When Israel Censored Poets for Being 'Tools of Expression of Arab Nationalism'

Some 50 years ago, Druze poet Samih al-Qasim was indicted for not complying with state censorship rules before publishing a book of poems. Not all members of the Hebrew Writers Association agreed to act on his behalf. Finally, with Prime Minister Golda Meir's intervention, his trial was canceled

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Samih al-Qasim.
Samih al-Qasim.Credit: Anarbati
Adam Raz
Adam Raz
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

In April 1969, Israeli Druze poet Samih al-Qasim was arrested for having published his new book of poems, his fifth, titled “Waiting for the Thunderbird,” without its having been approved by the government censor. Qasim put up a bond and was released. The 30-year-old poet, from the Galilee village of Rama, had acquired a reputation among local readers of Arabic with his first book of poetry, “Pageants of the Sun,” published when he was 18. At the time of his arrest, he was the editor of the literary journal Al-Jadid, and worked at the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Ittihad. It’s also worth recalling that for a few months in 1965, after being fired from a teaching position, he was editor of the Arabic edition of the muckraking weekly Haolam Hazeh, until a disagreement with editor and publisher Uri Avnery led to his firing.

Qasim maintained that the Israeli authorities had targeted him because of the nationalist and critical content of his writing. “In my poetry,” he once said, “I empathize with the Arab refugees [of 1948] and assert that they have the right to return to their homeland, but according to the presumption of the Israeli regime, that right does not exist.”

In January 1970, eight months after his arrest, an indictment was filed against Qasim in Haifa District Court. According to the charge sheet, he had in fact submitted the manuscript to the censor’s office the preceding February, but went ahead and published poems that had been blue-penciled in full or in part by the security authorities. In addition, it was alleged that three of the poems had not been submitted at all to the censors.

That wasn’t the first time the state’s institutions had clamped down on Qasim, who was known also for his opposition to the service of Druze in the Israel Defense Forces. In January 1968, the then-head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. David Elazar, issued an order curtailing the young poet’s freedom of movement. Qasim was exiled to Haifa and barred from returning to Rama, his hometown; required to report twice daily to the local police station, and confined to his home after 5 P.M. Even though the Military Government that ruled Israel’s Arab population had been abolished in December 1966, in the years following the June 1967 Six-Day War, the state issued dozens of restraining orders against members of Rakah (the Communist Party) who were identified as “Arab nationalists.”

Qasim was not the only writer arrested at the time. Another was Fawzi al-Asmar, who was taken into custody in September 1969 on suspicion of being in contact with terrorist organizations. (Six years later, Asmar would go on to write the notable autobiographical work “To Be an Arab in Israel.”)

In the wake of the decision to indict Qasim, in November 1969, Hebrew-language poet and journalist Moshe Dor reported about a protest gathering on his behalf held at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta cultural club, at which Qasim was present. Dor wrote that, in the view of unnamed establishment sources, the poet “is a Druze who denies the separate existence of the Druze as a people, because he is a Rakah person whose activity constitutes a security risk to Israel.” Qasim, for his part, acknowledged that he was indeed a Rakah person, and that he viewed the Druze as part of the Arab nation, but argued that his activities did not violate Israeli laws. The poet wondered, according to Dor, “why he was not being brought to trial but was being harassed with administrative orders. On the contrary: Let them bring him before a judge, and if he were found to be at fault he would be ready to serve his punishment in full, but if he were to be exonerated, they must leave him alone and allow him to live his life as an ordinary person.”

On January 3, 1970, the Hebrew Writers Association organized a meeting in Tel Aviv with “a group of Israeli Arab writers,” who were concerned about the issue of censorship of Arabic poetry and literature. The aim was for both groups to be “be attentive to what the other had to say,” in the words of Hanoch Bartov, a member of the organization’s executive. It was the association’s first-ever meeting with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the minutes reflect the Jewish participants’ bewilderment and unfamiliarity with them.

Qasim stated that, although there was no doubt that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which those present took pride in, spoke of full rights and equality for the two peoples who share the land – in practice such equality did not exist, as witnessed by, among other phenomena, the fact that land was being expropriated and economic discrimination was rampant.

In addition to Qasim, poets Mahmoud Darwish and Salem Jubran, both of whom who took part in the discussion, had also been confined by orders to Haifa over various odd accusations. “In all the cases, though, no one had been taken to court. Administrative orders were always employed.” Qasim maintained that these orders were political in nature and were exploited by the authorities against “political rivals.” At the time of the writers’ gathering, Qassim had been barred from returning to his village for about five months.

Darwish, then in his late 20s, thanked the participants “for the fact that at long last our friends, the Hebrew writers, felt that a certain need existed to lend an attentive ear to the problems, aspirations and dreams of the Arab writers who live alongside them.” At the same time, he was critical of the (condescending) attitude adopted by some of the Jewish participants, who demanded that the Arabs declare their political credos and prove their Israeliness.

In effect, said Darwish, had and the others had made it clear from the start of the event that “the Arab storytellers and poets who are sitting here have fully recognized (without being forced to do so) that the Jewish people has a right to self-determination in this joint homeland.” It was apparent that Darwish’s remarks about how he felt imprisoned and oppressed in the country did not elicit genuine empathy among his Jewish colleagues. “I write about the problems of my people,” he explained to the Hebrew-language poets who were critical of Palestinian poetry and prose (even though most of them did not know Arabic), and alleged that such literature was fundamentally nationalist and rife with implicit violence.

Mahmoud Darwish. Credit: Gil Cohen Magen / AP

‘Inequality in Israel’

Like Darwish, Jubran also talked about the disparity between declarations and deeds. The actions of the state are the “tragedy” of the Arab people in Israel, he asserted, before telling the following story: “The police showed up one day in my village and took away people who had plots of land. That same day, employees of the Jewish National Fund arrived – and for the Arabs it’s all one and the same body: the government, the JNF and the Shin Bet, too, they all cooperate – and decided to steal our lands. I was a child, I thought this only happened in Peki’in, but when I grew up I saw that it was a general operation, calculated, to plunder the lands of the Arabs… This is inequality in Israel.” To this, writer Arye Lifshitz (a veteran of the Third Aliyah – wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, 1919-1923 – and of the Labor Battalion) remarked: “The Arab writers are all young, and their conclusions have no basis in fact. In my opinion, they lack [sufficient] distance from the things they are talking about.”

It’s clear from the minutes that the discussion took place at different levels, and was not uniform in tone. Poet Haim Gouri – who had himself suffered at the hands of the censors when his book “Till Dawn” (consisting of poems and a war diary) was banned immediately after its publication in June 1950 – did not display much empathy for Samih al-Qasim. He did say that the reasons for the latter’s arrest and confinement to Haifa needed to be clarified, but noted that perhaps “he was being persecuted” because he opposed the draft for the Druze. “We need to know whether that is sufficient reason to arrest him and deprive him of his freedom,” Gouri emphasized. What apparently concerned Gouri more was the nationalist motif in local Palestinian literature and who was mainly and primarily to blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

From the standpoint of the Arab participants, the aim of the discussion was to recruit Hebrew-language writers for the struggle against the oppression to which they were subjected by the state. However, it was clear that some of the Jewish speakers were occupied with dispensing grades. “We are working for recognition of the Jewish right [to self-determination],” Qasim said. “And what will Jewish writers do for the sake of recognition of Arab writers and the right of the Arabs in Israel?” According to Qasim, the Military Government, about which he frequently wrote, had not truly been abolished in 1966, but “had only been replaced, and instead of a person in uniform, I encounter someone in civilian dress.”

Writer Muhammad Ali Taha, a native of the village of Mi’ar, east of Acre, illustrated for the Jews the fear dwelling in the hearts of Palestinian poets and writers in Israel: “Before I introduce myself as a writer, I want to introduce myself as a refugee, whose land is there before his eyes and whose village appears destroyed before his eyes, and which is he is unable to get to. I know that if these words reach the authorities or the Education Ministry, where I work, I will be summoned the next day and be threatened with dismissal.” Moreover, Taha told the group, “every short story I write gets me summoned for a clarification, and threats are voiced about my job and about confinement orders.” Like his Arab colleagues, he called on the Hebrew Writers Association to demand that the authorities “eliminate the means of oppression” wielded against Arab writers.

We are working for recognition of the Jewish right [to self-determination]. And what will Jewish writers do for the sake of recognition of Arab writers and the right of the Arabs in Israel?

Samih al-Qasim

Whether the discussion led to closer relations between writers from the two sides, or not, in February 1970 the association sent a letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir urging an end to censorship of Arabic literature and poetry. “We see it as our obligation to point out the difference between deeds and words, between information and opinion, between material that deals directly with transmitting reports, incitement to rebellion and interethnic incitement, and works of literature,” the letter stated. Its authors referred to censorship of “Israeli Arab poets” and in particular the decision to bring Qasim to trial. “That path is not appropriate for the State of Israel,” they asserted.

Meir read the association’s request and said she wanted to acquaint herself with the subject. Her Arab affairs adviser, Shmuel Toledano, noted in his comments to Meir that “the censorship customarily bans books and poems, in whole or in part, that in its view contain incitement or are harmful to state security.” He added that the decision to try Qasim was based on his failure to submit all his poems for censorship, as required. In any event, it is clear that Golda Meir did take an interest in the matter and demanded that a clear stand be formulated on the question of censoring Arab literature.

Censorship debates

In the weeks that followed, two important meetings were held on the issue by officials. The first, convened by Police Minister Shlomo Hillel, related specifically to Qasim’s impending trial; the second one, of the Central Committee for Security, which consisted of representatives of the army, the Shin Bet, the police and the office of the Arab affairs adviser, addressed “the whole subject of censorship of Arabic poetry and literature.”

At the first meeting it was agreed that the Hebrew Writers Association would ask Attorney General Meir Shamgar to cancel Qasim’s trial, with the understanding that Shamgar would accede to the request. According to the minutes, “It was agreed that the case of Samih al-Qasim is not the most desirable instance for dealing with the various individuals, including Jews, who oppose censorship as such.” The Shin Bet, which did not take part in that meeting, later expressed its regret over the decision to cancel the trial, because in its view the poet was “one of the tools of expression of [Arab] nationalism” in Israel. The writers association went along with the idea and sent a letter to Shamgar in which it emphasized that the censorship of Arab poets “serves, as you know, as a cause for slander [of Israel] abroad.”

Qasim’s trial was indeed canceled.

Golda Meir. Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

At the meeting of the Central Committee for Security, in February 1970, representatives of the security organizations presented their views about the censorship of Arab literature. The Shin Bet representative, Avraham Ahituv, who four years later would become the organization’s director, stated that he “opposes the cancellation of the censorship, in light of the security situation that exists here.” The Israel Police representative seconded that opinion.

Arab affairs adviser Toledano acknowledged that there was “[no] usefulness in censorship, because the Arabs of Israel are fed incitement in large doses.” “Notwithstanding this,” he added, he rejected the abolishment of the institution of censorship, “because an Israeli citizen must not be allowed to incite against the state and the army. [Abolition] will have negative implications for Israel’s Arabs, who will see this as giving free rein to the Arab community.” In other words, the adviser said, censorship was not supposed to protect the state’s security per se, but was a tool to “educate” its Arab citizens. Ultimately it was the IDF’s representative, Brig. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, who advocated the most liberal view, maintaining that only “purely military” censorship was needed.

In April 1970, Meir wrote Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira that, “I have learned that the problem is complex and that the various authorities, such as the IDF, the Shin Bet, the police and so on, are divided in their views on this matter.” She asked him to acquaint himself with the subject and formulate a position.

I am translated all over the world, but in Israel, regrettably, least of all. This punishes Israeli readers by preventing them from getting to know their neighbor. This is how a reality is created in which every Arab is a terrorist and every Jew has a tank.

Samih al-Qasim

No additional documentation about this episode was found in the State Archives, and sometime during the past few months, the documentation on which this article is based was no longer accessible to the public in the archives.

It’s unclear when censorship of Arabic prose and poetry by Palestinian citizens of Israel was halted. Apparently by the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the state’s censorship authorities were busy instead censoring books from the occupied territories, which is clear from a May 1984 document. Titled “Censorship of Books in Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” it was written by the military official in charge of information-related activity in the territories. The same arguments raised against Qasim and Darwish repeat themselves there: “The censors recommend not authorizing certain books for importation and publication if in their view they are harmful to Israel’s defense, public safety or public order.” For example, one of the books censored was a text about the Israeli army by Yigal Allon, the education minister at the time of Qasim’s arrest. The reason: an “inflammatory preface” written by the Arabic-language publisher.

Speaking in December 1988 at a forum at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for Advancement of Peace, Qasim – who by then had published some 30 books of poetry, earning himself an international reputation, and who died in 2014 at the age of 75 – said, “I am translated all over the world, but in Israel, regrettably, least of all. This punishes Israeli readers by preventing them from getting to know their neighbor, from being balanced in terms of information. This is how a reality is created in which every Arab is a terrorist and every Jew has a tank.”

Today’s Hebrew reader still has few possibilities to become acquainted with the works of this great poet, so we should be grateful to Idan Barir and the late Prof. Sasson Somekh for collecting and translating a selection of Qasim’s poems. The book, “Pnei Haherut” (The Face of Freedom), was published last year by Keshev Leshira.

Noted novelist Hanoch Bartov spoke with great pathos at the January 1970 meeting of the Hebrew Writers Association. That event, he said, was the start of a dialogue and not a summing up. “It is hard to imagine a situation more acute than the one we are in today,” he said, adding, “I allow myself to risk making a foolish prophecy: Many years in the future, this meeting will be commemorated, and it will be remembered in the history of this organization and in the history of the ties between Jewish writers and Arab writers.”

A few months after his arrest, Qasim wrote to Lamerhav, the organ of the left-wing Ahdut Ha’avoda party: “Fear is already lying on my heart… I am afraid of the shadow of Babi Yar… It needs to be cast off from the Arabs and from the Jews alike.”

His words stirred a minor furor, and Qasim was quick to clarify that he didn’t think the conflict between the peoples who share this land was reminiscent of the ravine in Ukraine where the Nazi Germans murdered more than 100,000 people. He was referring instead to the specter of the massacre, to the reign of fear that rules and that uproots the ability to understand and identify with the pain of another people.

Adam Raz is a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.

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