In January, two elderly contemporaries died whose paths never crossed but who nevertheless inhabited the same inherited history, an inheritance to which they responded in instructively contrasting ways.
Ariel Sharon (b. Ariel Scheinermann, 1928 in Kfar Malul, d. 2014, Tel HaShomer), Israeli general and politician, was lionized by some but excoriated by many more for raining down fire and destruction upon the Palestinian people and upon the urban and rural areas of neighboring Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.
Juan Gelman (b. 1930 Buenos Aires, d. 2014, Mexico City), Argentinean poet and journalist, was persecuted by his country’s military dictatorship for his progressive politics and was admired the world over as much for his dignity and probity as for his poignantly beautiful poetry.
Sharon and Gelman grew up at opposite ends of the Earth, but as the children of immigrant Russian-speaking Jews to Palestine and Argentina respectively, both of them were inheritors of the manifold tragedies of the pogroms and the ghetto.
Sharon sought to shake off the pain and humiliation of that past by building a militaristic ethnocracy atop the ruins of a conquered and demonized society. In contrast, as an Argentinean and as a Jew, Gelman transmuted that same legacy of suffering into a universalist struggle for decency and justice.
In pursuit of his overarching goal of crushing a people whom he could only conceive of as an implacable enemy, Sharon availed himself of tanks and gunships, commando raids and airstrikes, bulldozers and bullets. His frequent provocations, incursions, and invasions left entire landscapes in flames and legions of families bereaved and displaced.
Gelman’s 20 year old son Marcelo and 21 year old and pregnant daughter-in-law Claudia were torn away from life by the forces that plunged his country into a waking nightmare of cruelty and suffering. In the public sphere, Gelman’s response to that orchestrated chaos and pain was to insist–as father, grandfather, journalist, and citizen–on the imperative of bringing to justice the criminals who tortured, murdered, and disappeared his loved ones and the loved ones of many thousands of his co-nationals.
In the more private realm of his poetry, Gelman probed every corner of his grieving soul and of his country’s militarized streets and shattered homes. (1) From multiple places of exile (Rome, Madrid, Calella de la Costa, Paris, Geneva, Zurich, and finally, Mexico City), his poems gave tenacious voice not just to his almost unspeakable personal grief but also to the wellsprings of unsuspected resilience that he found deep within himself, within poetic and prophetic voices from the past–including those of medieval Islam and of Al-Andalus’s Hebrew-language poets (2)–and within the ever-widening circles of commitment and solidarity he shared with fellow writers and activists in many places.
Gelman occupies the sort of place in the realm of Spanish-language letters and Latin American counter-hegemonic politics that Mahmoud Darwish–“The Voice of Palestine”–enjoys in the Arabic-speaking world, and he does so for analogous reasons. Both poets cultivated a strikingly original oeuvre that appealed equally to poetry purists and to people on the street, sometimes directly from the page, sometimes via the medium of musicians who adapted their verse to song. Moreover, both men articulated through their verse the progressive aspirations of their peoples, for emancipation and independence in the case of the Palestinians, and for democratization and the fulfillment of their country’s promise in the case of the Argentinians.
But poetry was only one forum through which Gelman engaged the public sphere. In his capacity as a regular contributor to Argentina’s leftwing daily, Página 12, he frequently wrote about many of the burning issues of the day, especially the ravages of neoliberalism across the globe. Moreover, Gelman also assiduously authored columns in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice, eschewing as he did so liberal pieties about there always being “two sides” to an issue. While The New York Times’ reporting on the occupation and on kindred subjects is often enmeshed in cobwebs of obfuscation or shot through with substantive omissions, Pagina 12’s readership could rely on Gelman for hard-hitting and fact-laden critiques of Israeli policy and practice towards the Palestinians. They could also count on him for detailed descriptions of the cruelties and humiliations of daily life under occupation of the sort that American readers are typically spared by most mainstream outlets. (3)
Beneath the seemingly dispassionate reportorial tone of Gelman’s journalism, one can detect a keen outrage at the crimes that the Israeli state regularly perpetrates as well as at the fact that it commits them while claiming to act in the best interests of the Jewish people, crimes that Gelman did not hesitate to characterize as “genocidal.” (4) On occasion, Gelman expressed his indignation in explicit terms. As, for instance, when he reflected on the bitter irony of finding himself detained and interrogated without charges at Tel Aviv airport along with his wife from 1:30 to 5:00 a.m. while he was on his way to pay his last respects to a sister who had fled to Israel during the time of the juntas and who was to be buried at 10:00 that morning. “And how is it possible,” he asked plaintively, “that those who are now laying siege to an entire people are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who like my mother, her siblings, and their rabbi father suffered the Tsarist encirclement in the ghettoes, and of those who later, like my cousins, were confined to Nazi concentration camps?” (5)
Gelman could also have observed–as did his co-national Nora Strejilevich in her searing testimonial narrative of disappearance and survival (6)–that the same state that was responsible for displacing, dispossessing, occupying, and besieging the Palestinians sold arms to the ruthless and notoriously anti-Semitic dictatorship that murdered his son and daughter-in-law and that gave away his prison-born baby grand-daughter to a Uruguayan policeman and his wife. Typically, however, his journalistic procedure was to patiently let the accumulation of facts speak for itself and to append a wry comment at the very end of his column, as when he commented apropos the 2008/2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, “In reality, the lead in Operation Cast Lead was cast long ago and its objective is to expel the Palestinians from their land. The four million who have been dispossessed since 1948 are no longer enough for Tel Aviv.” (7) Or as when he observed of Ariel Sharon, “Sharon is a systematic man and he systematically refuses to return those [occupied] lands to their legitimate owners.” (8)
One wonders what kind of obituary notice Gelman might have written on Sharon had he outlived his age-mate. It would obviously have been a far cry from the kind of euphemistic accolades penned by the likes of Abe Foxman or Alan Dershowitz. Foxman un-ironically celebrated Sharon’s role as head of an Israeli military-civilian delegation to Auschwitz: “to see him bring back the strength of Israel to that place of destruction–to see him there and hear his voice and confidence in the Jewish people remains indelible.” (9) As for Dershowitz, his un-ironic assessment of a man whose name was a byword for expansionist militarism and who fell into a coma while mired in corruption charges was that “Sharon was a personification of both the Israeli character and the ethos that has made the Israeli military one of the best in the world.” (10)
Gelman would obviously have had no truck with such execrable eulogies. But he didn’t just reject the Israeli hard-right’s politicide against the Palestinian people that as Baruch Kimmerling argued was Sharon’s overarching project and that continues to animate his mentees in Israel’s settler-colonialist movement. (11) He also rejected the notion of pre-1948 diasporic history as a single unbroken story of anti-Semitic persecution to which Israeli liberals like David Grossman subscribe. In his recent book, Max Blumenthal records Grossman as saying “For two thousand years we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have the chance to be insiders.” (12) Blumenthal adds that few American Jews of his generation think of themselves as Israelis like Grossman do, that is, as belonging to the Diaspora. Instead, he notes, they think of themselves as American Jews.
Although Gelman esteemed the ethical values that emerged from the most progressive of the Diaspora’s traditions, as well as their cultural achievements, in terms of national belonging he identified strongly with his native Argentina. (13) He makes this clear in his reflection on the brusque treatment to which he and his wife were subjected at Tel Aviv airport after an unidentified man on their flight to Israel singled them out to security officials. In recounting how he shook himself free from the rough grip of another unidentified Israeli security official, Gelman observes, “I’m an Argentinian citizen and I won’t stand for that sort of behavior on the part of any uniformed official; no doubt because I was subjected to a traumatic experience by the men in uniform.” (14)
Gelman spoke as a man who suffered the depredations of the most anti-Semitic regime in modern Latin American history. But for this man forced into exile from a country he loved deeply, Argentina was hardly reducible to its dictatorships and to those sectors of Argentinian society that were complicit with the military. It was also a land of working-class immigrants like his parents, and it was the home of the tango, a musical form that emerged from immigrant milieus in the port of Buenos Aires and that Gelman melded with written poetry in his book Gotán. As Eduardo Galeano notes alluding to one of Gelman’s best-known poems, “Juan Gelman does not imitate the tango, he contains it. He sings like nobody else, better than anybody else, to the city of his birth–a city ‘that resembles the word never.'” (15) Above all, it was a country that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was transformed by the brave struggles for justice waged by civil society in its efforts to undo the Armed Forces’ brutal militarization of everyday life, struggles in which Gelman himself played a signal role.
In a different though analogous vein, such militarization also characterizes the Jewish Garrison State, as does racism of a kind that in a response to Bernard Henri-Levy’s imputations of anti-Semitism to critics of Israel, including the BDS movement, author and BDS signatory Susan Abulhawa has called “the new anti-Semitism” against the indigenous people of Palestine. (16) No other public figure in Israel has embodied the sinister confluence of militarism and racism–as well as the corruption and other forms of dysfunction they spawn–as prominently as Ariel Sharon did. As corrupt and corpulent as he was self-satisfied and belligerent, Sharon leaves behind a noxious heritage of trauma and triumphalism that needlessly compound and dishonor the tragic history to which he was heir. As Raja Shehadeh observed in The New Yorker, “Sharon was always a pioneer. He went further than most in his crimes against Palestinian civilians, and further than others in his deception; he showed Israeli leaders that they could retain the tactics of war while calling them efforts for peace and this is his most corrosive legacy.” (17)
The gaunt but always dignified Gelman–whose gentle eyes peered at the world from a careworn face etched with lines of sorrow–was a legatee of the same painful past as his bellicose contemporary, as he recalled in the conclusion of his essay on his harassment at the hands of the Israeli security services when he ruefully remarked that this treatment was particularly painful for him as a Jew whose father had read Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish-language stories about shtetl life to him when he was a child. (18) And whereas Sharon translated that harrowing heritage into the construction of a bristling and expansionist ghetto, Gelman transfigured it into the cultivation of sharable beauty and into what his co-national the novelist Julio Cortázar referred to as the “unthinkable tenderness” that was the affective and ethical hallmark of his poetry (19), or as Eduardo Galeano put it, “a celebration of life from the exact center of death.” (20)
It’s a measure of the distance between the two contemporaries that if Galeano’s phrasing were to be inverted it would capture the disturbing nature of Sharon’s bequest: unnecessary wars and apartheid walls of separation that are as visually hideous as they are ethically repellent. The unrepentant soldier’s life makes plain the agony and strife that an unrelenting quest for ethno-national supremacy leaves in its destructive wake. (21) In contrast, and like his younger Palestinian contemporary Mahmoud Darwish, the modest and soft-spoken Gelman bequeaths us poetic speech acts and a political practice that enlarge and enrich our sense of what human beings can achieve when they cultivate their best natures and when they act not as avenging angels of death but as agents of redemption and righteousness instead.
A child of children of the ghetto, whose mother’s older sister was murdered by rampaging Cossacks, the father of a son who was disappeared and assassinated for his social activism by the shock troops of a murderous military regime, Gelman preached neither vengeance nor coercion in response to those crimes, much less the systematic pursuit by a rogue nuclear power of “terrorismo de estado” (“state terror”), occupation, ethnic cleansing, and land theft. Instead, his politics and his poetry embodied a spirit that, as the following lines from “Esperan” (“They wait”) make clear, resembles nothing so much as the Palestinian virtue and praxis of steadfast and principled endurance and resistance in the face of oppression, or “sumud”:
nosotros vamos a empezar otra vez/
otra vez vamos a empezar/
otra vez vamos a empezar nosotros
contra la gran derrota de la mundo/
compañeritos que no terminan/o
arden en la memoria como fuegos/
otra vez/ otra vez/ otra vez
we’re going to take up again
the struggle/again we’re going to begin
again we’re going to begin all of us
against the great defeat of the world/
little compañeros who never end/ or
who burn like fire in the memory
again/ and again/ and again (22)
(1) For a range of Gelman’s poems in English translation, see Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman. Trans. Joan Lindgren. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Aside from the quotations from Unthinkable Tenderness, all translations from the Spanish in this essay are my own.
(2) Gelman’s Com/posiciones (Barcelona: Edicions del Mall, 1986) are versions of poems by Salomón ibn Gabirol, Abu Nawas, Samuel HaNagid, and others. For English-language translations of some of these poems (“Com/positions”), see Lindgren, pp.149-160.
(3) In late October 2013, Gelman joined twenty other Latin American authors, journalists, academics, and former diplomats–including several Jewish ones–in addressing an open letter to the organizers of Guadalajara’s prestigious annual Book Fair for inviting an Israeli delegation, including the President Shimon Peres. The letter noted the origins of the state of State of Israel in a politics of violent confrontation with the indigenous population of Palestine, denounced the state’s ethnicist, confessional, and fundamentalist character “despite its formal Western democratic trappings,” and called for the abandonment of “the colonial and expansionist character of Zionist ideology,” as well as for an end to settlement construction and to the occupation. The signatories also called for Mexico to recognize a Palestinian state, for round tables to be organized on the conflict, and for an invitation to be extended to Palestine at the next fair, one that would guarantee the presence of Palestinian writers, filmmakers, musicians, and painters. “Intelectuales solicitan incluir mesas Israel-Palestina en FIL.” (“Intellectuals request the inclusion of round tables on Palestine-Israel at Guadalajara’s International Book Fair. http://www.lajornadajalisco.com.mx/2013/10/27/intelectuales-solicitan-incluir-mesas-israel-palestina-en-fil/.)
(4) “Cuando detuvieron a Juan Gelman en Israel.” (“When Juan Gelman was detained in Israel.”) http://www.taringa.net/comunidades/x-palestina/5074989/Cuando-detuvieron-a-Juan-Gelman-en-Israel.html
(6) A Single Numberless Death. Trans. Cristina de la Torre. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
(7) “Sharon, Barak, Gaza.” http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/contratapa/13-230670-2013-10-06.html
(8) “Precios.” (“Costs.”) http://www.pagina12.com.ar/imprimir/diario/contratapa/13-2458-2002-03-03.html
(9) “Arik Sharon told me: ‘I am Israel’s most defamed political leader.'” http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.567764
(10) “Sharon Never Let the Past Rule the Future.” http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.567953
(11) Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians. Verso: New York, 2003, pp. 3-4.
(12) Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. New York: Nation Books, 2013, p.276.
(13) Gelman composed an entire collection of poetry in medieval Judeo-Spanish, Dibaxu (Beneath), which he learned for that purpose. Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1994.
(14) “Cuando detuvieron a Juan Gelman en Israel.” (“When Juan Gelman was detained in Israel.”) http://www.taringa.net/comunidades/x-palestina/5074989/Cuando-detuvieron-a-Juan-Gelman-en-Israel.html
(15) Eduardo Galeano, “Foreword” in Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman. Trans. Joan Lindgren. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997,
(16) “The anti-Semitism to come? Hardly.” December 22, 2010. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-abulhawa/bernardhenri-levy-a-new-k_b_799651.html
(17) “Sharon’s Corrosive Legacy.” Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/01/ariel-sharons-corrosive-legacy.html?printable=true¤tPage=all
(18) “Cuando detuvieron a Juan Gelman en Israel.” (“When Juan Gelman was detained in Israel.”) http://www.taringa.net/comunidades/x-palestina/5074989/Cuando-detuvieron-a-Juan-Gelman-en-Israel.html
(19) “He is a man whose family has been severed from him, who has seen his most beloved friends disappeared or killed, yet nobody has been able to kill in Juan the will to subvert the sum of this horror into an affirmative counterstrike, a creator of new life. Perhaps the most admirable element of his poetry is the unthinkable tenderness he shows where paroxysms of rejection and denouncement would be justified, or his calling upon so many shadows for once voice to lull and comfort, a permanent caress of words on unknown tombs.” “Foreword, by Julio Cortázar (1981)” in Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman. Trans. Joan Lindgren. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997, p. 5.
(20) Eduardo Galeano, “Foreword” in Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman. Trans. Joan Lindgren. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997, p. xi
(21) See Max Blumenthal’s detailed account of Sharon’s Legacy, “How Ariel Sharon Shaped Israel’s Destiny.” Available at: http://www.thenation.com/article/177883/how-ariel-sharon-shaped-israels-destiny
(22) “They wait.” In Unthinkable Tenderness: Selected Poems of Juan Gelman. Trans. Joan Lindgren. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997, p. 45.