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The State of Israel on the nature of poetry

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Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet and citizen of Israel, was arrested in 2015 for posting a poem on Facebook. Tatour was charged with “incitement” (partly based on an erroneous translation of her poem from Arabic to Hebrew), imprisoned for months and then kept under house arrest while awaiting trial. Transcripts from her trial were recently published in Haaretz newspaper (in Hebrew) by the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav.

The transcripts reveal the Israeli state’s inquiry into the nature of poetry: What is a poem? And what makes one a poet?

Those were some of the questions raised by the state prosecutor in a tribunal that seems somewhere between an academic conference and a Stalinist show trial.

One expert witness was a professor of Hebrew literature, Nissim Calderon, who testified for two hours on whether Tatour’s poem is a poem at all. Excerpts from the cross-examination published by Haaretz are translated here from Hebrew:

Prosecutor: You’re presuming that the defendant is a poet.

Calderon: Yes.

Prosecutor: You’ll confirm that you haven’t had any contacts with defendant in the past.

Calderon: No prior contacts, except that I read the charges against her, which include the poem, and whoever writes a poem is a poet.

Prosecutor: If I told you that there are those who consider the text [Tatour’s poem] to be juvenile rubbish, would that change your view?

Calderon: All poems, including juvenile rubbish, still qualify as poetry.

Prosecutor: Who defines what makes a poem?

Calderon: There’s no authority that certifies a poem to be a poem. What the poet defines as a poem is a poem.

Prosecutor: How do you know that the defendant defines her text as a poem?

Calderon: It was published in short lines – and when it has a rhythmic element about it, it’s reasonable to presume that it’s a poem.

Prosecutor: What rhythmic element?

Calderon: When there’s musicality. “Resist my people, resist,” it’s a musicality that stems from repetition. There’s a musical and verbal connection in the repeating line, which is often called a chorus. When they drafted the charges against her [Tatour], they didn’t print her text as prose, but in short lines. Even the prosecutor recognized that it was a poem.

Prosecutor: If I write a text that is eight lines long, consisting of short lines, and after every two lines there are two lines that are repeated, would you consider that a poem?

Calderon: Yes.

Dareen Tatour with one of her cats. (Photo: Zahi Khamis)

As Shenhav pointed out in his piece, the Israeli government cannot accept Tatour as a poet, since “if Tatour is a poet, then the trial is a farce, because in a democratic state poets aren’t brought to trial or put away for a year and half…if Tatour is a poet, then Israel is North Korea.”

The state prosecutor then tried to discredit the expert witnesses by painting them as leftists. Professor Calderon was called out for participating in various “literary events,” including one in Tel-Aviv with the title “Poetry in the Shadow of Terror.” Another witness, Dr. Yonatan Mendel (an Israeli expert on translation between Arabic and Hebrew) was scrutinized by the state prosecutor for five hours about occupation, resistance and the finer points of linguistic translation:

Prosecutor: Do you see yourself as an objective witness?

Mendel: Yes.

Prosecutor: How good is your Arabic?

Mendel: Excellent.

Prosecutor: When you listen [to spoken Arabic], it’s hard for you to understand. Why?

Mendel: There’s a difference between simultaneous translation and translating a written document.

Prosecutor: In your view, are the Palestinian people living under occupation?

Mendel: The Palestinian people are dispersed people, not living in a free country.

Prosecutor: Do you think that there’s a right to resist occupation?

Mendel: I’m in favor of non-violent resistance.

Prosecutor: You claim that Israelis automatically interpret the word “Shahid” as linked to terror.

Mendel: Correct.

Prosecutor: You say that the Israeli-Jewish interpretation of the word is very distorted…And that every Palestinian who hears it would understand it to mean those “perished” and not as “Shahidim” [plural of “Shahid” in Hebrew]?

Mendel: I would say it means something closer to “victims” as opposed to “attackers.”

Prosecutor: First you wrote those “perished” as opposed to “Shahidim,” and now you say “victims” as opposed to “attackers.”

Mendel: The word “Shahidim” – in Hebrew it’s already a loaded word, but the majority of the “Shuhada” [plural of “Shahid” in Arabic], or as we’d say in Hebrew, “Shahidim,” are civilians who didn’t go out and attack Israelis.

Prosecutor: According to the [Israeli] police’s translation, it implies a call to violence.

The attack on Tatour’s right to expression is part of ongoing attempts by the Israeli government to crush all dissent. A law recently passed by Israeli Parliament bars foreign individuals and organizations that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) from entering Israel and is expected to disproportionately affect Palestinians seeking entry visas. The government has also targeted international groups who document Israeli state crimes. A representative of Human Rights Watch, for instance, was denied entry into Israel for the official reason that the group promotes “Palestinian propaganda.”

Similar tactics are being used in the U.S. to try to squash resistance to the Israeli government. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, championed a law that prohibits businesses that support boycotts from receiving state funds. As he put it, “if you boycott Israel, the state of New York will boycott you.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott also signed a bill that targets BDS, stating that “any anti-Israel policy is anti-Texas” and that “Texas is not going to do business with any company that boycotts Israel” (according to the bill, that includes companies that boycott settlements). Some activists are resisting bills that target BDS and trying to get their states to boycott companies that profiteer from settlements (such as the Massachusetts Against HP Campaign, which calls for Massachusetts cities to divest from Hewlett-Packard for its involvement in surveillance of Palestinians in occupied territories, as well as mass incarceration and deportations in the U.S.).

The frantic reactions to BDS, both in Israel and the U.S., underscore the importance of resistance through boycotts and the need for such forms of resistance to be protected. But many who profess an undying love for freedom of speech have been silent when it comes to Palestine and BDS. If a reminder was needed, Tatour’s farcical trial is another illustration that when it comes to defining a state, “Jewish and Democratic” is a circle that can’t be squared.

Yarden Katz

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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3 Responses

  1. JosephA on August 9, 2017, 10:16 pm

    In this day and age, a poet can be arrested for writing poetry?

  2. JLewisDickerson on August 10, 2017, 7:31 am

    RE: “The transcripts reveal the Israeli state’s inquiry into the nature of poetry: What is a poem? And what makes one a poet? Those were some of the questions raised by the state prosecutor in a tribunal that seems somewhere between an academic conference and a Stalinist show trial.” ~ Yarden Katz

    MY COMMENT: What a dirty job this state prosecutor has! I’m thankful I don’t have to do that for a living.
    That said, such virulent incitement on the part of Ms. Tatour [by daring to use the word “shuhadaa” (i.e., martyrs) without an appropriate disclaimer], whether poetic or not, must be punished if the state is to maintain order!
    Otherwise, the citizenry might lose faith.

    LYRICS –

  3. Citizen on August 11, 2017, 4:20 am

    Like a SNL skit

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