Poem of the Week

Remaking Israel in Mongolia, Starring Martin Luther King

Raised in a post-World War II American Jewish family, Hal Sirowitz contemplates alternatives to the situation.

Would Mongolia have been more welcoming than Palestine? Mongol soldiers, watercolor on paper, ca. 1305, from Rashid al-Din Hamadani’s book  Jami' al-tawarikh.
Wikipedia

The Making of Israel

Hal Sirowitz

The European countries felt sorry
for the Jews’ plight, Father said,
during World War Two – entire
populations of towns landed
in concentration camps. So they
gave a country to Jews – Israel.
But they made a few mistakes –
they put Jews in the middle of a boiling pot.
We would have been better off had they
stuck us on the side somewhere –
like in the middle of Mongolia –
where we wouldn’t have to fight
Palestinians, but would be far enough away
to be pen pals. They made
the official language Hebrew,
when most of the population spoke Yiddish
and Arabic, so no one could understand
each other. If you were born from a Jewish mother,
you were an automatic citizen. Therefore,
the people they really needed –
like Martin Luther King, who could bring
people together – would have a hard time
obtaining Israeli citizenship. The situation
is a mess, but so are the potato latkes
your mother makes, and that never
stopped her from making them.

***

“My father went to rallies in New York City to protest the ill-treatment of Jews during World War Israeli," Hal Sirowitz notes about this new poem. "He said the Jews were told not to protest too much, so it didn't become a Jewish war. Later, my father used Israeli banks to support the country and gave contributions to Israel when the country was involved in wars. Both my parents went to Israel, though only my mother climbed Mount Sinai. My father was getting too old for strenuous activities, and stayed in the hotel. The poem is based on his stories about the origin of the Israeli state. It's written from memory, and I might have distorted his historical views slightly to emphasize the contradictions of the situation. My parents were proud and fearful about the creation of Israel.”

Hal Sirowitz.
Minter Krotzer

Many American-born baby-boom Jews were raised on this story about the state of Israel – and are now parents of a critical younger generation. The poet enumerates “mistakes” in the way Israel developed and, although no doubt with tongue in cheek ponders an alternative vision of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish state in Mongolia, led by the likes of Martin Luther King.

Years ago a Palestinian writer and I encountered a Mongolian poet at some international literary event. Dumbstruck, neither of us could begin to argue when he said: “My people is the most unfortunate nation on earth.” We remembered that direct descendants of the Mongol Empire’s founder Genghis Khan (never mind his soldiers) are supposed to account for 0.5 percent of human males worldwide; it is estimated that Jews account for only 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

Post-Soviet Mongolia is indeed “on the side somewhere” as the poem suggests. However, in its long day of fierce and effective fighting (late 12th to mid-17th century), the Mongolian empire stretched from Japan to Cracow. Mongol forces invaded the Middle East, destroying Damascus and Aleppo but were defeated by the Mamluks out of Cairo in 1260 in the Jezreel Valley at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (Goliath’s Spring), now Ma’ayan Harod.

It is not clear that the Mongols’ descendants in their homeland would have been easier to get along with than the inhabitants of Palestine, some of whom, as well as some Yiddish-speaking and other Jews, in any case also probably descended from the Mongols, who – like many marauding forces of yore - were not in the least squeamish about rape.  

As for Martin Luther King, in his day, it is doubtful he would have taken the job of leading the new state.  He repeatedly put off accepting invitations to visit Israel, apparently because he “did not want to identify himself with Israel during the struggle for equal rights for blacks in the United States". Despite liberal American Jewish support for the civil rights movement, black movements like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee have identified with the Palestinian cause.

Sirowitz (b. 1949) has published five books of poetry. He was active in the Poetry Slam movement in New York and now lives in Philadelphia

*Musings: Who are “they?” Is the mess in Israel indeed inevitable, like “your mother’s” latkes? To what other culinary effort could Israel be compared?

*Bonus: Sirowitz reads “Chopped Off Arm