Arab Poetry for Jews: Sasson Somekh

Haim Watzman “If we had soldiers read the poetry their enemies write, we could prevent war,” declared Haim Gouri , an old poet and an old soldier, at Jerusalem’s literary café Tmol Shilshom last night. Sasson Somekh, whose new memoir was the subject of the evening, smiled. While he was polite enough not to contradict … Read more

Iton 77 at 31 Gets C+

Haim Watzman

Back in the 1980s, when I was still a relatively new reader of Hebrew, I picked up an anthology of short stories that had been published in Iton 77, a literary magazine that had commenced publication a year before my arrival in 1978. The journal had a good reputation and this book, I assumed, would help acquaint me with a spectrum of the writing talents of contemporary Israel.

I was sorely disappointed by what I read. While there were three or four gems, most of the stories seemed to me bland, self-consciously literary, and short of plot and character development. Nearly all were ponderously serious; few displayed any sense of humor.

But I was well aware then that I was a novice in my new language and suspected—indeed hoped—that I was missing something.

I’ve perused Iton 77 every so often since then, and picked up the latest issue to read on my recent trip to the U.S. The magazine is now Israel’s most venerable literary forum, but I’m sorry to say that, when it comes to prose, it hasn’t changed much. And it’s not my Hebrew.

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Continuing the Debate About Darwish

Haim Watzman

Yisrael and Shalom,

In response to your comments on my post “Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet,” if you read more carefully, you’ll see that:
a) I don’t put down the Jew, but rather express my admiration for Greenberg’s poetry;
b) I except myself from Darwish’s politics, while expressing admiration for his poetry;
c) I suggest that both poets are important figures in their national cultures, and that they need to be read and understood by the opposing nation.

Regarding the quotes you adduce, the context of the poem from the First Intifada indicates that the “land” he wants the Jews to get out of is probably the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, even if, when writing it, in the emotional turbulence of a quite justified Palestinian uprising against Israeli oppression, he meant he wanted the Jews out of all of the Land, that doesn’t obviate the fact in his political, as opposed to poetic, statements he consistently favored compromise and coexistence. But neither his poetic outbursts nor his political opinions are relevant to the literary value of his poetry and to the importance of it being read and understood by Jews and Zionists.

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Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet

Haim Watzman

What’s a Zionist to make of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet whose funeral today in Ramallah will be a celebration of both Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian culture?

Darwish was a refugee. His family came from the village of Birwa, near Acre, and fled to Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence. They were, however, among the lucky refugees who managed to return to their homeland, if not to their homes, so Darwish grew up as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, where he published his first book of poetry. He later left the country, living as an expatriate until 1995 when, in the wake of the Oslo accords, he settled in Ramallah. He spoke fluent Hebrew and maintained contacts with Israeli writers, among them the poet Yehuda Amichai.

He was a Palestinian patriot and activist, first as a member of Israel’s Communist Party and then as a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee. His criticism of Israel was unstinting, but he also advocated a negotiated peace with the Jewish state.

Eight years ago, the ministry of education included a couple of Darwish’s poems on its list of texts that Israeli high school teachers of literature could teach in class, setting off storms of protest. Was it not a sign of the Jewish state’s bankruptcy, the critics argued, that it was proposing to teach works of an anti-Zionist, an enemy hero, to Israeli children?

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