Confronting Israel in poetry
Journalists who cover the Israel-Palestine situation understand the difficulty of finding words that don’t bring with them the burden of history and politics. Words such as “occupation,” “settlement,” “terrorist” and “separation barrier” are loaded with meaning and can obfuscate the truth as easily as they illuminate it. As the literary theorist Edward Said wrote, “The language of suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has been so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction …”
Two Los Angeles-based Israeli poets, Meital Yaniv and Morani Kornberg-Weiss, know this dilemma well. In Yaniv’s forthcoming book, “Spectrum for an Untouchable,” she writes, “I am exile / There is no voice that speaks my language.” And in Kornberg-Weiss’ book, “Dear Darwish,” she writes, “I want to write poems about Israel and Palestine but I am at loss. What language can I use?”
The two poets will read from their work Feb. 22 at The Pop-Hop, a bookstore in Highland Park. The event, called “Correspondence,” also will feature Israeli-born artist Dorit Cypis moderating a discussion on the themes of memory, trauma, Diaspora and displacement in their work.
Yaniv, a visual artist, writer and filmmaker, was born in Tel Aviv in 1984 and received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts and a BFA from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. “Spectrum for an Untouchable” addresses Israel as a person, an imagined dialogue based on real-life conversations that conveys the complex and conflicted relationship Yaniv has with her home country.
Yaniv’s mother’s parents met in the militant Zionist group Lehi, while her father’s parents survived the Holocaust in Poland and then moved to Israel. Her father lost his brother in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “So I have a lot of heroes in my family,” she said, “and I grew up in a right-wing household.”
Yaniv left the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after one year, claiming a psychological disorder under Profile 21, the code for someone deemed permanently unfit for military service. Such soldiers receive an exemption certificate instead of a discharge certificate. “It shows in your record that you didn’t serve the amount of time that you were supposed to,” she said.
She traveled the world, as young Israelis often do after they finish their military service, and saw her friends and fellow soldiers who were in combat exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I started having all these questions, and I started to see things differently, but I didn’t have language for it yet,” she said. “And I needed, in my journey, to step outside of Israel in order to see it from the perspective that I needed to.”
Even in Los Angeles, Yaniv can’t escape her past. In one of her poems, strangers who meet her at a party and learn she’s Israeli immediately ask about her army service. In another, Yaniv is in L.A. watching the news on TV while texting with her brother about three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and found dead. “I know it’s a weird feeling, the reactions on Facebook are so extreme, everyone is on a revenge rampage, eye for an eye, I hope this situation is not going to escalate,” she writes.
In a later poem, she declares her disillusionment with the official Israeli line on the Palestinian situation. “I don’t believe this myth anymore,” she writes. “It’s difficult to think about your own child as an equal to your enemy, it might even be impossible, but unless we start seeing everyone that lives in Gaza as an equal human to everyone who lives in Israel we will never solve this conflict, our skin burns the same and our hearts hurt just the same.”
Besides writing the book in Los Angeles, Yaniv also wrote it in English, partly to avoid the loaded terminology she learned as a child. She hopes Israelis read the book but doesn’t think it should be translated.
“I grew up there. I’m from there. And I couldn’t write this book in Hebrew. It had to come out of me in English. And I think it will be easier for people to read it in English and not read it in their mother tongue,” she said.
Like Yaniv, Kornberg-Weiss was born in Tel Aviv. She was raised in Tarzana from age 4 to 14, and returned to Israel to finish high school, serve in the IDF and get her undergraduate degree. She’s a poet and translator, currently working toward her doctorate in Hebrew protest poetry at the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo. Her book “Dear Darwish” was published by BlazeVOX in 2014. Modeled after poet Jack Spicer’s “After Lorca,” a series of imagined conversations with the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, it’s written as a series of letters and poems addressed to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
“He’s one of the most famous Arab poets in the world, and in Israel we are literally denied of learning about him. The former minister of education, Yossi Sarid, tried to implement two of his nonpolitical poems into the educational system, and the Israeli Knesset totally went against that,” Kornberg-Weiss said in an interview. “So this is a poet whose existence was literally denied to me.”
The book begins with the 2011 Palestinian prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive by Hamas militants for over five years. “After that happened, I tried to make sense of how one soldier could be exchanged for over a thousand lives,” Kornberg-Weiss said.
She writes in the opening poem of “Dear Darwish”: “There were images of Palestinians who had blood on their hands and then I met J.H. and he asked me if Gilad Shalit also had blood on his hands and I wonder how many Palestinians died while he was serving in a tank. I imagine a frightened young Gilad in a deafening tank following dumb orders dumbly. We all saw photos of Aziz Salha with blood on his hands but nobody thought about the blood on Gilad’s hands, myself included.”
Such provocative imagery has been received critically by many readers, Kornberg-Weiss admitted. “People have called me a traitor, have told me I should protect Israel’s good name. My role, especially in terms of my research, is to uncover the multiple layers of history that are often denied to the Israeli public. It’s not easy for many Israelis to think of their history in terms of colonial discord, in terms of military occupation. And so once those terms enter the discourse, people respond in a negative way.”
Like Yaniv, Kornberg-Weiss said it’s only possible for her to write about Israel and Palestine from a distance. “I honestly felt like I was forced to wear blindfolds in Israel, and coming to the U.S. kind of slowly loosened the seams of the blindfold and allowed me to learn more about my own history,” she said.