Speaking Truth to Power
theology, politics and protest in Israel Celia Grace Kenny
In one sense, protest is a component part of all poetry. That is, if we understand that to pro-test is to make an emphatic and public declaration of the truth of things. Protestation found its place within ancient rhetorical techniques, exemplified by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who advocated on behalf of those who had no voice. Note that the noun, prophecy, and the verb to prophesy, are commonly used reductively to signify the art of soothsaying. This raises an interesting connection, since what the protester asserts in one age often becomes, through time, the blueprint for changes in law and policy that governments are forced to implement. In The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney quotes Wordsworth, “[Poetry is]…carried live into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony…” 1
If, however, poetry is a form of truth-telling, then central to that responsibility must be a willingness to attend to the zeitgeist, in order to respond to concrete and particular signs of life and death, pain and joy. The telling forth ought to include a refusal to abstract human life by flattening out the shape and form of specific instances, whether beautiful or ugly. Bernard O’Donoghue, approaching the question of what poetry must do, wrote that, “In the end, the answer is that poetry means something different in every generation and an important part of the poet’s duty is to find out what its meaning is for their own time.” 2 Such expression of meaning – when it is contextualized in terms of a particular historical and cultural framework – will be simultaneously literary and political. In some cases, it will also be overtly theological.
My concern is with the intersection of theology, politics and protest in Israel, focusing on the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner, an Israeli poet.
1 Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), xviii.
2 Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘Poetry’s Concern’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2015), 224.
Three marks of protest poetry
In a 1955 pamphlet, the phrase, ‘speaking truth to power’ was used to signify the will to overcome injustice through non-violence. These words, which may have originated with the Quakers in the 19th century, have now become synonomous with peaceful protest and call to mind the work of poets who choose to apply their art to draw attention to the specifics of human rights abuses and the imbalance of power. Poems, like people, are unique and open to multiple interpretations. Let me, however, suggest three elements which lend weight to the efficacy of a protest poem; three hallmarks which raise dissension to an art form.
The first mark of poetic protest is that it is one moment in a process which aims for equality, peace and justice. Political dissent, expressed through art, should not be confused with blind rage or a conscious intention to provoke violence. The technique of protest literature, whether expressed through song, prose, poetry, drama or comedy, is most effective when it employs language that is capable of expanding our ability to empathise.3 The poet protests, not simply by spitting out words to punish or accuse; but through the use of simile and metaphor that engages the reader’s sympathetic gaze. At its most effective, a protest poem will reach reserves of empathy normally exercised in the face of those closest to us. The reader is encouraged to turn a discerning eye outward from self to other, potentially narrowing the gap between attention and action.
A second mark of the protest poem is that it addresses societal dissonance. Here, dissonance refers to a type of anxiety that results from having to hold together belief and action when they do not correlate, particularly when traditional sources of authority lose their purchase. As the vision of human rights developed and expanded to include the voices that history silenced, poetry has emerged as a vehicle to convey the plight of men, women and children who are exploited and denied respect in terms of their labour, and constrained from making life choices according to personal belief. Such gross acts of disrespect, often perpetrated by majoritarian abuse of democratic freedom, translate into political powerlessness and social invisibility for members of minority groups. The poet, protesting, works to redress the balance, giving voice to
3 It is noteworthy that, during the last quarter of the 19th century, scholars of aesthetics were discussing einfülung: the process through which the observer is moved by a work of art. British psychologists translated this as empathy.
the voiceless through non-violent solidarity, relying solely on the effectiveness of judiciously chosen words.
Finally, even in the midst of an urgent vocation for justice and peace, the poet is called to distinguish her/his method from that of the politician, the lawyer, or the church leader. She/he may actually be all of these things, but the poem must distil from education, learning and personal experiences of joy or distress, a meaning that can be expressed through the power and the beauty of human language. Moreover, the choice of words and the order in which they are set down on the page must convey, even in the midst of ugliness, a trace of beauty; and in the throes of anguish, a confirmation of hope. For to make a public declaration of the truth of all things requires engagement with both.
Tuvia Ruebner: an introduction to the man.
Tuvia Ruebner was born in 1924 into a Jewish family in Slovakia. Amid the gathering threat to the safety of Jews throughout Europe, the Ruebner family plans to relocate to British controlled Palestine were halted. Tuvia joined a Socialist-Zionist youth movement and, on account of this involvement, the opportunity arose for him to emigrate to Palestine, but the papers of transit stipulated that he could not return to Slovakia. He was never to see his parents and young sister again.4 Settling in to a new life in the Jezreel valley, Tuebner took what work he could as a shepherd and in the kitchens of local communes, while studying Hebrew and the Bible. Years later, he learned that his parents and sister had been deported and died in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Ruebner is a poet and editor in the field of aesthetics, a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature and the Academy of Science and Literature. He has been awarded many literary and cultural honours, including the Anne Frank Prize. Presently, he lives in Kibbutz Merhavia.5 The focus of this essay is Ruebner’s role in expressing dissent, through poetry, at the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the
4 For a fuller account of Ruebner’s background, see Ruth Padel & Sigrid Rausing, eds, In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights (London: Human Rights Consortium, 2013), 176.
5 This information is taken from Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Black, eds, With An Iron Pen (New York: State of New York University Press, 2009).
construction of security walls. Ruebner is one of a number of Israeli artists whose distinction is that their protest literature cuts across the traditional role of the Jewish poetic / prophetic voice which, since biblical times, has been raised to strengthen the hope of nationhood and the connection between land and Jewish identity.
Present violence in the region has unfolded over four decades which have been marked by the failure to negotiate peacefully. It is only in recent years, however, that Israeli poets have acknowledged that the occupation and its attendant humiliation of the Palestinian people represent crimes against humanity. In an allusion to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, Israeli occupation has been likened to ‘the sin of Judah’, which can be interpreted as the failure of a people who believe that they are chosen by God to extend this blessedness through charity and peaceful relationships.6
The poems referred to here were originally written in Hebrew, and record Ruebner’s refusal to accept mainstream Israeli rationalization of a violent, expansionist foreign policy. “This is not what we wanted, no no, not this / Without them who are we and for what? / We didn’t want this, no, not this, we didn’t think it would be like this: / how the land just devours and devours.”7 Interestingly, Ruebner continued to write in German for over a decade after his arrival in Palestine/Israel. A combination of personal and political reasons might account for this.8 German is the tongue in which his family memories were formed, as it is also the language of poets such as Rilke, who have influenced his literary imagination. The political reasons for a decade of resistance to write in Hebrew might be inferred from Ruebner’s own words when, claiming that he was no ideologue, said, “Ideology demands loyalty from its followers and I am capable of being loyal only to people.”9 The ideology in question is a type of Israeli nationalism in which the historical events of the Holocaust are invoked to justify the abuse of human rights and continuing oppression of the Palestinian people. The dissension of Ruebner thus cuts deeply into ideologies of nationhood, statehood, and the emotionalism which is whipped up by the use of the terms homeland and belonging.
6 See Jeremiah 17:1 and commentaries which trace the prophet’s understanding of sin back to the laws in Deuteronomy.
7 “This is Not What We Wanted”, in With An Iron Pen, 2009, 43.
8 Ruebner writes of his relationship with the Hebrew language in Hebrew, My Love, where he says that, after a slow beginning, Hebrew “burst forth from his throat”. In The Illuminated Dark (2014), 279.
9 Tuvia Ruebner, in an interview Dalia Karpel in Haaretz, July 29th, 2009.
As with the scriptural allusions in Shelley, when they are re-worked in political
poetry, their sense does not depend on a knowledge of the Bible or a belief in its ‘truth’. They are
employed as powerful tropes which have passed into the collective consciousness of particular peoples.
At the outset, I described Ruebner as one who inhabits the role of the poet / prophet who sets out to make a public declaration of the truth of things by reworking fragments of his own literary and religious history. His work can be interpreted as a re-weaving; an in-gathering of the broken strands of a philosophy of God and a theology of the land which sustained his Jewish forebears, but now tramples on the human rights of Palestinians, and closes the mouths of Israelis who want to construct a new hermeneutic of religious history. In the final part of this essay, my aim is to show that Ruebner speaks with a prophetic voice that bridges the sacred and secular strands in the contemporary political context of Palestine / Israel. I will apply the three marks of protest poetry which I have already outlined, grounding each one in one of Ruebner’s poems.
I don’t begin
my poem begins
something lifting from the heavy sand, fluttering.
And it’s already there three years to forty
years above me the same skies, in me
the same desert, before my eyes
the pepper tree from time to time changing silently and the moon that rises in my veins
and the birds
in the hidden nest of your hair
For the first time
I said again
For you? For me? For whom? These words which begin
10 Tuvia Ruebner, “Awakening”, In the Illuminated Dark (2014), 55.
There is no rage here, no anger in the face of war and devastation. In The Awakening, Ruebner places his personal loss in the wide-open context of nature and history. Forty years of occupation and violence are contrasted with the timelessness of the sky, the desert sands, the slow growth of the pepper tree, and the moon – a peaceful satellite that casts its light without distinguishing the enemy from the friend. The last stanza unites everyone who has ever been touched by the fate of Israel as Ruebner leaves us with the thought that words – whether they are the words of love or of hatred – affect anyone who hears them. This last line returns the reader to the first line, and the idea that poetry is capable of enunciating new beginnings, both in the poet, himself, and in the world that listens for change.
Old King David 11
My eyes have seen too much.
Too many nations have overwhelmed my spirit.
Through the warp and weft of destinies I am woven.
Fumbling, my unquiet hands
which once knew the sword’s slaughter, the strings’ quivering – mumble now in the silent darkness.
I am freezing cold. To the depths of my soul
I am frozen. Will I raise myself once more
toward the light warm and breathing body
of the Shunamit so it may keep my death at bay
one more night drenched ith the spirit of the dead?
The moon floats in the midst of its slumber
And in my head resting
on her living hair will beat
again the blood of words which
were once long ago sweet psalms to me.
11 Ruebner, “Old King David”, In The Illuminated Dark (2014), 31.
Old King David can be intepreted both as a lament and a protest. Ruebner sees himself as part of a tapestry, pulled in many directions by the warp and weft of Jewish history and circumstance. His religious and cultural inheritance are represented by David, whose kingship is acknowledged by Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and with Shunamit, a female biblical figure who refused to submit to bitterness, but held fast to her faith in the face of the loss of what she valued most. Ruebner’s protest comes out most clearly, perhaps, in the last two lines, where he asserts the dissonant fit between the psalms as they were and as they are now. The poetry in the psalms once represented the pilgrim voice of faith in a compassionate creator. To Ruebner, their sweetness is now overlaid by triumphalism, blood-letting, and a disregard for the humanity of the other. The poem, therefore, speaks of a dissonant fit between old religion and new politics.
Conclusion: traces of beauty and hope
I exist in order to say
These are the crossbeams and chronicles of my parents, coal, ash, wind
of my sister in my hair blowing
back and back, a nightwind 12
Ruebner, the poet, “exists in order to say.” What he has to say takes us to the edge of language, and the context into which he speaks is the opposite of peace, as it is marked by the absence of justice. In Ruebner’s own religious tradition, shalom to signifies a condition that is not simply the absence of war and violence. Shalom is an expression of the hope that each living thing will develop, in the manner of a healthy seed, into the best example of what it was created to be. To follow the concept and the practice of shalom, therefore, is to take up the mantle of responsibility for re- balancing the scales of justice, by deed or by word.
At the outset, I claimed that the calling of the poet is to make an emphatic and public declaration of the truth of things. History is teaching us, however, that truth is infinitely divisible. It splits into a million faces, and can be heard through a million
12 Excerpt from “Testimony”, In The Illumated Darkness (2014), 3.
narratives of life and death, of goodness and evil. A theology of diversity has therefore become a pressing contemporary concern. We do well to turn to the poet for inspiration in this regard for, as Heaney put it,
Governments and revolutionaries would compel society to take on the shape of their imagining, whereas poets are typically more concerned to conjure with their own and their readers’ sense of what is possible or desirable, or, indeed, imaginable. 13
Heaney, Seamus. The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1996).
Lorde, Audrey, Sister Outsider: essays and speeches (Crossing Press, Kindle edition,
O’Donoghue, Bernard. ‘Poetry’s Concern’, in Strong Words: Modern Poets on
Modern Poetry (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2015).
Nitzan, Tal and Rachel Tzvia Black, eds, With An Iron Pen (New York: State of New
York University Press, 2009).
Padel, Ruth & Sigrid Rausing, eds, In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights (London: Human Rights Consortium, 2013).
13 Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 1.