One of Israel's prominent poets on his belief in poetry’s power to bridge divides, why healing must precede peace politics, how the story of humanity is a tale of crime, and more

Amir Or, a prominent Israeli poet, fiction writer and essayist, has been hailed as a significant voice of a new generation in world literature. Born in Tel Aviv, he is a descendant of a renowned lineage of Rabbis. He has published 12 poetry books in Hebrew and 23 translated works across Europe, America, and Asia. His prominent works include Song of Tahira, Loot: Selected Poems, 1977-2013, Wings, Child and On the Road.

Unlike many poets and artists of our times, Amir Or believes solely in the power of poetry rather than poets serving as mouthpieces for governments or communities. His philosophy is to let the poetry speak for itself. He contends that Israel is not yet a theocratic state and argues against viewing events in Palestine as colonialism, asserting that Jews have historically been victims of colonialism and the Holocaust. He shared these views with The Federal during an interview at the International Poetry Festival in Thrissur, Kerala. Excerpts from the interview:

Amidst the ongoing conflict in West Asia, what role do you see yourself playing as a poet? Could you talk about your involvement as a national coordinator for the Poetry for Peace initiative?

Most of the people I know have been born into the conflict that we are trying to live through. They didn’t create it, nor did they choose it. That’s the reality I’ve known for as long as I can remember. So, the only thing within your control is what you can genuinely do. I could facilitate interactions between people. There’s a significant divide; people don’t truly know each other. Meeting on human terms, just you and me, not ‘us versus them,’ is key, as it’s the root of all problems. When people arrive, they bring generational traumas, from the Nakba, the Holocaust, and beyond. Once they become acquainted, translating each other’s work and collaborating becomes possible. This, I believe, is the most genuine bridge, as healing must precede peace politics.

Do you believe poetry can transcend the barriers already created by historical injustice? If yes, how?

As I mentioned, bringing people together to engage in collective activities is essential. Poets aren’t just anybody; they are the future voices of their respective societies. Many of my students from the poetry school have gone on to become renowned poets, establish cultural centres, and contribute significantly to society. Therefore, it’s crucial to unite such individuals. Our purpose isn’t to dwell on the conflict but to take small steps towards resolving it by fostering unity. We aren’t spokespersons or politicians. Instead, we focus on other meaningful actions.

While performing your poem, ‘Barbarians,’ you mentioned that your poetry serves as your politics. Could you elaborate on this? Is ‘Barbarians’ a sort of manifesto for you as an Israeli poet?

Why call it a manifesto? Well, you see, it’s relevant everywhere. I’ve received various reactions when performing it in different locations. For instance, in Turkey and Cyprus, some were deeply offended, saying, “Is that what you think of us?” In China, when I attempted to recite it in Tiananmen Square before thousands of people, authorities deemed it too subversive and prohibited its recitation.

The beauty of poetry lies in its universality. Instead of focusing on specific political events, it delves into human conditions that resonate with people across borders. Art and poetry, at their core, aim to foster dialogue. When you engage with a poem, you’re not just writing a response; your life interacts with the poem itself. Through this dialogue, you may discover insights or emotions, revealing the true essence of poetry. Ultimately, the true barbarians reside within us. Recognizing this allows us to defend ourselves against external threats posed by others.

When you write, “It was not in vain that we smashed our temples and erected new ones to their gods,” it resonates deeply with our political situation in India, particularly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent construction of a Ram temple. And then there is Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Having a barbarian inside seems to be universal, but realising it is very important. Don’t you think so?

It’s all too simple to point fingers and attribute fault to others; it will only perpetuate a never-ending cycle. But by acknowledging our own shortcomings — the ‘barbarians’ within — we gain the power to enact change. Shifting from a reactive to an active attitude, we embrace responsibility. It’s not merely about reacting but about taking charge. The more responsibility we shoulder, the greater our growth.

So, in the current scenario, would you be this vocal in Israel? Would you be asking Benjamin Netanyahu to take the responsibility of what’s happening there?

So far, no one has put me in jail for what I’ve said. I’ve expressed things even more extreme than this poem in my poetry, but I do so in a broad sense. I don’t believe people inherently desire to be bad. When someone wrongs another, they often seek to find fault in the other person to justify their actions. It becomes a vicious cycle of evading responsibility. However, by accepting responsibility, one can take action.

I’ve observed two distinct streams within the community: Israeli artists and poets, alongside Palestinian individuals holding Israeli passports. Does this dynamic create a conflict or a cultural divide within the community?

Approximately 20% of the Israeli population are Palestinians. However, there is division because most of them do not live in the same cities or study in the same educational system, unfortunately. This division is due to language differences, but I don’t believe it should be a significant barrier. In my view, we are all truly Israelis because we share the same reality. To me, Israel is a country for everyone who resides there. Many of the Palestinian-Israelis wouldn’t like to live under the Palestinian Authority as well because it’s a dictatorship. But I can understand that identification, too. Identity is also a social momentum.

I had a close Palestinian friend, an Israeli-Palestinian. Her parents gave her a Hebrew name, hoping to integrate into society. However, they faced rejection from their community for years. There was a pervasive sense of military control over the Arab population. When faced with rejection, people often seek identity elsewhere. For me, it’s different. I was born in Israel, to parents who were also born there. We spoke Hebrew. But above all, I see myself as human.

Through witnessing numerous wars, I’ve observed the psychology behind them. Fear and hate often dominate as survival mechanisms. When people are afraid, they tend to flock together, much like sheep when a wolf approaches. Individuality fades, and everyone becomes part of the flock. This situation feels regressive and dehumanising.

So, as a poet, how do you foresee the future of West Asia after October 7, 2023?

I’m a poet. I have opinions. But really, does it matter? I believe politics pales in comparison to poetry. When poets morph into mouthpieces for their governments or dabble in amateur politics, they ‘prostitute’ poetry. I hold little respect for such individuals. It’s often mediocre poets who resort to this, lacking other avenues for expression. As a poet, if you wish to comment on society or the future, write a poem. There’s ample cause for both optimism and despair. Despite this, I’ll continue pursuing my craft. After October 7, one of my first calls was to a Palestinian friend; I know the challenges they face. When people retreat into their own flocks, they lose empathy and fail to understand others’ perspectives. The ‘other’ ceases to exist for them. Our goal should be to remain human, whatever that entails.

Shouldn’t we do something to address the anxiety among the two communities?

Yes, first of all let’s break this ‘us and them’ paradigm. It doesn’t matter who constitutes ‘us’ and ‘them’ anywhere in the world. The moment this division exists, it’s inhumane and driven by primitive instincts for survival. We must evolve beyond this, even if it’s challenging. Any action taken to bridge this gap will lead to progress.

Could you share some insights about your writing style? I find your affinity for ‘metered prose’ intriguing. You have used this form in your work, such as in Song of Tahira. And what led you to explore it?

With Song of Tahira, I wanted to write an epic in poetry. But then I thought that if I wrote it exactly like a traditional epic, how could I make it relatable to modern readers in the 21st century? So, I found the middle ground, where it’s written like prose but maintains a metered structure underneath.

Tell us about your preoccupation with epics.

First of all, I taught and studied comparative religion. I’ve always been interested in myths and religions from around the world. It also comes into my poetry, of course. I think that we are here to grow, to return to the place where we are all one, where you are me, and everybody.

In India, a curious trend is emerging: mythical characters are increasingly exerting an influence on our politics. Did you notice?

But it’s everywhere. Look at how the world evolves. For instance, if you were born after the Second World War, it’s evident. It’s terrible. There was a time when humanity seemed to progress positively, but then the pendulum swung back. If you examine it, most of human history has been about oppression and massacre. This is the story of humanity; it’s a tale of crime.

Did your rich cultural heritage as a descendant of Rabbis play a role in shaping your identity as a young man?

Well, it has had very little effect because I have a strong interest in religions, but I don’t have any interest in official religions. Lenny Bruce once said, ‘many people leave religion now and come back to God’. So, religion is a power structure. I have nothing. I never practised Judaism. It’s an individual path. And all the traditions of the world are mine.

Does that have anything to do with the change of Israel from a religious country to a theocratic one?

Israel is not theocratic, at least not yet. However, there are currently religious parties in power as part of the coalition. That’s true. Nevertheless, the majority of the population is not religious.

Israel is currently facing accusations of colonising the Palestinian population, and settler colonialism is viewed as a political project. Do you believe there is validity to these claims?

The evolution of Israel was not a religious movement to start with. If there was no Holocaust, I don’t think the founding of Israel would have happened. It started before the Holocaust, but Hitler’s actions forced Jews to seek refuge elsewhere, which made it easier for Europeans to support the idea of a Jewish homeland under the British mandate. Actually, when Israel was founded, it had about 600,000 refugees, and in a few years, it had five times that number from the Arab world and Europe. So, it was like 80% refugees. But the majority of them were not religious; they didn’t come because they wanted to say, ‘Let’s go to the Holy Land.’

The idea stemmed from the belief that Jews, who should have numbered around 40 million by now, needed a refuge, especially after the Holocaust. This was not a colonial idea; nobody wanted to leave Europe or Iraq — they were forced to. When they came to Israel, they were actually under British colonial rule and were persecuted, even in Israel. The British even put people fleeing the Nazis in camps in Cyprus. It’s funny to call it colonialism because it wasn’t. If there is colonialism, it’s nowadays in the West Bank with the settlers because when people came to Israel, they bought the land. The settlers in the West Bank, however, are very much against this.

How’s your experience with the literary festivals happening in this part of the world?

Recently, we’ve seen a growing number of literary events and initiatives, which is a positive development. I recall that just a few years ago, there were very few such opportunities. This trend indicates a growing audience for literature, and I believe India should take pride in this.

What is the literary scene in Israel like?

I believe the past 10-15 years haven’t been the most favourable for culture in Israel as resources have been directed elsewhere. In comparison to earlier times when there was more significant budget allocation for cultural endeavours, it’s evident that culture is integral to understanding the identity of society.

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