Dr. Moshe Itzhaki, an old friend, is a soft-spoken former kibbutznik, a farmer and paratrooper who began his university studies in his thirties and is today a respected professor of Hebrew literature. Moisheleh, as he is universally known, is also a poet who makes the Hebrew language sing—lyrically, boisterously, with a delicious earthy complexity that draws its wisdom from sources as diverse as the Talmud, advertising, English newscasts, and century-old poems.
On Friday I joined a former AJC colleague, Varda Rafaeli, and drove north to the town of Tivon for a public reading in honor of the publication of Moisheleh's new book of poems, Rivers Raised Their Voices. Fifty people crowded into the basement of a community center that was big enough for twenty-five, to sit on plastic chairs and hear Moisheleh's poetry read and presented in different creative ways. A musician set several of the poems to music. A painter explained how one poem inspired the painting that graces the book's cover. A professor of Hebrew literature gave a talk on Moisheleh's oeuvre. A private publisher analyzed the layers of meaning in several of the poems. Finally, Itzhaki rose to thank the speakers. "I learned new things about my poems that I had not known," he said in his characteristically self-effacing way.
Tivon is squarely in the range of the Hezbollah missiles stockpiled in Lebanon. Whether because of a certain poem, or because of the location, I found myself trying to understand the significance of holding such an assembly in the shadow of the enemy threat. I came to see the fifty friends gathered to hear poetry as a strategic asset, one rarely considered when outsiders speak about this region.
What I saw was resilience. This inadequate term is borrowed from the physical sciences, where it denotes the ability of a material to resume its original shape after being bent, compressed or stretched, to “bounce back.” Resilience is reflected in the values that sent volunteers (including AJC personnel) into the combat zone during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and then during the recent Cast Lead in Gaza, to help the local population with supplies and moral support.
There is a connection between the desire to drive a hundred kilometers to hear poetry and the courage to withstand missile bombardment, terror attacks, and wild bigotry. In the shadow of war, in the midst of the controversies over how to end the occupation, Israel remains far greater than the sum of its conflicts. Scratch the media-clouded surface of this culture and you discover a rich and textured melting pot of experiences, a well of beauty, ingenuity, and self-sacrifice.
The world offers several models of societies that flourish against the odds.
One, modern Europe, is organized for permanent peace. A European diplomat proudly—and accurately—described the EU to me as an unending "peace process, where war between the member states becomes unthinkable." Indeed, the achievement of the EU should inspire awe in any student of history. Yet one may fairly ask what the EU countries, with their minuscule defense budgets and admirably pacifist culture, would do if they faced a genuine external threat. Could they develop the military capability to respond, and would their societies bounce back resiliently in the aftermath?
At the other extreme lies North Korea, a society organized around the sole imperative of ideological war, a nation run as an ant colony, mobilized and starving.
Between the two poles of a potentially ill-prepared Europe and the world’s most unfree system lies the Israeli model of managing conflict in a free society. Perhaps it deserves more serious consideration in an age of growing transnational threats and crises. At its heart is the principle that the Israelis do not depend on others to protect them. They carry the burden of their own defense and live with its scars. This past week we had a stark reminder of the cost, with the death in a training accident of Captain Asaf Ramon, a young air-force pilot, son of the late Colonel Ilan Ramon, hero of the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and victim of the Columbia shuttle disaster. In a display of the collective support that is one of Israel's strengths, the entire country participated in the grief of the family.
At the same time, Israelis have determined that conflict will not dehumanize them, and have largely succeeded in achieving that goal. Between the wars, Israelis have built a powerhouse country by almost every parameter. Part of the secret is that so many of them drive an hour to listen to poetry. Israel's enemies, from the pre-1948 Mufti of Jerusalem through to Yasser Arafat and Hassan Nasrallah (who famously called Israel "weaker than a spider's web"), have failed to eliminate the Jewish state because their own propaganda prevented them from reckoning with the resilience of the society they attacked.
A traditional wish for Rosh Hashanah asks that “the old year expire with its curses and the New Year arrive with its blessings." When we speak of those blessings we should consider Moisheleh and his fifty guests. May all those who must face our current threats continue to read poetry together!
Shanah Tovah U-Metukah, a Sweet New Year.