West Bank Blues

By Aryeh Tepper
Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Few groups are as demonized in public discourse as "the Jewish settlers" of the West Bank. As if they were a Jewish branch of al-Qaeda, the settlers are portrayed as gun-toting, racist, messianic, fundamentalist (and bearded) fanatics. To listen to the pundits, these international outlaws are single-handedly preventing the achievement of a utopian peace in the Middle East.

If the political assumptions built into this portrait are debatable—to say the least—what is  not debatable, as an hour's visit to the area would abundantly confirm, is that the image itself is a gross caricature of reality. (Full disclosure: until very recently I lived for five years in a Jewish settlement.)

The Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, to use the original Hebrew names for the West Bank territories, are far from a monolithic gang. There are secular settlers and there are religious settlers. There are even West Bank rabbis who support a Palestinian state—in the West Bank itself! Some religious settlers are messianic; most are decidedly not. Native-born Israeli inhabitants rub shoulders with Jews from practically every other place imaginable: India, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, France, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and more.  There are settler bus-drivers, cab drivers, academics, soldiers, lawyers, cooks, doctors, gardeners, and teachers.  And, as David C. Jacobson demonstrates in a new book, there are even settler poets.

Jacobson is a scholar of modern Hebrew literature who is particularly interested in the relationship of that literature to the Jewish tradition. In a previous volume, Creator, Are You Listening? Israeli Poets on God and Prayer, he examined how Israeli writers born between 1914 and 1957 treated religious themes. As he writes in the introduction to his new book, Beyond Political Messianism: The Poetry of Second Generation Religious Zionist Settlers, it was while researching how younger Israeli writers approached these same themes that he stumbled upon "a culturally coherent group of poets . . . associated with the settlement of the territories occupied by Israel during the Six-Day war." Most of these poets cluster around a religious-Zionist literary journal, Mashiv Haruah, founded in 1994.

Jacobson places his own political loyalties on the table early on, acknowledging that his dovish leanings initially formed "a barrier" (his term) between him and his subjects. In the book itself, however, he does an admirable job of setting aside his views and letting the poets speak for themselves, both through their verse and through essays and interviews.

As for the poetry, one must stipulate that it is very much a mixed bag. At their best, the Mashiv Haruah poets put the vitality of the Jewish tradition to good use in exploring their present-day spiritual and physical concerns. Thus, in "Pieces of the Bus," Eliaz Cohen, an editor of Mashiv Haruah and a peace activist and sometime social worker, links God's covenant with Abraham "between the parts" (Genesis 15) with the scorched remains of a bus blown up by Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada. The divine promise that Abraham's descendants will one day become too numerous to count is turned to obscenely ironic effect as Cohen, evoking the "smoking oven and flaming torch" of the original covenant, comments bitingly that thanks to "excessive / affliction and wrath," Abraham's seed can hardly be deemed numerous today, the mighty patriarch himself having been reduced to "an old man forgetting his glasses / (placed on his chest or on his forehead)."

Too often, though, instead of channeling the power of traditional sources, the Mashiv Haruah poets are too distracted by the seemingly obsessive need to turn them to their own purposes of societal and personal navel-gazing to write effective verse. Indeed, if anything characterizes these poets as a collective, it's the conscious need to break free of the educational and ideological frameworks that, for a generation, have defined the national-religious community in Israel. That's fine as far as it goes, but looking over one's shoulder has a notoriously deadening influence on good writing, and the work of the Mashiv Haruah poets, constantly preoccupied with its relation to its sources and its target audience, suffers commensurately.

For an instructive contrast with the work of these poets, one might look and listen to the ancient-modern brand of soul music written and performed by their contemporary Ravid Kahlani. He, too, was raised as a second-generation settler, but his Yemen Blues—an eclectic blend of blues, jazz, and Yemenite-Jewish music that's often sung in a Yemenite-Jewish-Arabic dialect—springs free of any concern about how this music is or might be received back home.

Beyond Political Messiansim is intended as both "a study in cultural history and a poetry anthology." As the former, the book is regrettably thin when it comes to the literary sources and cultural dynamics at play in religious-Zionist society. It is much more successful as an anthology, opening a window onto a little-known but spiritually restless world that has only begun to find its voice, constricted as that voice is by the limitations of its own achievement.  

Where Jacobson shines, however, is in giving us a kind of unintentional sociological study that succeeds in illuminating a number of the tensions animating religious-Zionist circles in general and second-generation settlers in particular. Of special interest here is the question of the role that originality and innovation can or should play in Jewish life. In this context, Jacobson mentions that poets challenging the rabbinic establishment have turned for inspiration and direction to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

It is true enough that Kook (1865-1935) encouraged the renaissance of Hebrew literature in Jewish Palestine. But for him, the Jewish people were not, at bottom, the people of the book so much as the people of the prophetic soul. If the Mashiv Haruah poets are ever to produce a literature coursing with life, they will have to put aside their books, say good-bye to their friends, and emerge on their own.

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