov Award for journalism in 1962 for his coverage of the Eichmann trial, the Israel Prize for Hebrew Poetry in 1988, the Bialik Prize for literature and the Newman Hebrew Literature Prize in 1994.

Alongside his literary works, Gouri worked as a journalist, first for the Lamerhav, where he covered the Eichmann trial from its first day to the last. His articles from the trial were collected in a book entitled, “Facing the Glass Booth: The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann.” “I came out of the trial broken psychologically,” he said. Later he wrote for Davar until his retirement at age 65. He also published articles in Haaretz.

In 1972, he was invited by members of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot to create a film for the kibbutz’s Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum of the Holocaust and Jewish resistance. He teamed up with editor Jacques Ehrlich and director David Bergman to produce a trilogy of films over 13 years. The first, “The 81st Blow,” was released in 1974 and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Film category. This was followed by “The Last Sea” and “Flames in the Ashes.”

Gouri also fought in the Six-Day War as a company commander in the battle for Jerusalem and in the Yom Kippur War as an officer in an armored formation in the Sinai. He described the Six-Day War as one that “united the land and divided the people.” In 1967, he was active in the establishment of the Movement for Greater Israel. A month after the war, he was one of the signatories on the movement’s founding statement, alongside Natan Alterman. However, in the years following the Six-Day War, he saw the wrongs of the occupation and gradually parted with this vision.

“Everything changed and the day arrived for religious zealotry and settlement everywhere. This is something I can’t fathom. I believe that some of those who signed that petition would not have signed such a thing today,” Gouri told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.

In 1995, he was one of the founders of The Third Way, which opposed a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He eventually abandoned that platform as well. In his later years, Gouri took part in struggles against administrative detentions, home demolitions and expulsions.

In 1975, when members of the right-wing Gush Emunim movement refused to vacate the old train station they had taken over in Sebastia in the West Bank, Gouri brokered the agreement between them and then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres. After the negotiations, 30 families were allowed to settle in a nearby Kadum military base, giving birth to the settlements of Elon Moreh and Kedumim.

In his 2004 book, “I’m a Civil War,” Gouri explained that he was born to live between contradictions and to make his way between the schisms.

“If people want to attack me as a member of ‘that’ generation, and 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,” he told Haaretz.

In January 2016, Gouri declined the Culture and Sports Ministry’s prize for Zionist works of art in literature. He had won the award for his most recent book of poetry, “Though I Wished for More of More,” which was published in Hebrew in September 2015.

In a letter he sent to the judges on the prize committee, Gouri explained he did not think his latest work was appropriate for the 50,000-shekel ($12,800) prize, and recommended awarding it to a young writer. “I told them immediately that I would not accept the prize,” he said.

“I will not say what my opinion of the prize for Zionist art is. I was born a Zionist and will die a Zionist, and all my life I fought for Zionism – but I do not find a connection between this book and prize,” he said. “The book was a clearly personal work of a man in his last years taking an accounting of his life and memories,” Gouri added.

Gouri continued to write well into his 90s. In his last years he wrote about how very worried he was with the changes that had been occurring in Israel, and spent quite a bit of time contemplating the country’s future.

In an article he wrote in Haaretz after his 90th birthday, Gouri wrote: “Now, in my waning years, I often ponder the problem of our national identity in the land of Israel, in the State of Israel.”

“Years have gone by and our country continues to bleed from all the wars we have had since then – a continuation of 1948-9. The nation is split and completely divided over the main issues of the malignant conflict between the peoples of this land, and over the question of how to put an end to it. Without an agreement, in the foreseeable future the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, two brothers, will continue to weep.”

Gouri lived in Jerusalem since 1952. He and his wife Alika had three daughters and a number of grandchildren. He left his archives to the National Library of Israel.

Netayahu said he enormous respect for those who paved the way for Israel’s independence. “They fought and gave their lives for the rebirth of Israel, a few against the many, and Gouri himself combined in an exceptional fashion the fighter and the man of letters.” Netanyahu said everyone knows his songs and can sing along with them, “so touching they make you cry, for example ‘Hareut’ and ‘Bab al-Wad.’ Even as a child I listened to these songs innumerable times and they always touched my heart.”

The prime minister added that Gouri’s poems were a foundation of the new Jewish poetry, and are part of the soundtrack of the State of Israel. Netanyahu said he met Gouri for the first time only a short time after his own brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, died during a rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. “He told me very touching things, and since then we have met from time to time, and in recent years I met with Palmach veterans, and Gouri among them, in my office. It was a true closing of a circle, from Bab al-Wad and Sha’ar Hagai. We talked about the issue of the proper commemoration of those who broke through on the road and accompanied the convoys to Jerusalem there at Sha’ar Hagai during the War of Independence.”

Netanyahu described how other veterans of the war spoke, and how then Gouri recited a poem by Natan Alterman from memory. “He lived those days, days of lead and blood, days in which his friends fell on all sides. He spoke from the soul, from the heart, and when he finished it was silent, and I told him: ‘The discussion is over, I made a decision – The commemoration will be the way you want, as is proper,’” said Netanyahu.

“I will never forget that moment for all my life,” said Netanyahu. “Haim Gouri’s works will continue to be with us forever. May his memory be a blessing.”

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