Which Is Worse, a Poem or a Flotilla?

This week, hundreds turned out for the inauguration of a cultural center named after the poet Mahmoud Darwish, including at least three Jews.

Relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have never been as bad as they are now. This week, I once again experienced the alienation. A cultural center named for the poet Mahmoud Darwish was inaugurated in Kafr Yasif, near Acre. Hundreds of people came, all of them Arabs. The Jews could be counted on the orphaned fingers of one hand. I identified three, but even Jews do not have horns.

Gaza flotilla
Eli Hershkovitz

Either they were invited and did not come, or no one bothered to invite them to begin with. Either options bodes ill. I still remember similar events in the past that bore the stamp of partnership and hope. I shall not describe them now, lest I burst into tears of nostalgia and anxiety. A great deal of sewage has flowed through the country's drains since then, even before the Knesset woke up to the song, "Go to Gaza, you traitor!"

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was present and infused the event with a good feeling of moderate optimism, or optimistic moderation. But not one Hebrew newspaper reported a word about the beautiful things we heard at Kafr Yasif; it is not of any interest.

When I was asked to say a few words about the man in whose name we had gathered there, I described how I tried to introduce three poems by Darwish into the school curriculum, and how the country responded with an outcry. The heavens almost fell in.

I also told the audience how the idea had germinated. I once spoke with Darwish about his experiences as a student in Israel. "I am happy that I studied Bialik's poems," he told me. "He is a great poet, and through his poetry, I learned to understand the shadows that pursue you and the hopes that go before you."

At that point, I said to myself: If an Arab pupil found interest in our national poet, why should a Jewish pupil not be interested in their national poet? On the contrary, let him read and become familiar with his neighbors' dreams and sufferings, and think about how, together, we can heal each other's wounds.

The most vocal protesters were, as usual, the uneducated, who had never even read one of his poems. But apparently, they had heard about one of his poems - that offensive poem that told us to get out of this land, with all our belongings and our memories, our names and our dead.

On another occasion, I asked Darwish, who was a sober man, what had led him into this foolish act. He directed my attention to an interesting fact: He had published some 40 books, and this poem, "Those Who Pass Between the Fleeting Words," had never been included in any of them. "I wrote it in a moment of anger," he explained. And he had since regretted it.

We, in our holy wrath, will also not forgive his regret. As if Bialik had never written in a stormy mood, as if Uri Zvi Greenberg had not poured out his wrath on the gentiles, as well as on those he considered Jewish apostates, whom he hated and cursed and wished death on.

The storm over the three poems was frightening. Once again, we appeared like budding saplings that have no roots; once again, we seemed like leaves being blown through history, with no history of their own. I felt sorry then for all those who feel at home only when they are in a ghetto, surrounded by high walls and fences, for whom only a home with moat and gates is a castle. I still pity them, and also rather scorn them. They have not yet been set free.

Recently, I have been searching for an answer to this question: What threatens us more, what does more to erode "the rock of our existence" - a poem or a flotilla?