To Diaspora audiences, the voice of Israeli literary dissent has for years belonged to figures like Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua—in other words, to novelists. The arrival in English of a new anthology by poets opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry, illuminates the diversity of Israel’s literary left—and the fact that its writing is done not only in prose.
The Israeli poet and translator Rachel Tzvia Back first discovered the Hebrew edition of the anthology three years ago, and was surprised that such a wide-ranging collection—featuring Yehuda Amichai, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Tuvia Ruebner, and 39 others—had yet to reach English readers. Back decided then to edit and translate the anthology into English, but to her dismay, “encountered closed door after closed door” from American publishers.
She soon realized that the publishers’ reluctance stemmed from what was, to the American ear, the shockingly harsh nature of the poets’ critique. Dissent is perceived differently in Israel than it is abroad, she learned, because the audiences bring different cards to the table. Outside Israel, specific issues like settlements, checkpoints, and occupation are often used to undermine the larger issue of Israel’s right to exist. To Back and other left-wing Israelis, however, Israel’s existence is not a part of the debate. “Israel exists and needs to exist,” she said. “I’m passionate about Israel, and I’m fierce in my critique of it. [The question is] how do we make it a better, more ethical Israel.”
Although prescriptions for the future and acknowledgements of real security concerns are few and far between in this anthology, the critiques of past wrongs are many. The language is magnificent, but often brutal: “how good is it that I am rid of you, My Homeland” (“A Small Song for the Fallen,” Natan Zach); “Idiotic soldiers of lead, /was your father a knife/ that only knows how to chop?/ Or your mother a pair of scissors/ that only knows how to sever?” (“Toy Soldiers,” Aharon Shabtai); “I lift my eyes to the hills/ and what do I see?/ Cube after cube of evil,/ clear-cut evil, spelled out/ in the square letters of Scripture”(“The Fence,” Aharon Shabtai).
Other poems sigh rather then scream, with the more nuanced emotions of a hurt lover: “My homeland has become like a foreign land where I walked with shame/ I’ve become strange to my compatriots/ I’ve become quarrelsome, contentious—/ a bitter, beaten man. I’ve become loathsome to myself” (“Cry My Beloved Country,” Rami Ditzanny); “Is it any comfort to know that the tanks murdering/ in my name are digging a grave for my people as well?” (“To Dr. Majed Nasser,” Aharon Shabtai); “We didn’t want this, no, not this, we didn’t think it would be like this:/ how the land just devours and devours”(“[This is not what we wanted],” Tuvia Ruebner).
There is exhaustion in these pages, Sisyphean hopelessness wrought from decades of violence: “Here the sons die before the fathers./ Here where it is thick with rot. The fruit dies/ before the tree”(“The Observing Heart,” Asher Reich); “My son, my husband, my brother, my husband, my son”(“And Who Will Remember the Rememberers?” Yehuda Amichai); “A victim begets a victimizer, victimizer begets a knife/ a knife begets fear, fear/ begets hatred, hatred—wickedness… But how do we end something that has no end?”(“Victim Again,” Tuvia Ruebner).
Ruebner’s clever choice of the term “beget,” is but one of many biblical references used by this largely secular group of poets to indict Israeli morality. Throughout Jewish scripture the land is glorified, and those who desecrate its sanctity are punished. Like biblical prophets beseeching the Israelites to reform or face exile, the poets warn Israelis of more darkness ahead. Zvi Atzmon’s ominous “With the Steel Point of a Thorn,” from which the anthology’s title is taken, consists purely of interwoven verses from Isaiah and Jeremiah: “And thorns and thistles shall/ grow there, all the land shall be/ thorn and thistle, devouring/ thorn-bush and brier, on the land of my people/ briers will rise up./ The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen,/ engraved with the steel point of a thorn.”
The biblical references both highlight the centrality of Jewish texts to Israeli cultural literacy and force Israelis to examine the role ancient values play in their modern society. In “Order of the Day,” for example, Yitzchak Laor employs the biblical commandment to kill all Amalekites as a metaphor for contemporary unchecked violence: “If you can’t/ find yourself/ an Amalek, call/ Amalek whomever/ you want to do/ to him what/ Amalek did,/ to you of course/ Over.” And in Liat Kaplan’s “Now is the Time,” the biblical quid-pro-quo is echoed in the current cycle of violence: “an eye for a tooth for a hand for a foot for a wound for a burn for a bruise for a life.” Back views these biblical sources as mirrors, ways for the poets to say, “‘Look at yourselves, Jews. This is not Jewish behavior.’”
Back is correct. Judaism is about morality and constant self-critique. On our holiest day, we take account of our communal sins, and accept responsibility for those committed by any one of us. But when empathy and self-critique are markedly absent on the other side, Judaism also becomes about protecting ourselves. It becomes about survival.
Alexa Bryn, a former Tablet Magazine intern, is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.