J'Accuse

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Overview

Explosive poems by an Israeli accusing his country of crimes against humanity.
Playing on Zola's famous letter denouncing the anti-Semitism of the French government throughout the Dreyfus affair, Aharon Shabtai's title can be taken literally: it charges his government and his people with crimes against the humanity of their neighbors. Here we find snipers shooting children, spin-masters trying to whitewash blood baths, ammunition "distributed ...

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Overview

Explosive poems by an Israeli accusing his country of crimes against humanity.
Playing on Zola's famous letter denouncing the anti-Semitism of the French government throughout the Dreyfus affair, Aharon Shabtai's title can be taken literally: it charges his government and his people with crimes against the humanity of their neighbors. Here we find snipers shooting children, spin-masters trying to whitewash blood baths, ammunition "distributed like bars of chocolate," and "technicians of slaughter" for whom morality is merely "a pain in the ass."
With a splendid lyrical physicality that accentuates Shabtai's terse immediacy and matter-of-fact scorn, the poems cover a period of six yearsfrom the 1996 election of Netanyahu as prime minister through the curfews, lynchings, riots, sieges, and bombings of the second intifada. But at the heart of J'Accuse is the fate of the ethical Hebrew culture in which the poet was raised: Shabtai refuses to abandon his belief in the moral underpinnings of Israeli society or to be silent before the barbaric and brutal. He witnesses, he protests, he warns. Above all, he holds up a mirror to his nation.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Aharon Shabtai's J'Accuse, a slim volume in the prophetic vein, packs a terrific wallop. — Jonathan Wilson
Publishers Weekly
In this provocative collection, Israeli poet Shabtai, author of more than 15 books of poetry, confronts what could be described as a collective identity crisis in Jewish culture, particularly in Israel. Having suffered immense persecution throughout history and learned to identify keenly with the dispossessed, Israeli Jews are now in a position of dominance over another people. Shabtai condemns Israel's role as occupier and military power, distancing himself from his country ("I'm a disciple of Shakespeare, not Ben Gurion") and identifying explicitly with the Palestinians ("I'm a Palestinian Jew"). While there are occasional glimmerings of personal struggle here-"O my country, my country,/ with each sandal,/ with each thread / of my khaki pants, / I've loved you"-for the most part, the book is a relentless polemic, elegizing innocent Palestinians and demonizing Israeli soldiers: "Idiotic soldiers of lead, / was your father a knife/ that only knows how to chop?" Plumbing modes familiar from Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet's subtle eroticism, Shabtai veers into sexual and violent shock value: "In the morning she sucks off a sniper in uniform,/ and at evening he returns/ and proudly displays/ the X he etched / into the butt of his rifle,/ after he'd terminated/ a young woman, age 19,/ who was hanging up laundry/ on her roof in Hebron." Titled after Emile Zola's impassioned defense of Alfred Dreyfus, these poems seem particularly designed to provoke a Jewish audience, using images of oppression drawn from Jewish liturgy and history. The book compares Israeli soldiers to Pharaoh's troops in ancient Egypt, refers to "pogroms" against Palestinians living in "ghettos" and explicitly likens present-day Palestinians to Jews living in 1930s Germany. What role this book will play in ongoing debates about Israel, the West Bank and Gaza remains to be seen, but it could prove even more controversial than Mahmoud Darwish's recent (and much more nuanced) Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this riveting screed, Israeli poet Shabtai turns around Emile Zola's famous denunciation of anti-Semitism and accuses his government of brutalizing the Palestinians. Proof again that poetry matters. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811215398
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 3/19/2003
  • Pages: 80
  • Sales rank: 546,915
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in 1939 and educated on a kibbutz, and at the Hebrew University, the Sorbonne, and Cambridge, Aharon Shabtai is the author of sixteen books of poetry and the greatest contemporary translator into Hebrew of Greek drama.

Peter Cole’s previous books of poems include Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions). Among his volumes of translation are The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition and The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. Cole, who divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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Read an Excerpt

J'ACCUSE


By Aharon Shabtai

A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOKS

Copyright © 2002 Aharon Shabtai
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0811215393


Chapter One

TIMES ARE BAD Times are bad. I take an oath of loyalty to the table coated with white Formica, a cup full of pens, the ashtray. I dreamed that the State had passed out of existence and with our children we'd settled down in the three volumes of the dictionary. My house will stand beside the word mix, on the way to morals. I'll risk my life for the sake of a single rectangle alone - the bed that belongs to Tanya and me - two meters by a meter-and-a-half. I saw the pictures of the prime minister and minister of defense in the morning paper, smeared with a reddish lacquer, like a prostitute's nails. I drive my thoughts far away from them now - to a can of baked beans, to two sausages and Chinese parsley. NEW LOVE Zionism was once a pretty young thing like my cousin Tsila. Boys caught sight of the narrow gap between her thighs - and were ready to die. Ahh, what days we spent among the cypresses, not far from Wadi Faleek! What proud, honest mounds of manure I lifted with Joseph Mintser at Kibbutz Merhavyah! But political theses can turn into stinking corpses too, and it's better to leave them behind - before we sink into an ethical mire - in order to take up a new idea that might enlist the stores of goodness within our hearts: namely, that equal rights begranted to the children of this land as one, that two cultures should flourish with dignity, side by side, like beds in a single garden. Let this be the girl whose legs thrill us on the eve of the year 2000, and about whom we dream toward the summer's end, and through the months of winter. THE REASON TO LIVE HERE

This country is turning into the private estate of twenty families. Look at its fattened political arm, at the thick neck of its bloated bureaucracy: these are the officers of Samaria. There's no need to consult the oracle: What the capitalist swine leaves behind, the nationalist hyena shreds with its teeth. When the Governor of the Bank of Israel raises the interest rate by half-a-percent, the rich are provided with backyard pools by the poor. The soldier at the outpost guards the usurer, who'll put a lien on his home when he's laid off from the privatized factory and falls behind on his mortgage payments. The pure words I suckled from my mother's breasts: Man, Child, Justice, Mercy, and so on, are dispossessed before our eyes, imprisoned in ghettos, murdered at checkpoints. And yet, there's still good reason to stay on and live here - to hide the surviving words in the kitchen, in the basement, or the bathroom. The prophet Melampus saved twin orphaned snakes from the hand of his slaves: they slithered toward his bed while he slept, then licked the auricles of his ears. When he woke with a fright, he found he could follow the speech of birds - so Hebrew delivered will lick the walls of our hearts. THIS COUNTRY This country, built by cooperatives of workers and pioneers, this state, born beside a slice of bread and jam, is being cut up and sold like sausage - to businessmen and venture capitalists. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, that capital will flee, and three days from now it will be as though it had never been. Meanwhile, the privatizers collect their stocks, and bathe their behinds in champagne. As for the privatized, some become policemen or guards, and some are spit out of factories, laid off or on strike. And at night, they see themselves there on the tube - the beaters and the beaten. TO MY FRIEND Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, writes of times like these: A man with the head of a pig becomes king; people mutter gibberish and turn into wolves. Beautiful women fornicate with apes. Rabbis shoot pistols, affix mezuzahs to a whorehouse. Crowds drink down a rat's jokes, the hyena's howl. New breasts are bought on the open market, one's buttocks are fixed. The rich man farts and the nation stirs with excitement. On the street, people wave flags made of money. A journalist's tongue sticks out of his ass, and suddenly he's become a thinker. Competitions are held between liars, ass-kissers, soldiers, and crooks. To the sound of applause, and in front of the camera, entire villages are razed. A fat man swallows a hundred thin men in public. Thievery's adopted as the national faith, vineyards are plundered, and wells. And everywhere there roams the officer, jailer, tax collector, informer. Ships full of slaves anchor at port. The hangman sits at the head of the table, surrounded by an entourage of professors. A secret policeman is the day's astrologer, the Bank's Governor becomes our alchemist. But all these delusions disappear in an instant; a few days of rain is enough, and the idols of authority, the monsters of weaponry, the masks - all are down in the mud. Men remove their ape suits and wolf skins, and get back to work. And we, too, my friend: for your grandfather and mine didn't live on blood. For a thousand years, and a thousand more, we broke our bread with the poor of the earth. Come - let's saddle our donkeys, let's go back and bake this bread: you - for the honest men of Izmir, and I - for the diligent Alexandrians. THE MORAL, IT SEEMS, DOESN'T COME WITH A SMILE The moral, it seems, doesn't come with a smile, like an uncle with pieces of candy. Only when fire flares up in the wheat are the fattened serpents burned. As for the wheat itself, the fine, innocent wheat - what a shame! Only when the wealthy are drowning in the tears of the poor will it come. These tears are slowly gathering, and only gradually becoming a sea; meanwhile, they're used to water a pumpkin, give drink to a beast in the alley; we shower with them and wash our clothes, office floors are mopped with them. So build more towers, more steel doors and walls of glass - let the waters rise and drown the man shaving up in the penthouse. For only when the stick strikes the hump will the heart begin to listen. SUMMER 1997 Summer has come, the long season. Indifferently the grass on the hill withers, goodness dwindles. Look at the shoemaker, there in the doorway: the scrawl across his brow is saying that the wells of morality have all gone dry, the wine of mercy run out. Now sweaty rubber soles will rejoice, and the flies, yes, the flies for which words are no reproach, swarm by swarm will come and sit on the wounds of my hairless pate. Thank God that I, an aging poet, fifty-eight, can bend my back and turn myself into a horse. LOTEM ABDEL SHAFI The heart dies without space for love, without a moral horizon: think of it then as a bird trapped in a box. My heart goes out with love to those beyond the fence; only toward them can one really advance, that is, make progress. Without them I feel I'm half a person. Romeo was born a Montague, and Juliet came from the Capulet line, and I'm a disciple of Shakespeare, not Ben Gurion - therefore I'll be delighted if my daughter marries the grandson of Haidar Abdel Shafi. I mean this, of course, as a parable only - but the parable is my measure, and since it has more to do with my body than teeth or hair, this isn't just some idle fancy that, out of poetic license, I place our fate in my daughter's sex. That I grant myself this imaginary gift, testifies to the extent to which we're living, still, in the underworld, where we're granted the hope and potential of an amoeba. But all mythology begins with creatures that creep and crawl, spring out of the ground and devour each other, until a sacred union occurs, healing the breach in the world. The Arab groom from Gaza, too, will extend to my daughter a dress on which is embroidered the Land redeemed from Apartheid's curse - our Land as a whole, belonging equally to all of its offspring, and then he'll lift the veil from her face, and say to her: "And now I take you to be my wife, Lotem Abdel Shafi." POLITICS Your arms which I kiss where they meet the breast, your white legs which branch like vines, with the sex's amulet, the open plain of your belly, your eyes, lips, and neck - they are benevolence, brotherhood, the quivering revelation of truth; they are justice, equality, the freedom to want and think; they're the bestowal of opportunity, the work which is love. With the raising of the knees they put tyranny, coarseness, and hatred to shame; they are uprightness and candor, the pride that puts nothing down; they're the communal revealed in the personal - the desire to share; they're the revolt against all idiocy, against all ignorance and sanctimony; they're the pleasure of giving, of getting, of having enough; they're the beauty that cannot be purchased with money, but only with joy; they are what counters oppression, occupation, exploitation - they are morality's bliss; they are affinity, faith, the devotion that holds no fear; the availability of basic needs, of education, the recognition of mutual dignity; they are the right to strike, do nothing, demonstrate, oppose. All that is good and worthy of humanity is here for me to see and touch, and this, this is my politics - tender-limbed - lying in bed before me. CULTURE The mark of Cain won't sprout from a soldiers who shoots at the head of child on a knoll by the fence around a refugee camp - for beneath his helmet, conceptually speaking, his head is made of cardboard. On the other hand, the officer has read The Rebel; his head is enlightened, and so he does not believe in the mark of Cain. He's spent time in museums, and when he aims his rifle at a boy as an ambassador of Culture, he updates and recycles Goya's etching and Guernica. ROSH HASHANAH Even after the murder of the child Muhammad on Rosh HaShanah, the paper didn't go black. In the same water in which the snipers wash their uniforms, I prepare my pasta, and over it pour olive oil in which I've browned pine nuts, which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes, crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil. As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs and public security appears on the screen, and when he's done I write this poem. For that's how it's always been - the murderers murder, the intellectuals make it palatable, and the poet sings. NOSTALGIA "Shall I weep if ... an infant civilization be ruled with rod or with knout? - Tennyson, Maud: A Monodrama

The dumpy little man with the scourge in his hand, in his free time runs his fingers over the keys of a baby grand - but we've seen it all before. And so, from the primitive East we return to the West. He'll help solve the economy's problems: the unemployed will man the tanks, or dig graves, and, come evening, we'll listen to Schubert and Mozart. O my country, my country, with each sandal, with each thread of my khaki pants, I've loved you - I could compose psalms to a salad of white cheese and scallions. But now, who will I meet when I go out for dinner? Gramsci's jailers? What clamor will rise up through the window facing the street? And when it's all over, my dear, dear reader, on which benches will we have to sit, those of us who shouted "Death to the Arabs!" and those who claimed they "didn't know"?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from J'ACCUSE by Aharon Shabtai Copyright © 2002 by Aharon Shabtai
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Times Are Bad 3
New Love 4
The Reason to Live Here 5
This Country 7
To My Friend 8
The Moral, It Seems, Doesn't Come with a Smile 10
Summer 1997 11
Lotem Abdel Shafi 12
Politics 13
Culture 14
Rosh HaShanah 15
Nostalgia 16
J'accuse 18
War 22
As We Were Marching 23
Peace 24
Elections: Israel 2001 25
The Fifteenth of January 27
The New Jew 30
To a Pilot 32
The Trees Are Weeping 33
A Poem about Neta Golan 34
The Victory of Beit Jalla 36
To Dr. Majed Nassar 38
Raada 39
Basel Square 40
Toy Soldiers 41
My Heart 43
Our Land 44
Passover 2002 47
I Love Passover 48
Notes 49
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2003

    The War in Israel Claims Another Victim

    Mr. Shabtia's poetry appears to be the latest victim of the violence in Israel. From his poem, 'War': 'I, too, have declared war: / You' ll need to divert part of the force / deployed to wipe out the Arabs - /. and set it against me.' One almost wishes the Israeli Army had done so. If there is some poetic value underlying these self-righteous diatribes I was unable to locate it.

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