A political poem’s ironic new life.
ON THE SLAUGHTER
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?
Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.
If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.
And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.
Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”
But sometimes they do. Quite violently.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.
As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling.
On the night of July 7, the gates opened, even as they were being closed, when the Israel Defense Forces launched what it calls for export Operation Protective Edge. (A more literal translation of the operation’s catchy Hebrew name would be Firm Cliff—with “cliff,” according to the Hebrew equivalent of the OED, evoking in its primary definition the high place in the wilderness off of which a scapegoat is cast each year on the Day of Atonement. Words, as we know, have powers often lost on those who speak them.) After ten days of intensive air strikes, IDF ground troops entered the fray, ostensibly to destroy the tunnels where weapons were being stored and from which attacks were dispatched. But also in Israel’s sights, it seems, was the newly formed Fatah-Hamas unity government and a real-world partner for peace.
As I write on Wednesday evening, July 30, the “operation,” which is looking more and more like a war, has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians—most of them civilians, and many of them children—and fifty-nine Israelis, three of whom were civilians. Some 6,500 people have been wounded on the Palestinian side, and several hundred on the Israeli, counting both combatants and civilians. Large swaths of Gaza lie in ruins. The Israeli air force has destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, knocking out the strip’s electricity and sewage. Food is spoiling; water is scarce; disease is rampant.
Several days before Israel deployed its Protective Edge, a New York Times article quoted Netanyahu quoting Bialik; a few days later, the paper’s editorial deplored the metastasizing racist rhetoric. “Even Mr. Netanyahu,” the paper wrote, “referenced an Israeli poem that reads: ‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child … ’ ” Then it carefully weighted the paragraph for the usual pantomime of equal time, noting that Israelis have long had to live with Hamas’s violent ways and put up with hateful speech from Palestinians.
Never mind that the poem intoned by Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t Israeli: it was written long before the state was founded and very far from it. “On the Slaughter” was the thirty-year-old Odessan Hayim Nahman Bialik’s immediate response to the April 1903 pogroms in the Bessarabian town of Kishinev, where some forty-nine Jews were slashed, hacked, and cudgeled to death, or drowned in outhouse feces, and hundreds were wounded over the course of several days. Women and girls were raped repeatedly. The Jewish part of town was decimated. Netanyahu quoted just two lines, carefully avoiding the one preceding them: “Cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!”
And he certainly didn’t mention the circumstances of the poem, in which a powerless Jewish community was massacred by Russian townsmen—a mad medley of ax-, pick-, knife-, and club-wielding seminarians, peasants, students, workers, thugs, and more—while the world went about its business. With the eyes of Israel upon him, the prime minister simply used (or abused) the implied comparison to fan fires that were already flaring.
* * *
Bialik was hardly a pacifist. “On the Slaughter”—the title alludes with the darkest irony to the blessing recited by Jewish ritual slaughterers before “humanely” slitting an animal’s throat, and also to Jewish martyrs in the middle ages who killed themselves before their Christian tormentors could—was, and is, a cry of despair, of hope exploding, of impotent anger in the face of base hatred and brutal injustice. And the poet would go on elsewhere to rail against Jewish passivity and to call for Jews to defend themselves, lambasting writers who retreated into aesthetics and refused to let politics sully their work.
But political poems lead strange lives, and if one didn’t know the circumstances of the composition of “On the Slaughter,” or who its author was; if one came across the poem in Arabic—in, say, its potent 1966 translation by the first star of Palestinian resistance poetry, Rashid Hussein, or (let us imagine) a YouTube reading of Hussein’s translation by a thirty-year-old poet in what’s left of the Gazan neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh—one could easily think it had been written by a Palestinian. Yesterday.
Who is being slaughtered now? Who cries out for an absent justice? Who for revenge? Where is cruelty? And where iniquity?
Political poems, good political poems, outlive the events that shape them. They turn in the wind and up on our screens. In the oddest of ways, they call from our bookshelves or a newspaper’s page. They lead strange lives. Sitting in my Jerusalem study, translating Bialik’s poem and thinking of the carnage and chaos in Gaza, as the Hebrew radio blares from the kitchen—with its mix of news, rocket alerts, and syrupy pop songs (the inevitable sound track to war in this country: “I Don’t Have Another Land,” and “Me and You, We’ll Change the World”)—I find myself feeling it’s my heart that’s dying. My hope and strength that are failing. That I’m the one asking, with that young could-be poet from Gaza, and just about all of the rest of the world: How much longer?
MacArthur fellow Peter Cole’s most recent book of poems is The Invention of Influence (2014).