Poet Aharon Shabtai discusses the influence of the Occupation on Israeli culture
Aharon Shabtai has published 18 books of poetry in Hebrew. His prize-winning translations of Greek drama are definitive. Two of his books have appeared in English: Love and Other Poems (New York: the Sheep Meadow Press, 1997), and J’accuse(New York: New Directions, 2003). Echoing the title of Emile Zola’s attack on anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus trial, the poems of J’accuse confront Israeli practices during the Occupation. Translations of Shabtai’s work have appeared in the leading English-language poetry journals, and he has recently contributed to the Red anthology, Aduma, discussed in this issue.
Interviewed by Nir Nader
How would you describe the relationship between today’s Israeli culture and the Occupation?
Shabtai: Israel is a country whose options for change are shutting down one by one. In the past it had the chance to become a healthy nation-state by settling its relationships with the Palestinians and the neighboring countries. Yet the longer it persists with the Occupation, and the more it relies on force, the narrower are its political options. The propaganda used to justify the violence of the Occupation has an Orwellian effect on Israeli mentality. There is a noticeable dulling of moral and ethical sensitivity. Public discourse is cast into molds of mendacity, a kind of “newspeak.” This is abundantly so in the cultural sphere.
Israel is turning into a colony under the American aegis, like the former Rhodesia or South Africa under Britain. This colony is ruled by the oligarchs, the army and the Shin Beth. The land is a prison. It contains three and a half million native inmates, who are penned up in territorial cells, in camps and ghettoes, while Israel implements an unequivocally racist demographic policy aimed at ethnic cleansing. The prison also has special facilities for the Israeli jailers. These live in bubbles, cut off from the reality of the inmates. It’s like the Green Area in Baghdad. Here, as there, we have golf courses, coffee shops, residences, and cultural institutions for the families of the rulers. In the colony, political conversation is limited to the economy and security, to questions of how to accumulate capital and how to eliminate the natives.
But today’s Israel is no monolith. It’s a society that has detached itself from its basic Zionist values, distanced itself from social solidarity, and abandoned its own citizens. We saw this in the war of 2006, and before that in the elimination of the social safety net.
Shabtai: Yes, because in a racist colony, the social and state institutions are eroded. Today, in a period of global imperialism, politics is being privatized. The tools of politics—the media, the parties, the unions—whose function is to bring about change, to heal, to repair solidarity, have been emptied of content and sold into private hands. As part of the same trend, culture and higher education are also thought of as things to be privatized. They are supposed to be “free of politics,” “objective”—in other words, they’re supposed to go along with the consensus. In the Israel of today, politics and politicians are anathema. This is the symptom of a nationalistic mass society whose heroes are the oligarch—such as (Arcadi) Gaydamak— and the general—like (Ariel) Sharon or (Ehud) Barak.
The ancient Greeks had a term for the citizen who cares only for his personal interests and stays out of political life. The term was idiotes. Today it suits Israelis. People here are idiotai, not politai, citizens in the true sense. They have no part in political organization or in political struggles of any importance.
Typical, therefore, is what one scholar wrote against my poem, “No, Sappho.” (See box below.) He accused me of debasing the great love poet. Sappho wrote that the most beautiful thing is not battalions of soldiers, or cavalries or a navy, but the person one loves. She opposed the dominant ethos of her day—as exemplified in the Spartan poetry of Tyrtaios—and offered the citizens an erotic ethos instead. In my poem I update the theme, offering (with humor) something else, something that suits our time and Israel: to view working-class solidarity and freedom as beautiful.
The most beautiful thing, Sappho said, is the one you love.
No, Sappho, I say. The one you love will not be beautiful
As long as a contractor or a corporation or a manpower company sucks his blood-
For 15 shekels an hour there’s no future for beauty.
Let me get the crap they’ve fed you out of your head.
Anaktoria will not be beautiful if forced to work as a call girl,
Attis will not braid flowers if the plant is shut down and transferred to Cairo.
Therefore, the most beautiful thing, the precondition for beauty, is the class struggle.
You were right. Not horsemen or armed forces, not battle ships,
But the workers’ solidarity, cooperation and equality
When these will prevail
Then the skies and the earth shall kiss in my lover’s eyes.
Therefore, also not amongst writers, not in the university, not in a concert
Will you find beauty today, but in the workers’ union –
The garbage workers, the garbage trucks, Sappho, are the most beautiful thing.
Translated by Adva Levin
Note: In Fragment 16, Sappho mentions a woman she misses named Anaktoria. The 15 shekels in Shabtai’s response are worth about $3.50.
By the way, all ancient Greek poetry is political in essence; it is the poetry of citizens. The first uniquely lyrical poem is Archilochos’ “Some Saian mountaineer…,” which tells, without a blush, how the poet threw his shield away in the midst of battle when the fighting got hot. This is a poem that defines the ethical and civic function of poetry. The poet overrules accepted heroic values and exemplifies the right to exercise judgment and formulate a new principle (logos); the refusal to die a pointless death is presented as a proper value for a free citizen.
In today’s Israel, on the contrary, it is conventional wisdom that items of culture, such as poems, exist for their own sake, in a sphere apart, which has nothing to do with the making of arguments, especially political statements. The political is considered vulgar and unsophisticated. Literature and culture have nothing to do with a civic ethos. It’s a culture of idiotai, in which everyone is out for himself, and all problems wind up on the back of the individual, becoming traumas of the inflated, self-involved ego. Privatized art, which deals with the lives of idiotai, becomes a branch of psychology. This has happened in the United States too. Poetry there used to be involved and activist, especially during the Vietnam War. In a few short years, after the Johnson Administration founded the National Endowment for the Arts, it became a poetry of campus writing workshops.
In Israel too, writing workshops are encouraged. They make up a thriving economic nook in art therapy, guiding people to adapt themselves. Psychology has become an ideology. All the traumas of a society characterized by military murder and exploitation are internalized, resurfacing as the problems of the isolated individual in a nationalistic mass. These problems are always private; he becomes a patient. In this way individuals receive their privatization as a gift. They are sunk in an ongoing childhood like the giants of Hesiod’s Silver Age, each of whom was “brought up at his good mother’s side a hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home.” Everything goes to the clinic. Art as psychotherapy serves an ideology in which all are individuals, without a political space (an agora): without a space where personal problems that are political by nature reach consciousness as such, finding their true solutions. Art without political space is like clay that is given to mental patients and children—because those who have no responsibility in relation to political space are slaves and children. The political belongs to the citizens, that is, to adults. Nowadays art and literature keep those who don’t want to grow up, or can’t, in kindergarten.
That strikes me, though, as a generalization. After all, the Occupation is recognized as a major issue by the entire Israeli mainstream, including establishment writers.
Shabtai: You’re referring to intellectuals and mainstream writers of the sort that a friend of mine, Nimrod Kamer, calls “the soft Left”: Amos Oz and David Grossman, for instance. In their case, I would say, the principle of co-option has applied.
The establishment adopts, co-opts them—that’s its method. They oppose the Occupation vociferously on a general plane, and this stance gives them credibility when they support the regime on every specific issue of any importance. For example, they backed the Oslo Accords, the Camp David deceit of July 2000, the measures taken against the Intifada, and the second Lebanon War. The writers of the soft Left don’t give literature a political content, rather the reverse: instead of pushing for decision or action, they sublimate the political into culture. The Occupation, in their hands, becomes the psychomachy of the beautiful, tormented Israeli soul. They have managed to make it a clich of Israeli cultural discourse. Even Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert have said they’re against the Occupation. It has been normalized. It has become a branch of culture, material for endless narcissistic self-flagellation, for films, readings, doctorates and academic careers. In this way the Occupation has been expropriated from the realm of struggle and squished into a psychotherapeutic kindergarten. We reach a point, finally, where the Occupation becomes graphomania. People are fed up with hearing about it.
For this reason no important literature has developed here since Oslo, rather only mediocre stuff that contributes to a philistine social life, recycling the “Israeli experience,” which is stuck in its fixation.
For literature does have an ethical and political task. I use the word political in the classic Greek sense. The test of literature is the extent to which it does or does not cooperate with the regime in forging a consensus. Culture is an ideological laboratory, which uses agreed narratives to create a picture of reality; it invents definitions and partitions (Jewish/Arab, for instance) that supply the individual with an identity. What distinguishes the great writers and poets is the fact that they create resistance and offer an alternative ethos. In times of emergency, such writers relate directly to the political.
Resistance belongs to the essence of life. Everyone feels the force of gravity, inertia and friction when he moves forward or acts as an individual. On the other hand, there is enormous pressure, open and concealed, to be “a good boy,” to conform.
A true poet has the courage and judgment to create resistance in the broad ethical sphere, precisely where it presses the individual to adapt to the norm. This puts pressure on his taste, on his standards, on the language he uses. But the topic of the interview is a specific situation. We’re not in Holland. Under the present barbaric conditions, which are reminiscent of those that once prevailed in Germany, Russia, France and America, writers are required to open their mouths, take a clear and moral political stance, resist.
Give me examples of some who did this, who resisted.
Shabtai: Socrates. He stood against his society, ready to die. The dominant ethical commandment in Athens was to harm your enemy and benefit your friend. Socrates doesn’t agree. He gives priority to what is right. On this basis he holds that it is better to suffer evil than do it. After the fall of the Athenian democracy, the dictators made it their practice to send citizens to arrest those they identified as opponents or whose property they wanted to confiscate. Socrates and four others got an order to bring them a man named Leon. He refused, endangering his life. He was saved only because of a change in regime. Later he was accused of blasphemy and of corrupting the young, for which he was sentenced to death. His speech at the trial, the so-called Apology, is the basic political text of Europe.
Most of the major writers were oppositionaries in one sense or other. It’s no accident that even non-radical writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire were put on trial. There are quiet periods when the opposition is not overt. But in special cases—like oppression, trampling of human rights, Fascism—writers must take their stand.
Yet in Israel, as I said before, they at once toe the line with the regime. Amos Oz, Yehoshua Sobol, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman supported the Lebanon War, in which the air force killed more than a thousand civilians, destroyed villages, destroyed neighborhoods in Beirut. Moments like that test the writer and artist. One can bring many examples of great writers, and not necessarily leftists, who refused to cooperate with their regimes.
At the height of patriotic fervor in Austria, for instance, Stefan Zweig opposed the First World War He left his country and declared his solidarity with the people of France. Thomas Mann opposed the Nazis well before Auschwitz and went into exile in 1933. After that he wrote and lectured abundantly against the powers in his country. His books were burned in Germany. His Magic Mountain describes how an entire society is transformed into a society of patients, a clinic, as in Israel today.
Can an Israeli Hebrew culture long survive in a region that is Arab, a region so completely different?
Shabtai: That is of course the main problem. The Occupation, the army and capitalism are destroying the country, both the landscape itself and the human landscape, part of which consists of the Palestinians, who are rooted here. The example for Israel should have been countries like Belgium, Switzerland, the US and Canada, states that provide a framework within which various groups can live together.
The monument that best represents Israeli culture today is the separation wall. This is wedged into the nation’s consciousness and into Hebrew literature. The wall is the fixation that the literature keeps recycling. This literature does not function as a means for creating opposition, as a means for changing life. And so there is no change in life, rather only in lifestyle.
Among the dark clouds you describe, can you see any light?
Shabtai: If the society has an instinct for self-preservation, then change will take place. There will be revolution. For look, everything today is stacked against the young. They don’t have a future. In Jerusalem, in the recent student demonstrations, the young began calling for revolution, and passers-by crossed the street to join them. That’s a sign of change. It will happen sooner or later. In this regard, Israel’s failure in the second Lebanon War is likewise an encouraging sign. It may sound odd, but the cries of defeat we hear today are preferable to the triumphant exultation of 1967. Israeli militarism is destined to fail in a society of growing exploitation and poverty.
The revolt of today is not yet political, because consciousness and solidarity are limited. A few exceptions exist—for example, the group of young poets who founded the journal Ma’ayan (Wellspring—NN). Their mode of action reminds one of radical movements in art like the Dadaists. They opposed the Lebanon War, and they show a high regard for both Arabs and Jews. But as of now, most of the young pose no threat at all to the establishment. Chauvinism and hatred for Arabs still make it possible to exploit the young and the poor.
As a writer I work in a system. Poetry is no private correspondence. It is done within a system that relates to other systems. Only in this way does poetry have a function and a place within the public domain. Within these political and cultural systems, a debate is underway, thinking is underway, and a struggle is underway for change and renewal. In the present situation, the political and cultural systems don’t function. The gears don’t mesh. Their emptiness and triviality push you out. Either you’re a good little boy who sits in the clinic with everyone else, or you become a dissident, active from the margins.