Women Holding child in Gaza

A woman holding a child flees following an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 23, 2023, amid an ongoing Israeli assault on the besieged enclave.

(Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP via Getty Images)

A Letter About a Poem That Considers 'Gaza and Israel'

We are seeking wisdom to make sense of all this suffering, but this much we know: It is time for the killing in Gaza to stop.

Author's Note: For a dozen years or so I have been sending out poems, originally to my colleagues in U.S. Senate offices, with a commentary to enable people-who-do-not-read-poems to be able to read them with comprehension. Recently, I sent out a poetry letter on a poem by the late twentieth-century poet Zbigniew Herbert. To me, the poem speaks to the current situation encompassed by the terms “Gaza and Israel.” A fair number of people have told me how much they have liked the letter, many of them have sent it on to their friends, and others suggested I share it more publicly—and so it appears now at Common Dreams.

Writing this letter has been more difficult than any other I have written. I intended to address my consternation and confusion at what is going on in the Middle East, the slaughter of Israeli ‘innocents’ and the overpowering response of Israel, their slaughter of Gazan innocents. The numbers have changed since when I began, for in my original letter there were 12,000 Gazans dead, then 15,00, then 20,000, then 23,000; now it is over 35,000 and no end to the escalating destruction of the Palestinian residents of Gaza is in sight. I am not sure why I had such trouble sending it out. Although the numbers have changed, and my last paragraphs have been added, this essay is not very different from what I wrote in December 2023.

So: My first draft of this letter was written four months ago. I have thought about it every day since.

For I do not know what to think. My parents were both refugees from Hitler’s Germany, and I swore in my youth that never again should such a cataclysm – anything like the destruction of the European Jews – occur, not if I could help it. In the United States, a racism both virulent and also subterranean was destroying black lives, and earlier in my life I fought for the rights of black Americans. Both in demonstrations, and by doing what I do – teach – through teaching in black high schools and a black college. Then came the war in Vietnam. I demonstrated against, even briefly went to prison in protest against, an American destructiveness that sought to destroy Vietnamese lives.

Mass destruction is wrong. It was wrong when Hamas did it, and wrong when the Israelis retaliated by doing it in return. Naomi Klein, with extraordinarily succinct eloquence, wrote of her need to belong to “An international left rooted in values that side with the child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child.” Her essay, written early in the conflict, is remarkable; to read it, type ‘Klein Guardian Gaza’ in your browser.

How do I, as a Jewish American, respond to what is going on in the Middle East today? The grievances of the Palestinians are long-standing, and legitimate. The fragile and perilous existence of the Jewish state is also a legitimate concern.

How do I balance my deep understanding that to be Jewish is, as it always has been, to be imperiled, with my understanding that mass destruction is profoundly wrong?

I turned to Zbigniew Herbert for guidance, since to my mind he more than any other modern poet understood what it means to live in our strange, disordered modern world. And the poem I turned to was one that speaks of hurt: “—my heart aches Rebbe—I have troubles.” Herbert has no answer for me; he speaks only of troubles, and our inability to access a wisdom that has been lost since the dawn of our modern age. Post-modernity has no answers. It is of little or no consolation as we face the destructiveness that has erupted in the Middle East. All Herbert offers is a recognition that we have “heart-aches….troubles,” and that the great conflagration that was the Shoah changed everything: The old wisdom lost, how to ease our difficult consciousness calls for a wisdom that is now no longer available to us. This is a difficult message to swallow, which is why I had such difficulty writing this letter. Perhaps there are no answers, no assuaging our concerns. Perhaps living with pain and confusion is, difficult as it can be, what we have to bear…..

Mr Cogito Seeks Advice

So many books dictionaries
bloated encyclopedias
but no one to give advice

they studied the sun
the moon the stars
they lost me

my soul
refuses the solace
of knowledge

so I wander at night
on our fathers’ roads

and here
is the town of Bracław
amid black sunflowers

the place we abandoned
the place which shrieks

it is Shabbas
as always on Shabbas
a New Heaven appears

– I’m looking for you Rebbe

– He’s not here –
say the Hasidim
– he is in the world of Sheol

– he had a beautiful death
say the Hasidim
– very beautiful
as if he crossed
from one side
to the other side

he was all black
held in his hand
a flaming Torah

– I’m looking for you Rebbe
beyond what firmament
did you hide your wise ear

– my heart aches Rebbe
– I have troubles

Rabbi Nachman
might give me advice
but how do I find him
among so many ashes

In these letters, I have written more about Zbigniew Herbert than any other poet. Once again I turn to him. For, like Mr Cogito, I am lost and heart-broken, as is much of the world.

Violence has overtaken the Middle East. Violence erupted in Israel, where a barbarous attack by Hamas left over 1400 dead, many of them young people who had gathered to dance and listen to music together; along with the celebrants of music, many elderly people and children died in their residences in kibbutzim and in the land around them. In response, Israeli forces bombed Gaza, and at this moment over 35,000 [this number has increased dramatically each time I redrafted this letter] Gazan Palestinians are dead. Here too, children and the elderly are among the victims. A majority of those victims, in fact, are women and children. More violence is, alas, on the horizon.

I am not sure what to think. I have long been a critic of Israel and its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian concerns—or even the legitimacy of Palestinians. The country that Jews were ceded by the British, the colonized area known as Palestine, was not unoccupied: Palestinians lived there when Jews declared a new state, a homeland for Jews, called Israel. Never did the Israeli government acknowledge the legitimate claims of the Palestinians whose land they settled in; never did they go beyond their assertions that Jews needed a homeland, regardless of who lived there before their arrival.

In recent years, the situation has worsened. Israelis to whom Palestinians were totally invisible ‘settled’ the land—the West Bank—which Israel had claimed as part of greater Israel after the 1967 war. Each settlement, each settler, pushed aside Palestinians and so a de facto annexation of this territory proceeded. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a desperate bid to avoid prosecution for bribery by remaining in power, made alliances with the far-right in Israel, with those who wanted to expand the settlements and further oppress, silence and destroy the Palestinians in Israel. The fragile agreement to ‘share’ the Temple Mount, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, was violated by Israeli extremists.

Reprehensible, horrible. When the Israelis, with American support, pushed for mutual recognition with Saudi Arabia, neither the Israelis or the Saudis included Palestinians in the process. The Palestinians remained invisible and totally disregarded. And, of course—but this should not be parenthetical—the United States poured massive amounts of military aid into Israel.

What Israel is doing, indiscriminately carpet-bombing Gaza and killing many thousands of children and women and old people, is wrong. But another part of my brain mutters, ‘Hamas is not some ragtag military group. It is the ruling authority of Gaza.’ If a cadre of Puerto Rican functionaries [Puerto Rico being a colony of the United States] crossed the Caribbean and invaded Alabama, killing ten thousand in Birmingham, what would the ‘American’ response be? My hunch is that there would be massive support for bombing Puerto Rico and removing a government that could commit such atrocities. So the government-sanctioned attack on Israelis, is, alas, profoundly disquieting. This aspect of things has got lost in the magnitude of Israel’s destructive military attack on not just Gaza, but Gazan civilians.

I wrote earlier that I am not sure what to think. Some things I know: The Israeli disregard for the Palestinians and their claims has led to severe violations of their human rights. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right political parties has exacerbated the tensions in the region for no purpose other than to keep him from going to trial, with the result that his government aggrandized the right-wing and the right’s messianic certitudes. Yet the massacre of innocents carried out by Hamas, the taking of hostages, was wrong, perhaps even to the extent that President Biden claimed: Evil.

To my mind, there seems no resolution of current and future hostilities other than a two-state solution, which the current Israeli government seems unlikely to accept, and the leadership of Hamas—‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’—is unlikely to accept it as well. (Hamas does not accept the right of Israel to exist.) War, destruction, more war, violence, more war. A land occupied by two peoples—Palestinians and Israeli Jews—locked in internecine conflict. It appears to me that a two-state solution, reserving land for each of the two embattled parties, seems like the only resolution. Yet in realistic terms, I know it is but a pipe dream: The 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank will never leave, will never accept Palestinian sovereignty over this occupied territory. In reality, there is no place for a Palestinian state. No physical territory that Palestiniians could occupy and call their own.

At the present moment, there is much support for the Palestinians, and rightly, for they are an oppressed people. But there are other oppressed people in the world, and other oppressors. Why is Israel being singled out? Partly because massive amounts of U.S. aid have flowed to Israel. But the United States also financially supports the repressive military government of Egypt, and over decades has supported many right-wing governments in the Americas and elsewhere. Partly because oppression is oppression, and always worthy of opposition. But is it not also, partly, because Jews control Israel, and it is easier to demonstrate against Jews than against, say, Syrians or Iranians or Russians?

That is what perplexes and troubles me. Certainly, not everyone who supports the Palestinian claims to peoplehood and a land of their own is antisemitic. But that phrase, ‘From the river to the sea,’ is not innocent. I read it as a statement that Israel should no longer exist.

(Shortly after the contemporary conflict began, I was on the West Coast, visiting my son, when I encountered a demonstration at the University of Washington; one demonstrator carried a sign which said, “From the river to the sea.” I was horrified. I didn’t think, ‘This is an anti-imperialist claim that Palestinians should have a place in Palestine.’ I thought, ‘This boldly proclaims that Israel should be wiped out and Palestinians should reclaim the entire land from which they have been displaced.’ There has been much discussion of whether this phrase is aspirational or a declaration of the desire to eradicate Israel. What I can say, as a non-Zionist American Jew, is that the phrase is neither innocent nor aspirational, but a declaration of the place of Jews in the Middle East, and perhaps the world.)

Where should the Jews of Israel go? Back ‘home’ to the locus of the former Nazi regimes from which they fled? What about the half of all Israelis who emigrated from Arab countries and Iran, Turkey and central Asia? Or should they all just, unremarked, vanish from the face of the earth? That possibility is the Nazi dream, a world with no Jews. Judenrein they called it. A world free of Jews.

I’m lost, and that is why I turn to Herbert’s poem. It, too, is about being unmoored and directionless, cut off from a wisdom which could show the way forward in difficult times.

The poem begins with a celebration of the insufficiency of contemporary ‘knowledge.’ We live in an information society – “books dictionaries/bloated encyclopedias,” and of course the web with its instantaneous availability of ‘knowledge’.

So many books dictionaries
bloated encyclopedias
but no one to give advice

they studied the sun
the moon the stars
they lost me

my soul
refuses the solace
of knowledge

Even our most advanced knowledge, here represented by astrophysics—“the sun/the moon the stars”—is of no help. The speaker, Mr Cogito, is like me: He is “lost.” At the start of the poem, Mr Cogito drowns in the proliferation of knowledge which marks our era. There is no “solace” in the huge amount of information that we possess.

And so Mr Cogito walks, travels, looking for something Wallace Stevens characterized as “what will suffice.” He goes into the past, away from modernity, towards that which existed before, “on our fathers’ roads.”

so I wander at night
on our fathers’ roads

and here
is the town of Bracław
amid black sunflowers

the place we abandoned
the place which shrieks

it is Shabbas
as always on Shabbas
a New Heaven appears

Wandering at night, the speaker encounters, enters, Bracław, a small town. It is marked by an unsettling image, “black sunflowers.” Sunflowers are usually bright yellow, with dark centers: they are called ‘sunflowers’ because their bright yellow petals mirror the sun, and they traditionally follow on their stems as the sun moves across the sky. (One hears, I think, an echo of Paul Celan’s famous poem “Todesfuge,” with its “black milk of sunrise.”) The flowers, then, are death-marked.

Bracław (Bratslav in English) is in Ukraine and is renowned as the town in which a famous Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman, lived and taught in the early years of the nineteenth century. Nachman was a great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. Nachman was himself the founder of a major sect, the Breslover Hasidim. The Jews of the town lived in a “place we abandoned.” Bracław’s Jews were sent to concentration camps to be exterminated, or they were drowned in a nearby river. (During the night between December 31, 1941 and January 1, 1942 most of the almost 750 inmates of the Bracław ghetto were sent to the Pechora death camp; a few Jews were left in Bracław to carry out road construction work.)

Abandoned, dead, exterminated. Either in Bracław or in the concentration camps to which the Jewish populace of the town were sent. “Shrieks” refers to those horrible deaths.

And it is Shabbas, the Sabbath, the day on which God rested after the Creation and which is therefore dedicated to God. The world should be created anew: “as always on Shabbas/ a New Heaven appears.”

But. But. What once existed is now lost, and the speaker of the poem, an innocent stand-in for the reader, does not find what he is seeking. There is only knowledge, not wisdom. “I’m looking for you Rebbe,” he says in resignation (and with modest hope?):

– I’m looking for you Rebbe

– He’s not here –
say the Hasidim
– he is in the world of Sheol
– he had a beautiful death
say the Hasidim
– very beautiful
as if he crossed
from one side
to the other side
he was all black
held in his hand
a flaming Torah

The rabbi for whom Mr Cogito is looking, a fount of wisdom, is no longer available. He is in the place, Sheol, where the dead go. His transition from life to death was “very beautiful,” for the world was lit by his possession of the Torah –wisdom – which contrasts with the “bloated encyclopedias” with which the poem began. He took his wisdom with him, alas, and Mr Cogito has no access to it now, when he is troubled.

Then Herbert writes a passage which concludes with what to my mind are the most wondrous lines of the poem:

– I’m looking for you Rebbe

beyond what firmament
did you hide your wise ear

– my heart aches Rebbe
– I have troubles

Mr Cogito is searching not for “the solace/ of knowledge” but wisdom, that “wise ear” which could hear his deep complaint and, listening, offer sage counsel in return. The rebbe is in another firmament, having “crossed/ from one side/ to the other side” and is now hidden from the speaker. Oh, those lines: “—my heart aches Rebbe/ --I have troubles.” So we all exist today, with heartaches and troubles, and insufficient wisdom available to aid us, counsel us, salve our hurts. There is no rhetoric here, only a straightforward heartsickness and confession of “troubles.” Poems do not have to use elaborate vocabulary and ornate poetic devices to move us. Mr Cogito’s cry strikes very deeply in us, the more so for being so ‘unpoetic.’ “– my heart aches Rebbe/ – I have troubles.”

Here is how the poem ends:

Rabbi Nachman
might give me advice
but how do I find him
among so many ashes

If the speaker, Mr Cogito, had access to wisdom and insight he might get the advice he needs to go onward with his life, to find balm for his aching heart. “But”—that little word which so often indicates a contrary to what we wish were the case—Rabbi Nachman is gone. Not just into a different firmament.

This is a very large “but.” For Rabbi Nachman is not only dead, he is part of a world that was destroyed, cut off from us and from modernity by the horrible destructiveness of the Shoah. He has disappeared along with the world which was destroyed by the Shoah: It is not just his death, but the death of a whole culture that creates the chasm that Mr Cogito faces. Those “ashes” are what remains from the great destruction of the concentration camps: Men and women and children turned into corpses, the corpses incinerated into smoke and ash.

Something has been lost. I am tempted to call it innocence, since it involves an incomprehension of the destructiveness that humankind is capable of. Those “ashes” in the final line present those of us who live in ‘modernity’ with the horrible reality of what Norman Mailer once called “the mass liquidations of the state.”

‘Genocide’ is a twentieth century term. It was first used in reference to the German assault on Poland and Polish culture, though quickly it became the rubric under which we understand what my friend Raul Hilberg called “the destruction of the European Jews.”

There have been other ‘genocides’ in the historical past: In the twentieth century the Turkish assault on Armenia and Armenians is often thought to be the first example of this destructiveness in modernity. But the sheer scale and comprehensiveness—the “Final Solution”—of the Nazi attempt to kill and erase all Jews and traces of Judaism has no parallel.

So the “ashes” which are emitted from the crematoria of the concentration camps have changed us, cut us off from thinking there might be a righteous response to the mysterious horror that humans can bring upon what they see as the ‘other.’ We may try to speak of peace, of tolerance, of finding a way for humans to live with one another, but the “ashes” cover up our mouths and we are left to live in a world which places no transcendent, or even enduring, value upon human life. King Lear said of death, “Ripeness is all.” For a post-Shoah world, “Destruction is all.” Ashes, ashes, ashes.

Zbigniew Herbert faces the destruction, not only of the European Jews, but of a whole world of understanding that is now unavailable to us, to we who live in our knowledge-filled age. Wisdom is lost to us—we can no longer “find” it—in a time when only ashes remain of the world-that-once-was. And our new knowledge, that people can murderously destroy one another, has replaced it.

This not nostalgia for the past. It is a recognition, I think, of how the world has been changed, unalterably, by the massive destruction of a people: The genocide of the Jews in the concentration camps of the German empire.

Earlier, I cited Norman Mailer. I often think a line from Norman Mailer’s moderately forgotten novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?:

and the afternoon takes a turn and is different having just passed through one of those unseen locks of the day, everything is altered, no saying how.

What Mailer says, what Herbert is saying, is what Yeats said in a different context: All things “are changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.” Only for Herbert it is not beauty that is born but an inability to access wisdom. Where wisdom once was, the is now only death and destruction. Ashes.

Herbert’s poem is about our being cut off from the wisdom of the past. But we are still left with the tragedy of Israel and the Palestinians. There is violence, more than enough of it. There are deaths—1400 Israelis, now over 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza. Where does it stop? How can we cope with the tragedies? Rabbi Nachman, to our misfortune, cannot tell us. We, like Mr Cogito, are lost “—my heart aches, Rebbe/ – I have troubles,” and no answers or even advice are forthcoming.

Still, we must live in the world even if ‘wisdom’ is not forthcoming.

Naomi Klein is right: We must commit ourselves to a world where we “side with the child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child.” It is time for the killing in Gaza to stop. With massive bombings, and now the threat of famine for over half a million Gazans—a famine abetted by Israeli intransigence against any provision of food and water to civilians —the killing and suffering must stop.

There must be a ceasefire in Gaza, and an end to intransigence and destruction.

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