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Jewish World Review April 26, 2002 /14 Iyar, 5762

Martin Peretz

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Of Poets and Murderers | "Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W.H. Auden in a paradoxical homage to William Butler Yeats. But two poets--one an Oxford don, the other Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain--did make something happen last week. It was something ugly, but it was news.

Tom Paulin, a lousy but famous poet and a regular panelist on the BBC2 arts program "Late Review," gave an interview to the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram in which he said that "Brooklyn-born" settlers in Israel "should be shot dead.... [T]hey are Nazis.... [I] feel nothing but hatred for them." Paulin's venom toward Israel is nothing new. He once called its army the "Zionist S.S." and charged that it systematically murders "little Palestinian boy[s]." In Al-Ahram he explained, "I can understand how suicide bombers feel. It is an expression of deep injustice and tragedy." He did, to be fair, express one scruple about the random butchery of innocent Israelis: He worried that the murders might not crush Israel's spirit. The attacks on Israeli "civilians, in fact, boost morale" among the Jews, admitted Paulin despairingly. If only the Jews would collapse in the face of terror and abandon their country to the people who want them dead.

But, as reported in the April 14 Sunday Observer, the other poet, Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's man in London for more than one decade, felt no need for such tactical caveats. Algosaibi, it is worth remembering, is one of Prince Abdullah's senior diplomats, the envoy of a monarch whose "peace plan" has elicited cheers throughout Europe. In the Arab world, Algosaibi is known as something of a poet himself. And he has at least once remarked that "[p]oetry is the soul of the Arabs." The ambassador's most recent verse was published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, and it is called "The Martyrs." We know that it was not long in the writing, because "The Martyrs" is a paean to Ayat Akhras, the 18-year-old who detonated herself in a Jerusalem supermarket on March 29, taking two Israelis with her and maiming 25 others. Here's a snippet:

Tell Ayat, the bride of loftiness...
She embraced death with a smile...
While the leaders are running away from death,
Doors of heavens are opened for her.

And then, in case you missed the poet's meaning:

You died to honor G-d's word.
(You) committed suicide?
We committed suicide by living
Like the dead.

And finally, the United States as Satan:

We complained to the idols of the White House
Whose heart is filled with darkness.

The soul of the Arabs, indeed!

I am reminded by the Daily Telegraph's Tom Payne of a line by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam about Stalin. "He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries." And, if they had their way with the Jews, so would Tom Paulin and Ambassador Algosaibi. But poets reflect politics; they do not make it.

I do not know how many Arabs live in the United Kingdom. But some 15,000 of them marched from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square last Sunday in a protest that might have led you to believe it was Israelis who were dynamiting themselves to kill Palestinians--and not the reverse. The fatwa faithful from Bradford and Birmingham, Wolverhampton and London's Edgware Road, carried the flag that their cousins might have planted firmly in Palestine had Yasir Arafat not told Ehud Barak (and Bill Clinton) to f-ck off.

The marchers brandished placards accusing Israel of genocide, specifically in Jenin. It will be a bitter pill for them, having conjured up gruesome holocaust images, to learn the truth: There were no more than 200 dead, and probably far less, in Jenin. Of course, any civilian death is a tragedy. But most of the Palestinian dead are not civilians; they are armed combatants. The civilian numbers are this low because of the scrupulousness of the Israel Defense Forces, whose troops risk their own lives so as not to kill innocents. You wouldn't know this from most of the British press. But, then, you wouldn't know it from much of the American press either.

The "Jenin massacre" is a case in point. The Palestinians claim the Israelis murdered hundreds of civilians in the city and buried them in "mass graves" to hide their heinous deeds. Their ideological partisans in the media parrot these assertions. Then your ordinary press stiff, having heard it from someone he had a drink with the night before--a nice-enough chap--reports it too. Suddenly, everybody is fuming about Israel's cover-up of a great atrocity. And, in Brussels and Paris, Oslo and Madrid, they are talking about trying Ariel Sharon for war crimes in front of the newly minted international criminal court. As Thomas Friedman admitted a bit shamefacedly in From Beirut to Jerusalem, one reason journalists repeat Palestinian lies, and fail to report Palestinian crimes, is fear--fear for their safety on the ground. But that doesn't quite explain those journalists who live in safe, far-off capitals and repeat the same hysterical, Israel-hating lies. To hear them tell it, Israel destroyed homes in Jenin just for the hell of it. But as even superdove Shimon Peres has noted, "There wasn't a house [in Jenin] that wasn't booby-trapped, and there was no way to neutralize the danger without demolishing the structure." And, of course, the Israelis, said Peres, "also encountered booby-trapped men, Palestinians who raised their hands to surrender while wearing explosive belts in an attempt to detonate themselves among our soldiers."

Well-intentioned European friends (and even some younger members of my own family) implore me to understand that it is the imagery of these tough Israelis with guns that is inciting anti-Semitism around the world. Yes, it is true; the killing of Jews can no longer occur with impunity and without consequence. But since the year 135 C.E., when Bar Kochba's second revolt against the Romans collapsed, Jews have almost always been without weapons. In the Middle Ages in Germany, they actually exchanged their right to bear arms for the promise of protection by the prince! (It was not long before they were slaughtered.) And so could we not say that this utter defenselessness was also a spur to anti-Semitism? Zionism strived for many ideals, some of which it has achieved. One of these is that Jews no longer go helplessly into the fire. So let us say that in this way we are like the gentiles: a normal community whose blood is not shed easily.

JWR contributor Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.


04/12/02: Before there were 'Palestinians,' there was Arafat: The making of a 'statesman'
02/08/02: Foresight
10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2002, Martin Peretz