A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country.
Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two
generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance.”
― DAVID BEN-GURION
(quoted in The Jewish Paradox by NAHUM GOLDMANN)
Because Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king, & his Babylonian armies
destroyed the First Temple, & the Court of Judah suffered expulsion,
and because of the sword of Merneptah,
the sting of the lash of Assyrian armies, & legions of pious Crusaders
condemning the Torah to flames, & we were led off by halters,
enslaved in Armenia, Georgia, the Caucasus,
because we suffered Chrysostom’s rage,
Luther’s Hitlerian frenzy, the Dominican fathers’ Inquisitorial cross,
because we were numbered among the transgressors,
scattered among nations, expelled from the Rhineland, Bavaria, Spain,
brought as the lamb to the slaughter at Prague, Nemirov, Tarnapal, Bar,
Salonika, because we were dragged thru the streets of the shtetl
& set to the torch in the shul, were crucified, blinded,
boiled in oil & buried alive,
because we were stuffed into cattle cars & our neighbors said nothing,
were gassed in the showers, died screaming for mercy,
& no one protested,
am I now to rejoice that my Palestinian brothers & sisters,
dispossessed of all that was theirs by Ben Gurion’s bloodthirsty
armies of conquest & plunder, are even today being chained at the wrist,
blindfolded, mocked, spat upon, kicked to the ground,
pummeled & bloodied
& left there to rot in the heat of the Negev?
Because the Einsatsgruppen mowed down the Jews in the streets
do I turn my back now and forget that the farmers of Khan Yunis
were murdered in cold blood, that the shepherds of Kafr Quasim
were shot where they stood, that the massacred women & children
of Dier Yassin were flung into wells, that the village
where Mahmoud Darwish was born no longer exists, that seven
hundred & fifty thousand indigenous Palestinian Arab people
were ethnically cleansed,
forced to flee for their lives to the squalor of refugee camps
while the sanctimonious Zionist settlers stole all that they owned.
That the infants & aged & sickly who could not survive that
tormented journey are buried out there where they fell.
Am I to forget that unspeakable terror, that despair?
Am I to forget that the Palestinian homeland was stolen?
My mishbucha look elsewhere, turn away with a thousand excuses.
Benny Morris & Ari Shavit shake their heads gravely: “Don’t you see,
had we not done those unspeakable things, our wonderful Jewish
state could not have come to exist?” Amused, from their graves,
Joseph Goebbels & Philipp Bouhler wink at each other & grin.
Because of the curfews, expropriations, expulsions, the knock at the door,
because of the Anschluss, the Kristalnacht riots,
because of the boot of despair & the cheek of denial,
because we have suffered the smokestacks of Auschwitz,
the mass graves of Chelmno & Belsen,
because we fell at the walls of the ghetto,
am I to pretend now that the people of Ramla, Al-Lyd, Balad al-Shaykh,
Khisas & Haifa—those shepherds & farmers & teachers & merchants
& mothers & workers—have not the right to return to the land
that was stolen, the land that is incontestably theirs,
the land that their fathers had tilled for a thousand years.
Because I am Ashkenazi, a Jew, son of the tradesmen of Krakow,
Lithuanian fiddlers, Talmudic scholars, the wandering peddlers of Minsk,
child of the Khazar diaspora, exile—as are we all—in this world,
am I not of the Amalekite people as well, part Moabite, Chaldean, Toltec
& Pawnee, son of a long line of Canaanite cobblers, Nigerian ploughmen,
child of those who escaped here from Melos, Soweto, Sharpsville,
Zimbabwe, Belfast, Jakarta? I am Kurdish, Armenian,
of the wandering Romani people, of Calcutta’s untouchable
Harijan masses, part Lacandon, Quiche & Yana, of Tasmanian blood,
born of the Sac-Fox nation, son of the Bayou, a runaway field slave,
sojourner, nomad, pariah, untermensch, heir to this world of nettles & dust.
That is to say, I am of the shebab, of pure Palestinian blood,
A Fedayeen son of Jerusalem shepherds, child of al-Nakba, son of those
with the bayonet at their throat, the ones beaten, raped, & expelled
by Ben-Gurion’s terrorist settler militias.
Should I forget the Lebanese dead? The blood of Shatilla & Sabra?
Am I to forget that Ashbir Yusef & Mahmoud Sabad were beaten to death,
that Sohel Zantut’s son is still missing,
that Fadhi Salim has lost his right leg,
that Sohel El-Ali was thrown from a bus, that Tamer Dasuki was shot
in the back, that Mustafa Hamden was buried alive, that the husbands
& sons disappear into prisons & the women weep by the rubble of stone
& cement that had once been their homes in the Gaza to which
they had fled, and yet manage somehow still to go on—what choice
do they have?—while the Gush Emunim & the minions of Valdman,
Schmuel Derlich, Zeevi, Begin, Shamir, Kehane, Sharon, & Bibi the Yahoo
parade thru the streets, cursing the filthy Arabushim. Am I to forget
the apartheid wall that steals yet more of the land & makes life
more unlivable yet, the Bedouin villages razed to the ground,
shelling, that slaughter of women & children huddled in school rooms
& shelters, & bekippad Sabras dance thru the Tel Aviv streets chanting
gleefully: No school tomorrow in Gaza; all of their children are dead.
While the villagers pray & the young men throw stones,
I stand in the shadows
& watch. I say nothing. Shots have been fired. A handful of men
are hauled off for beatings & administrative detention:
Their confessions are written in Hebrew. A mother runs thru the darkness:
Mustafa, she whispers, Mustafa? . . . Mustafa?
I hear the sharp breath intaken,
the all but inaudible weeping, the desperate vows of revenge. I note well
the names of the dead, whose homes the Occupation forces demolish,
the names of the children the settlers have kicked to the ground,
I note who is missing, whom the soldiers have beaten, whose land this time
has been taken. In the back seat of the taxi, Samia Mahmoud is trying
to breathe, a girl of 14 who will die if her father & she are not permitted
But the IDF soldier who stands at the checkpoint, a boy of 19,
looks at the papers her father’s trembling fingers unfold & shakes his head No:
They will not be permitted to cross.
Should I pretend I heard nothing? Saw nothing?
That none of this was my business?
Am I to forget that Israel Zenger declared that the Arabs must be removed,
& that Yosef Weitz & Chaim Weizmann did also?
& Ben-Gurion swore he saw nothing wrong with compulsory transfer,
& Golda Meir has vowed that now that they’re gone
we will not let them back?
About the scald of the rope of bondage pricking my throat I wrap
the kaffiyah. Let the young men take up their stones. Let the people arise.
Let the lamps of the priests of the Lord of Plunder sputter & darken.
Let the armies of occupation tremble. What was dread
has been sharpened to mettle & festered to gall. I will no longer
listen in silence. Do I too, like my Zionist countrymen,
keep my mouth shut?
Do I simply say nothing? Just turn my back?
Do I too become the Good German?
Because of the Oremus et pro perfidis judaeis,
that terrible Good Friday Prayer,
Because of the teargas attacks & the nighttime raids & the endless arrests,
Because “Redeeming the Land” is a circumlocution for theft —
that never-ending settlement project,
I stand with this heavy stone in my hand: unbending, defiant.
Because of the Easter pogroms & the Nuremberg Laws
and the Aryan Clauses,
Because of those who have stood here before me
to say “This cannot be done in my name,” I can no longer be silent,
because of Gush Shalom & the Yesh G’vul, & Breaking the Silence
& Women in Black, & because of the terrible fate
of The White Rose, I stand my ground at the edge
of an olive grove in the village of Dir Istya. I can do nothing
no longer. The theft of the Palestinian homeland tears at my soul.
By virtue of Military Order 938 & the uncodified
Jewish State Statute of 2014, in Occupied Palestine
the Palestinian flag is not allowed to be raised.
Here, in this poem, I raise the Palestinian flag.
From Poems that Speak to Us: Selected poems of Steve Kowit (Garden Oak Press: April, 2021). Included in Vox Populi by permission of Garden Oak Press and the estate of Steve Kowit.
Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015) was an American poet, essayist, educator, and human-rights advocate. He received multiple awards for his poetry including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes. His book In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop has been used in high schools, colleges, universities and writing workshops across the country since its publication in 1995.
Palestinian children throw stones at an Israeli Defence Forces tank in 2003. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)