In the wake of Hamas’s attack on civilians in Israel on October 7, and Israel’s response in the form of a bombing campaign against and siege of Gaza, Yale professors Peter Cole and Feisal G. Mohamed worked together to produce a joint public statement about the crisis. That statement was signed by more than ninety Yale faculty members and was published as a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 19. We asked Cole and Mohamed to reflect on their collaboration and on the events of the past three weeks. Click here to read Mohamed’s piece.
Early in the morning of October 7 I was at my desk in our Jerusalem apartment not far from what’s known as “the seam” between West and East Jerusalem when the air-raid siren began sounding. I assumed it was a test—but quickly realized that, no, it was Shabbat, and an important religious holiday. Not a time for testing, and the siren wasn’t stopping. A series of thuds and booms punched the sky: rockets being intercepted. The explosions rattled the windows and the red clay tiles of our roof. My wife scrambled out of her study, iPad in hand, and we started checking Hebrew sites for breaking news, then put on the live stream of Israel TV.
Ten days later, we’re on the Amtrak Vermonter coming back to our New Haven apartment from a talk I gave at Middlebury College. Somewhere off to the side of the heart of the talk (written last month) was an extended meditation on the four-letter Hebrew name of God as ish milhamah, a Man of War (Exodus 15’s Victory and Liberation Song of the Sea). By now we are far from the extreme violence in Gaza and southern Israel, but it’s everywhere around us—screaming from every device and screen, as the death toll mounts, the suffering increases, and the world reels with confusion over the carnage and the discourse around it. While we were still in Jerusalem, my Yale colleague Feisal Mohamed, a Milton scholar, had emailed and asked if I’d be interested in working with him to prepare a statement about the situation for circulation among the faculty. That’s not who I am, I thought to myself. I’m a poet and translator, and teacher; at heart a very private person. Yes, I said—I’ll do it: so long as we do it together. Which we did.
We had our doubts. Statements spiraled out from American campuses and organizations of every stripe. There was, at once, too much pain and too much numbness in the cultural air. At a certain point I found myself in the absurd position of suggesting to Feisal that we delete from our evolving draft a sentence calling for the United States to refrain from sending an aircraft carrier to the region. What am I doing directing aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, I asked myself—this isn’t a game of Battleship, and what do I know about such things anyway? Though there was of course a logic to cutting that line (with which Feisal agreed). I immediately thought of an aircraft carrier I did
know, from Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali’s 1973 poem “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower,” which revolves around an Arab everyman, the kind of person, Taha used to say, who suffers most when leaders take their nations into war:
In his life
he neither wrote nor read.
In his life he
didn’t cut down a single tree,
didn’t slit the throat
of a single calf.
In his life he did not speak
of the New York Times
behind its back,
his voice to a soul
except in his saying:
“Come in, please,
by God, you can’t refuse.”
his case is hopeless,
His God-given rights are a grain of salt
tossed into the sea.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
about his enemies
my client knows not a thing.
And I can assure you,
were he to encounter
the entire crew
of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,
he’d serve them eggs
fresh from the bag.
(translated from the Arabic by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi,
and Gabriel Levin)
Other questions nagged at us, especially those of equivalence and symmetry. As we were calling for a cessation of the siege and criminal bombardment of innocent civilians in Gaza, and noting the history of Israel’s brutal acts against Palestinians day by day and night by night for as long as I’ve been paying attention to such things, we were also recalling the slaughter of Jews through the ages. Most Jewish readers, including the writer of these words, can’t help but feel in their bones the long abattoirish gutters running from the Hamas massacre back to the Holocaust and through the dirges and elegies for lost Jewish communities across time. The butchering of some 1,200 people in the south of Israel was so overwhelming, so horrific and so deliberately aimed at children, women, and the elderly, that it had to be acknowledged with greater force. Here too Feisal understood. I also knew that most Jewish readers wouldn’t read on if it wasn’t. Or, worse, they would read and recoil.
But the scoreboard of suffering and blame can take us only so far, and we have to ask what is “won” in emerging “triumphant” from those contests? Just as important, what is lost? The Israeli poet Natan Zach, who died last year, has a chilling 1982 poem about the gruesomeness not only of mass murder, but of the conversation conducted around it. “On the Desire for Precision” begins:
And then there was considerable exaggeration in the counting of the corpses:
some counted a hundred, and others noted four times that much;
one said he’d seen thirty burnt women
which his friend said was mistaken, there were only eleven,
and his error was intentional and political, not random,
and while I’m at it, he said, let me state for the record as well
that among the butchered there were only eight girls—two were shot,
and there’s one still in doubt, it isn’t clear
as to whether or not she was raped, butchered, or only slit open. . . .
And so there was, that day, a monstrous debate,
and if not for the awful stench, they’d have managed
a much more accurate accounting. . . .
(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)
If not for the awful stench indeed. Literature isn’t going to solve this problem any more than the tanks will. But for centuries the poets of the cultures in question have provided perspective that the tanks can’t:
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell—
I can see your big cell!
(translated from the Arabic by Nazih Kassis)
Those fifty-year-old lines by the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim weren’t written about Gaza. But they might as well have been. “Time circles in its idiot defeat,” Delmore Schwartz lamented. And when it comes to crises like the present one, there’s perhaps no greater proof of this than the Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik’s “On the Slaughter.” The poem—riffing darkly on the Hebrew prayer recited before the ritual slaughtering of an animal—was dashed off by the thirty-year-old poet as an immediate response to the pogrom carried out in 1903 against the Jews of Kishinev (then Bessarabia, today Moldova), the toll of which pales in comparison to the latest “accounting.” Bialik’s poem surfaced in the news in 2014, at the beginning of the last Gaza war, when Benjamin Netanyahu willfully misread it as a call to avenge the blood of murdered Jews. In his Twitter/X declaration of war three weeks ago, Netanyahu did it again, both times oblivious to the fact that Palestinian poets have translated the same poem into Arabic to give voice to their own despair over Israeli attempts to crush their spirit, their culture, their people, all in an effort to make them disappear.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
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: 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.
(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole).
The Palestinian-Israeli peace activist Rula Daoud, a director of Standing Together, told The New York Times after the Hamas attack: “My liberation as a Palestinian will not come through the blood of Jewish babies.” By the same token Jewish security, liberty, and dignity will not be achieved by pulverizing Palestinian buildings, individuals, and social structures, or through the daily humiliations and brutalization inflicted on ordinary people going about their familial, commercial, cultural, and even political business. Or by generals’ and ministers’ pronouncements that Israel will perpetrate a second Nakba on the residents of Gaza. Describing Israel’s race to a moral abyss (in Gaza but not only Gaza), Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard wrote in Haaretz: “Being humane is hard work. Remaining humane in the face of inhumane cruelty is far more difficult.” In our statement circulated to the faculty, we cited Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1944 essay “The Meaning of This War,” and it bears repeating, since no one has made the stakes clearer: “The greatest task of our time,” wrote Heschel, “is to take the souls of men out of the pits.”
For now, for Bialik’s “If there’s Justice—let it come now,” from the core of the peoples’ poetry and from all who’d restore a semblance of humane being to the region—a cry against evil, and for those “rotting foundations of the earth.”