After his death on Wednesday, the Israeli left was quick to hail Haim Gouri as a symbol of political and moral sanity, citing his awakening from the delusions of the Gush Emunim settler movement he had supported and guided in its infancy. But the Israeli poet bequeathed to this people an obsession with memory, the sanctity of death in battle and the worship of it as the pinnacle of an individual’s existential significance, as part of the nation for which he sacrifices himself.
The ethos established by Gouri is a terrible lie, replete with a deceptive pathos and dripping with demagoguery. As a child, I would hear his songs annually at every Memorial Day service, seeing my entire generation being educated in a culture that glorifies death, calling on each and every one of us to be willing to die too.
What did death mean to Gouri? The dead continue to live forever in the collective memory. Death is the continuation of life by other means. It is stronger than life and life lives in its shadow. In his three canonical poems-songs, those of worship and ritual – “Here Lie Our Bodies,” “Hare’ut” and “Bab el Wad” – the survivors are charged with remembering the dead. And through the power of memory, life and death are placed on the same continuum. Gouri was the founder of Israel’s religion of bereavement.
“Our comrades choke their tears,” wrote Gouri in “Here Lie Our Bodies.” “Will you bury us now? For we’ll rise and emerge again like before, resurrected.” Because of the comrades and their stifled crying, death is no more than a respite. “A new day, do not forget! Do not forget!” commanded Gouri, promising that “we will return and meet again, return as red flowers.” Only the Jew is the flesh of this land’s earth, an organic part of its landscape. And the flowers are red, the color of blood.
What is blood? Gouri explains this in “Hare’ut” – love, sanctified by blood. Life exists in the shadow of death. “They are gone from our midst, All their laughter, their youth and their splendor. But we know that a friendship like that, We are bound all our lives to remember.”
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This is, of course, not true. Not all the fallen had “splendor,” and in the greater, national scheme of things, they were not friends but strangers. As such, they were unknown and forgotten – and forgotten with frightening speed. Blood only soaks into the ground, it doesn’t blossom again like a flower. It sanctifies nothing.
“Remember our names for all time,” urged Gouri in “Bab el Wad,” which was dedicated to the Palmach fighters who broke through to besieged Jerusalem. He was addressing the ground itself: “Bab el Wad, remember our names for all time,” as if the dead continue to live on in the homeland’s landscape. As if the very Land of Israel consists of the dead decomposing in its earth. But Bab el Wad cannot forget what it never remembered.
“And here I walk by, making no sound. And I remember them all, remember each one,” wrote Gouri. What kind of existence is that? What kind of life do the survivors lead? A life of memories, a life of remembering, of the Yizkor memorial prayer. “You who will walk here, on the path that we trod. Never forget us – we are Bab el Wad,” he ordered.
What if the land doesn’t remember because it’s only land? And if life doesn’t remember because it’s too busy living? What will happen is what has happened since these poems were first written in 1948: a lot of unnecessary death. Here’s something worth remembering – a person only lives once, and no value or ideal can prevent death at a young age from being tragic and absurd.