A Personal and Political Moment

Three years ago, when I was 28, an article by Prof. Meira Weiss came into my hands: “The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Jewish Society in Israel.” At the time I was a commander of a reserve unit in the Israel Defense Forces and the previous day I had returned home after 28 days of service in the southern Hebron hills. I took the article out of the mailbox and skimmed it with pleasure.

After a month of checkpoints, Shin Bet security service arrests and ambushes, the option of diving into a discussion of the significance of the human body in the history of Zionism, a topic that has always fascinated me, looked to be very good for the soul. The mention of Max Nordau and his muscular Judaism as a reaction to diaspora Judaism was especially intriguing. Right at the beginning of the article my eyes landed on lines of a poem by Yitzhak Laor in a Hebrew rich with alliteration and internal rhyme:

Thus, mothers, you must diaper your son in uniforms, give him army cathartics to lick fever, to lick artlessness, to lick the everyday lust that will love his prick, the nation’s prick, the military and the smell of cordite will titillate him, sounds of gunshot will bring him wet dreams, generals will bring him butterflies in his tummy, O sweet sacrifice, what will you be if you grow up? A paratrooper and a man. And what after that? A grave,

O Jerusalem

– from the poem “Rue Rue Jerusalem” in “As Nothing,” Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1999

Prior to reading these lines I had been entirely unfamiliar with Laor’s poetry. But I too was a paratrooper, and I too hoped, like everyone, that I was a man, and generals did indeed give me butterflies in my tummy. Reading these lines a moment after a violent month of reserve duty, which was full of a sense of the righteousness of the way, was no easy thing. I remember that for one alarming moment I felt that I was looking at something I was forbidden to see. What this thing was I did not know, but on that same Friday afternoon I went out to look for every book by Yitzhak Laor that I could find in the shops.

A brief skim through the first book that I found brought me to the following poem:

On a rainy night we walked through the streets of an occupied city
under curfew. At the head, a Shin Bet guy in charge of the commander
in charge of us in charge of the informer wrapped
in a blanket and two holes for his eyes (We shall live,
we shall live forever, the Angel of Death is in our hands) but the voice
is always the voice of Jacob: This is the Voice of the Jewish
Fighting Organization. Who are you? I am Mordechai
Anielewicz, and who are you? I am Mordechai Anielewicz.
And who are you? I am Mordechai Anielewicz.

– “I Itzik” from “Night In a Foreign Hotel,” Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1992

This is a poem that no foreigner will understand–certainly a person who has never experienced walking on a rainy night with a Shin Bet coordinator up ahead of you, 20 soldiers behind you and one Palestinian who was going to inform on his neighbor and send him for interrogation in the Shin Bet cellars. Eight years later this poem told me with painfully dazzling clarity why I had been a partner to a horror that had occurred in a wadi near the city of Nablus, and what the terrible conspiracy of silence had been between me and my soldiers with respect to the near-fatal torturing of a boy of 14, the books in the library in my parents’ house about the Jewish communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust, and the visits to Uncle Daniel at Kibbutz Lohamei Haghettaot when I was five or six years old.

Laor precisely encapsulated in his writing what for me was not yet even vague. The sense of mission with which I enlisted in the IDF was based in part on those books and the painfully simple message that we shall not allow the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe to repeat itself no matter what the costs, and when the moral price became more severe, the sense of mission only increased. “Who are you?” I asked myself then, as I helplessly watched the boy gradually losing his consciousness. I am Mordechai Anielewicz, answers Yitzhak Laor in my stead. I am a freedom fighter. I am fighting the Nazi-Arab enemy, not an occupier, not cruel, certainly not immoral.

Disturbing memories

Suddenly, as if they had never been there, many memories began to creep up on me and disturb me. The man of 50 who comes back from a wedding and is stripped as his children look on in a routine inspection, the moment of alertness that led me to grab the hand of a soldier before it landed on the elderly woman’s face, and the old man, and the checkpoint and the curfew and the dispersion of the demonstration and the company commander who replaced me and was killed half a day after we had shaken hands and parted when they opened the Western Wall tunnel.

Something in Laor’s texts spoke to me about the place inside me that had been closed and denied until then. I continued to leaf through the books, and when I came to the next poem, in Laor’s second book of poems, it socked me like a brass-knuckled fist in my belly and accompanied me for months afterward, in repeated readings:

To pity the burnt offering? As a commandment? On an ass?
With much obedience? From the Negev to Moriah to be sacrificed?
To trust such a father who will rise up early to kill him? Let him imprison his father.
His only father, Abraham, in a jail, in an almshouse, in a cellar at home, so that he will not
be slaughtered. Isaac, Isaac [Yitzhak, Yitzhak], remember what thy father has done to thy brother Ishmael.

– “This Fool Yitzhak” from “Only the Body Remembers,” Adam Modan Publishers, 1985

These lines immediately bring me back to Barak, my buddy in the battalion, who was felled during his last stint in the reserves at Kfar Darom by a mortar shell that killed him in a place where he should not have been, and the battalion commander, always a father figure, who said at the memorial service that Barak’s unnecessary death in defending an isolated Jewish settlement in the territories was necessitated by reality, “a link in the chain of Zionism.” Trust a father like that who will rise up early to kill him? And, in fact, which father to trust? And to whom is the father, the parent, more faithful–his son or the state? And does the blind preference for the state, even when it is mistaken, serve the state or harm it?

Here I am, 28 years old, returning home from another month of reserve duty in Gaza and suddenly asking myself questions that are beginning to penetrate even the armor of the righteousness of the way in which they had dressed me years ago. And Laor’s strong words return to echo in my ears: “With such obedience? With such obedience? With such obedience?”

Intensely political

Ever since I refused to serve in the territories and the Ometz Lesarev (Courage to Refuse) movement was established, I have returned again and again to Yitzhak Laor’s texts and now also to “Leviathan City,” his new book. In Laor’s most recent books, there is a strong subterranean movement between the personal and the political and back again. In this respect, “Leviathan City” is the climax of a process that began back in “Night in a Foreign Hotel” (1992) and continued through “And Loveth Many Days” (1996) and “As Nothing” (1999). This has been a process of the personal end of the spectrum and the political end of the spectrum coming closer until, in the current book, they are nearly one and the same.

In “Leviathan City,” it is almost impossible to speak any longer about the personal Laor and the political Laor. There is only one poetic persona in it, which is simultaneously absolutely political and absolutely personal. The voice is that of a poetic persona through whose life the “situation” passes and touches everything he has, grasping and refusing to let go. The child, the wife, the hours of wakefulness alone at night, memory, the very act of writing–everything is political. And from the other extreme, every terror attack, every act of occupation, every moral injustice–everything is completely personal.

In this respect, it is possible to see in the poem that opens “Leviathan City,” “Poem of Leave-taking from a Great Love,” one that maps the whole book. The poem, which opens in a personal tone of relinquishing (in the English translation by Edeet Ravel)–“I give up … I won’t play the violin again, / Though I’ve kept it kept for forty years … And I won’t sleep with students anymore, / … Won’t remember who hit me when I was a kid … Won’t walk on spring nights / Hand in hand with the beautiful Michal with beautiful Michal”–is transformed in a move that is hardly felt into a poem that is intensely political. It ends with the words: “Do not speak of love of country, / Not out of pain of longing, / But because no one should love a graveyard, / And the smell of blossoms is / The smell of a slaughterhouse.” And the reader, who rubs his eyes at the end of the reading, goes back again to the beginning of the poem and he does not understand at which moment all this began and how we got from beautiful Michal, from “the thick black mud / In the neighboring fields,” to the smell of the slaughterhouse. He reads it again, slowly, looking for where it all began and finds:

There is that elusive ambiguity in the word “betray,” which can indicate either unfaithfulness or treachery, and in the original Hebrew text there is a line break between the word for betray and the word “ba’aravim” (which can mean “evenings” or “Arabs”). This word initially resonates as though it refers back to “the spring nights,” but it immediately becomes clear to us that the word should be understood as “Arabs.”

Probing report

For a moment Laor touches upon betrayal as the opposite of the love for beautiful Michal and leaves us confident that this is a personal poem, but immediately thereafter we realize that we are already deep in a political place. The real blow, however, falls on us in another moment when we suddenly realize–and herein lies the great strength of this poem in particular and of the book as a whole–that there never have been two moments here, but only one moment which is simultaneously both things: absolutely political and absolutely personal. “Leviathan City” is a probing report, which gives no rest, on the inability in today’s situation to distinguish between life at home and going out to fight. This is the great thing with which this book confronts its readers. By virtue of its consistency and the clear-eyed life experience, the book demands of the honest reader that he make a reckoning for himself of whether and why he chooses to blur for himself this unity of the personal and the political, that is, whether and why he chooses to barricade himself into his comfortable life and ignore the horror outside. From all of those who deny within themselves the horror that is occurring in their name beyond the Green Line (pre-Six-Day War border) and within it, from all those who oppose the horror but take part in it for a limited period once a year, and from all those who know but prefer to ignore the removal of the defense mechanisms, this book demands that they release the repressed and bring the personal close to the public, the personal to the political. It demands that they connect to the place where they act from inner strength and not just from calculated ideology.

In “Leviathan City,” we meet a Laor who is more penetrating than ever, living among his people, unable to shut his eyes for a moment and unable to bear that others shut their eyes. Therefore in this book, Laor acts not only as a wonderful poet but perhaps above all as a prophet of rebuke.

This is disturbing poetry, threatening to many and annoying to many, that touches the reader in the painful place of doing nothing. This is a poetry of discomfort that impels action, a poetry that does not seek parental approval or any other approval, a poetry that liberates from the limitations of criticism of the discourse, and a poetry that, through the unfinished discourse between son and father, finds the independent place that revolts and refuses.

The time has come to separate between those who obey orders and those who refuse to obey. Period.

DAVID ZONSHEINE is leader of Courage to Refuse.

Unless otherwise noted, poetry translations are by Vivian Eden with Yitzhak Laor.

This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz.