Poet against War – Aharon Shabtai: A Voice Mocking in The Wilderness

It’s summertime and this means vacation for some of us, and people will be browsing in chain bookstores for the perfect summer escapist read:  mysteries, sci-fi, biographies, anything to take our minds off of work, all that needs to be done, or the depressing state of the world. How alien this is to Kafka’s stern declaration of reading:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. [1]

Recently, I have come to know whereof Kafka speaks.  Last fall and winter, I worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the ISM office in Rafah, someone had posted a verse from Bertolt Brecht:  “In the dark times/ Will there be singing?/Yes, there will be singing/About the dark times.” There was also taped to a wall a review from the New York Times of a collection of poems, J’Accuse by the Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai. [2]  The review itself grabbed my attention: Shabtai is an Israeli humanist and classics prof at Tel Aviv University taking on the Israeli establishment and the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces).

When I returned home to St. Louis, I immediately bought the book and have carried it around as an aide-mémoire: Shabtai reminds me of so much that took place during my ten weeks in the occupied territories: checkpoints, roadblocks, detentions, gunfire on a nightly basis from the sniper towers and tanks, the daily grind of poverty and joblessness, and homes reduced to rubble courtesy of the only democracy in the Middle East.  You have to see it to believe it, friends said who’d previously gone and worked with ISM.  An old adage, to be sure, but one I came to appreciate.  Standing at a checkpoint for two ours in the early afternoon and the sun damn near drove me to mania – what if I had to face that everyday for hours? About the causes for despair in Palestine, most Americans haven’t got a clue.

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