For Sharon, poetry makes policy

Uri Zvi Greenberg's poetry has emerged as a cultural touchstone of the Israeli right.

Hours before meeting with US special envoy Anthony Zinni last Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sprinted up to the stage of the Jerusalem Theater to thunderous applause. He thanked the audience, taking special care to acknowledge the soldiers in the house. Then, bending over a podium, he began reading in a booming voice. Soon Mr. Sharon was totally immersed in "Song of the Great Mind," by the late Jewish ultranationalist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.

As the prime minister read, he raised his voice to stress a line that condemned the small-minded and fearful. He emerged from the work after a few minutes and shared reminiscences about Mr. Greenberg, who died in 1981, in a warm and friendly voice.

"I have to apologize," Sharon said. "Unfortunately, I have a long night ahead and I have to go. I would prefer being here."

Greenberg, who advocated Jewish control of the area from the Nile to the Euphrates, has long been recognized as a leading poetic voice by academics. Scholars of his work cite his powerful expressionism and linguistic innovations. He is also considered to have written brilliant lyric poetry. But amid Israel's confrontation with the Palestinians, and the heavy casualties and psychological toll it is taking, Greenberg is now being publically presented as the poet of the hour by, among others, Sharon, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, and the hawkish army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. The celebration of an ultranationalist writer is viewed as a way of boosting morale by the Israeli right. And it offers a window into the goals – and possibly dreams – of the country's leadership.

"These are exactly the issues of today," Sharon told the crowd after reading the opening verses of the poem, published in 1947. Hebrew literature specialists say the verses Sharon chose glorify an expansionist Israel, including what is today Jordan (the mountains of Moab).

"The poem is saying keep dreaming of your historic destiny, do not compromise for small dreams, have a long breath," says Avner Holtzman, director of the Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University. "It will take time, but [control over all the territory] will come."

For proponents of Greenberg's viewpoint, "Song of the Great Mind" and other poems translate today into a call to keep fighting in what the Israeli right views as the battle for Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel), including the land it terms Judea and Samaria and the settlements there.

"His poems provide encouragement, they speak of the strength and power of this nation, they give it power to believe in itself and they say that it is worthwhile to suffer for the goals of the Jewish people," says Geula Cohen, director of the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage Society and a former member of Knesset.

Greenberg, born in 1894, grew up in Poland, and immigrated to Palestine in 1924. Influenced by a massacre by Palestinians of the Jewish community in Hebron in 1929, he joined the nationalist Zionist Revisionist Party, which advocated a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. During the late 1930s he warned in his poems of imminent danger to European Jewry, and Cohen says that Greenberg's writing was seen as inspirational by members of the ultra-nationalist Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lehi militant movements.

After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Greenberg served in the Knesset for two years, representing the nationalist Herut party. According to Cohen, for years he and his poetry were boycotted by the Labor party establishment that governed Israel. Holtzman, however, says Greenberg was always respected as a poet even though he was known as "a very extreme political figure."

The poetry evening was sponsored by the army's popular radio station Galei Zahal. At a Greenberg event in August, Mr. Mofaz read out his poetry to hundreds of soldiers at the Jewish settlement in Silwan. Cohen says that Ehud Barak also read out Greenberg poems when he was prime minister.

Greenberg's poetry rates achieving Jewish destiny as more important than the lives of individuals, Holtzman says. This, he adds, contrasts with the humanistic poetry of Yehuda Amichai, a laureate who died last year. Amichai read a poem about the longing for peace when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. "Greenberg believes in cruel Zionism, that it does not matter what the other side will pay as long as we get what we need," says Holtzman. "He does not see the other side. In the poem the 'Great Mind,' he does not see Arabs, and does not see that maybe they have rights. He is not interested in them at all."

Greenberg's poems divide the world into two, Jew and non-Jew, Holtzman says.

"He wrote explicitly that Jews are superior. He could not stand seeing the mosque on the Temple Mount [in Jerusalem]. He thought it should be demolished and a Jewish temple be rebuilt there."

Holtzman, who considers Greenberg "a great poet with poetic values," warns that the use of his poetry by politicians, without providing poetic context and other voices, is "dangerous."

"It strengthens unhealthy ultranationalist feelings and can create a very negative mood towards the other, toward the Arabs," he says.

Excerpt from 'Song of the Great Mind'

That mind – the small one – is soft, like a pullet;
it is afraid of space and it loathes the dimensions of the sea;
it is a forest firefly at night,
a tavern's splinter of light in the meadow-night
to the eyes of the carter
as sluggishly through the dust he drives
horse and cart, and yawns.
Such is that mind – the small, the poor one – that serves the peddlar on his daily rounds;
and that twistedly scorns visions of glory.
It goes through our streets near the low roofs,
licking the moss of days, drinking from drainpipes,
seeing in every cur a kind of wolf or tiger.

That mind – the great one, the one winged with light,
the supreme ruler, the high king –
(from the time the people inhabited their lands and waters,
and the king from his throne
beheld the mountains of Moab)
is not here. It sits in its nest forgotten,
but it lives. I sing to my people: Remember the eagle!
Bid it come, and it will come,
to show you
the place of passage that leads from here, the swamp of dream...
to the meaning.

– Uri Zvi Greenberg

English translation by Robert Friend

Copyright by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature and Israel Universities Press, Jerusalem, 1966

Original Hebrew copyright by Aliza Greenberg

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