PART 1: LET ME START FROM THE BEGINNING
We were the first to commit these acts.—David Ben-Gurion
Let me start from the beginning:
Each one of us is responsible for our own actions,
not our parents no matter how abusive or evil,
not our teachers who may have bullied and insulted,
not our peers who showed us a code of behavior we knew to be wrong.
I was following orders is not an excuse.
I will tell you my story:
Around the time Jews had already settled in Palestine (and many other places), perhaps near the time of the grand Roman census or centuries later, a man was about to be put to death. The rabbi who was also the executioner asked if he had any last words. He nodded his head toward the sea of onlookers. I’d like to whisper something to my mother, he said. She’s out there in the second row. His mother was escorted to the platform and bent her ear to hear what her son had to say. He bit it off. The rabbi aghast looked first to the mother holding her hand to her head to stop the flow of blood and then to her son who spit out the ear and calmly rubbed it into the wooden platform. Why did you do that? The rabbi almost screamed. Calmly the man answered, Since I was a small child, my mother taught me only to do evil. This is why I am here today. The rabbi ran his fingers through his beard. No, he said, that’s not why. In your life journey, you met many honest and good people and you—not because of your mother—chose to ignore what they had to offer. Then the rabbi pulled the lever and the man went to his death.
MY PERIOD OF DESPERATION (DEGRADATION)
I thought we better than this,
the Holocaust wet paint over fresh plaster,
the bloody fluids cleansed, debris and bone raked away.
Then I read a passage in Carolyn Forche’s book,
Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, and everything I knew,
believed I knew, believed in, believed about me,
my people’s history, scattered like the flight of pigeons before a hawk.
You try to ignore it, but a scab does not form nor a scar,
just an everyday breaking of flesh, a reopening of wounds.
There are not enough stitches in the world to keep all of it intact—
so you give in (I gave in) and the pursuit to truth begins:
I am human first, Judaism my religion—
not my ethnicity, my skin color, my nationality.
I never saw myself a Zionist, but I was proud of Israel,
her history my history, a piece of my identity,
a rendering of facts, the rule of Torah.
You sleep and when you wake, there is power to a myth.
To the victor goes the writing of history,
the rewriting, even a creation of fiction.
1948: The famous Israeli War of Independence
and truths associated with it covered up.
What did happen to the Palestinian people?
The indigenous people? How did their villages vanish?
Were they destroyed in fire and bomb or simply
stolen from them and made a gift to someone else?
There are always “ifs” in a rendering of history
and many sides to the same tale, even the same fiction.
The atrocities of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict—
The Nakba—have been documented, photographed,
displayed and archived—and still
the great myth of Israel’s beginnings persist--
A POEM TO AHARON ZISLING
It has been said that there were cases of rape in Ramile. I could forgive acts of rape, but I won’t forgive other deeds, which appear to me to be much graver. When a town is entered and rings are forcibly removed from fingers and jewelry from necks—this is a much graver matter. —Aharon Zisling, Agricultural Minister to the Israeli Cabinet, July 21, 1948
To begin with, utensils and furniture, and in the end, bodies of men, women and children.
What is worse, Aharon Zisling,
the looting of a town or a forced march into dust,
the heat and the weight of what is owned
a double burden, and then the third,
grandfather down, grandmother unable to continue,
the substance of child so heavy
the sand, the birds, all of the maggots
home? What can you do, Aharon Zisling,
you who rant against Pogroms,
you who believe the Exile of Israel,
you who spoke against criminal and thief?
I thought we better than this,
Aharon Zisling, not even enough saliva left
to bathe the stone in the mouth of those too weak
to go on. The heat, lack of shade, scream of guns.
I thought we better than this, Aharon Zisling.
This one here, she is fourteen,
her legs not strong to go on,
and this one, almost ninety,
no one strong enough to carry either one,
Aharon Zisling, you who condone rape,
you who condone murder,
you who condone the breaking of the tablets.
HULE, LEBANON: AUTUMN 1948
When I returned to the village the following morning with an order to send the villagers away (the villagers had surrendered a day earlier and begged to be able to remain in their homes), I found out that while I was away, two of the troop’s officers had killed all of the captives who were in the house (the men of Hule were detained in a large house) with a sub-machine gun, and then had blown up the house on top of them to be their grave.—Dov Yirmiya
There is a reward for murder,
for the surprise burst of everything into hearts and souls of men,
a prize of value for the seeking of revenge.
At the falling of the dead, men saw wings of glory,
and others fresh picked olives,
cinnamon and curry. Murder is blood,
the thick paste of smoke, a litter of limbs.
The murderers walked away, Aharon Zisling.
I thought we better than this.
I hold the key to my home, Aharon Zisling,
safe in a pocket.
When they forced me from home,
I kept it.
When they searched me, Aharon Zisling,
they did not find it.
Yes, someone else lives in my house,
strangers who do not welcome me,
strangers who never met me,
strangers who carry with them the myth of ownership,
the house I built with my hands,
cool in the heart of day,
warm as woman’s breath in the night.
I have memories,
but I am now old, Aharon Zisling,
and all I have to pass on
is this key, my key,
to the lock of my home
stolen from me.
The last gash of light
came with the ratchet of a single gunshot
and the baby’s head broke to the side.
Before her mother could react,
a second bullet tore away her cry.
Mother and infant, a chair,
the sigh of blood against wallboard and glass,
a disarray of flesh and matter.
Because it had been ordered, Aharon Zisling,
no one was punished.
The man in the uniform came into this world with one purpose:
to cause pain.
The infant also had one purpose:
to know its consequence.
Soldier and infant complimented one another—
murderer and the one to be murdered.
But what was the mother’s purpose in this transaction?
She made the introductions.
There are people visiting this world who came here to die.
These are the angels of our lives.
THE WHITE FLAG
The white flag is not colored red for a purpose
nor is the red cross of the Red Cross two black lines
or the rip of bone near the heart an explosion of halos and wings.
The lemon ice on the waffle cone fell to the cobblestones
joining the pools of blood and debris, and one white flag
no longer white, but speckled now—no, splotched—
like a nose bleed on a clean white shirt, on a pair of new shorts.
In this field we played
moving small pebbles into shallow holes
one piece, two, three at a time
across what is now blood mud, Aharon Zisling,
the last memory of my mother.
BONE FRAGMENTS FOUND BY THE PLUMBER YEARS LATER
The flesh and wood effect,
a lack of bone—
roof and walls,
a Jericho revisited.
A home stolen
is a home stolen
and a ring from a finger
still attached to a hand
is a ring stolen.
Perhaps there is a difference,
when the house has been vacated,
when the finger is no longer
attached to a hand,
when the rapist is of your army
and the girl not one of your own.
PART 2: HOW THE WESTERN WALL BECAME THE WAILING WALL (Keep reading if you can, Aharon Zisling)
How do you question
one so young sobbing against brick
and mortar, blood licking
their skin, the scent of gunpowder
and bone fragments in the dust
on their hands and faces.
Have you ever looked in the eye
of the dead who go on living?
So let me create a refrain:
They dumped the children
before the western wall
and that is how it got its name.
Slip a piece of paper
in the wall for me
for each of the children.
THE SOUND OF FEAR LATE IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR
We talk about everything I don't want to talk about, and that is enough.
Quiet sings from beyond widowed walls
and earth does expose children gone to pieces.
It's just that machine-guns really are that loud
and there really is intrinsic value to pain.
My daughter asks if blood washes vegetation,
if words can come from soil when it rains.
I'm afraid I do not know if I will ever understand the answer.
WHEN YOU DIE, CAN YOU STILL SEE THE MOON?
You told me graveyards are that loud
and you were right. Noise skittles over crab grass
and dandelion greens, over locust stone and devil’s claw
thick with spikes and wooden lures bloody for light.
Passageways of water flow beneath them,
and the voices flow with them gray and waterproof,
overcast and significantly silent. We are a people
of mourners. Hire us. We cry on cue.
like vultures at the edge of the Sinai frontier,
like elephants leaving their path to caress
the bones of a sister. We can scream like war planes,
rend our clothing into scars, draw tattoos of death
exactly as a battle begins. Remember it was us
who fire bombed the cafes of Jaffa
and it was us who people bombed
the villages near Jerusalem.
We are one hundred sixty pounds of manure,
blood, gravel, fog–not enough
to cover all of the newly dead, but enough
to ensure there will never be silence in the graveyard.
Time is not of essence here
emptying body bags near the ocean.
sand heavy with waste,
mud and water feeling for bone.
There is quiet now,
the quiet of sunset,
the quiet of sunrise,
the quiet of dance-
dance without sound.
Fog covers holes gaping at stars,
settles the last of the rot in the jungle,
forces emergency planes away.
There is one image I will never let go:
the man builds a casket
for his shattered wife
and holds her as if
he is slow dancing with her
one last waltz.
Because an Israeli squad threw a bomb into a crowd of laborers waiting for a bus, Arab workers inside a refinery murdered Jewish workers. Because Arab workers inside the refinery murdered Jewish workers, Israeli officials ordered the attack on a nearby village with the order to kill as many men as possible. Because the Israelis did not know all of the Arab attackers in the refinery assault, they ordered five men at random—or were there more?—from their homes to be executed..
Because the British handed a group of soldiers over to angry villagers, a train transporting British troops was bombed.
Because two Israeli soldiers were found decapitated, fifty unarmed men were machine-gunned to their death.
Because Bernadotte on a United Nations mission wanted peace, he was assassinated by Israeli terrorists.
Because Arabs attacked Jews, Jewish extremists threw bombs into Arab crowds.
Because of perceived threats, women and children died.
Because of an attack in one area, fire bombs were thrown into another.
Because of the King David Hotel.
Because of a shooting on a bus.
Because of a thrown rock.
Because of a curse.
Because of a shaking of a fist.
Because of a fear.
The Christian village of Biram.
One hundred villages.
Four hundred fifty.
A mother and her baby.
Terrorism begets terrorism.
We were the first, said Ben-Gurion, the leader of new Israel. The Jews were the first.
Terrorists beget terrorists.
Tit for tat.
Today’s terrorist learned everything from the best, their Israeli mentors.
TOO MANY BULLETS
Too many bullets, Deir Yasin, have nothing to do with a broken guitar string,
a crack in the handle,
the snap of bone in hands no longer capable of lifting a pick.
We did not pull the triggers,
but we were there,
five thousand, ten thousand, miles away,
each piece of apathy.
The first hundred bullets the too bright sun when you step outside the theater,
the second hundred
cauliflower trees and an Antigua sky.
How do you silence a man? Three hundred bullets? Four?
Five hundred bullets tore away the chords,
Six hundred, harmony,
seven hundred, eight.
Can you break a wrist with butter?
Cross your arms over your chest to keep blemishes inside?
Seek the embryo inside the acorn?
The voice no longer carries fire,
the acoustic guitar, nine hundred bullets, crushed to the side
and the light it used to help you carry in the palm of your hands,
a thousand bullets, too dim to engage the shadows.
eleven hundred bullets, twelve and thirteen.
Then there is a wonderful silence
and a great richness in smoke.
The mind fills itself with apple slices, fourteen hundred bullets,
cinnamon and curry, fifteen hundred,
ripe pears and huckleberry juice, sixteen hundred,
and the color of leaves,
the color of wool,
the color of snow, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, dripping down to the valley.
The soldiers cannot stop themselves
glazed with blood and flesh, their hearts and eyes wide open.
Two thousand bullets.
On and on like rain.
At the Inquisition men said they saw rainbows.
The songs that once were,
the way they sang to the skin,
melodies of good health and good times,
twenty-six hundred bullets.
This is not our life.
This is not our time.
The songs no longer know lovemaking.
Passion is in blood
and blood is everywhere.
We were complicit.
I do not know if they could bury all of the dead in Safsaf.
I do not know if they did.
The soldiers were ordered to do a job and they did it.
Gunpowder and fog, thick and grand, the noise, thirty-five,
cracks in the bones, thirty-six, tears in flesh, thirty-seven,
concrete and cell blocks, thirty-eight,
the bars vibrating, thirty-nine, with the singing of gunfire.
Your heart is one, perhaps two, bullets strong.
One times two bullets can kill a man.
Inspiration is five by nine hundred bullets strong.
The military did its job and did it well.
We left it alone in our bedrooms watching late night television.
Someone else cleaned the oil cloth covering the concrete.
Someone else repaired the walls.
Someone else hummed the tune
and gave it to another who passed it on.
Forty-four hundred bullets cannot kill a spirit.
Forty-four hundred bullets,
a broken guitar,
the first steps of spring,
the smell of cooked chicken.
Five times nine hundred bullets are needed to kill all of the village of Hule.
They were one hundred short.
NOISE AND THE PHOENIX OF HOPE
You bundle your words into growls
and pitch them against the scars of others.
Aren't you the grand one able to build
bonfires and lightning storms and one time
a great tornado. It is no wonder
plagues move away from you, history
Listen to how you walk, my child,
words have nations behind them,
a cruelty that comes of guns and roses.
Listen to when you run, my child,
words are warlords, thick walls spiked into soil,
hard rock, cavities.
You hold a mustard gas strength,
a calcium storm, an ability to break breath,
but someone will end the horror, remove the fracture,
and, yes, child, let your words scamper like light
in soft drizzle, like light in translucent clouds,
like the butterfly awakening on the leaf,
the wind still, its cocoon empty,
every anger in voice someplace else.