photo of Yonatan Berg smiling beside a quotation: '“This is also the time for the American poetry world to help unify and not divide. We expect poets to be able to hold nuance….To look truthfully at all this pain, and offer complexity and compassion, is the duty of poetry.” –Yonatan Berg'

Yonatan Berg: We travel with the rest of the world, with its atrocities. 

An Israeli poet responds to the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis

I want each Palestinian to live with dignity, human rights, freedom and liberty. I want Palestine to be a prosperous country, economically, culturally and spiritually. I want to continue reading Mahmoud Darwish and Raja Shehadeh and understand my neighbour, his pains and her culture.

But I cannot want anything if I am dead. And I am pained to say that Hamas wants me dead. They want me, my two-year-old son Be’eri, my four-year-old daughter Maya Paz and my love Geula, dead. This is the truth, and no benevolent pretence will change that. What can we do? How do we reconcile this immense gap between the will to live and the will to kill? I turn to poetry, the only form I know that can change the balance of power between the beauty and the destruction humans hold within. These days I cannot write, but I can turn to that which has already been created, the words I held onto in times when I wasn’t surrounded by a world of death and destruction.


Traveling through Ramallah, on our way to school—
early morning, the city preparing
for the day—stores just opening, steam
rising thinly from freshly made coffee.
Inside the bus our faces are glued to the windows,
our fingers coveting the fiery colors.
There is no fear, no recoiling—
the mechanisms of later life—
only curiosity, devoid of explanation,
toward more measured conduct,
toward the dusty, the gray. Teenagers walk
by the roadside, pushing carts piled high
with warm dough.
The grass grows wild, sprouting everywhere.
Nature’s freedom of movement lies,
we know, in a different stance, less meticulous.
At night the clamor of weddings pierces the air,
singing of a faster pace, concealing
moments of interference,
a scanty no-man’s-land of despair and longing.
Perhaps they are remembering the old house,
the lost garden. We do not fall asleep on the bus.
Our fingers drum of their own accord
to that other rhythm—loose and wild.
Years later, I would be lying if I said
there was no contempt back then, no
creeping fear, but it came from outside,
never from within, and it left us drumming
with confused fingers on steamy bus windows.

As a young boy and adolescent, my instinct towards my Palestinian neighbors was one of curiosity. Curiosity to the different sounds, sights, smells, architecture and religion. The possibility to reach out to people starts with curiosity. We do not have a choice. We must rebuild the spark of curiosity between us. The most important international and internal solution for our region is cultural, not military or political. We need cultural institutions that are motivated by that same curiosity I experienced as a child. Curiosity is developed in the small moments of life, not in its grand ideas. The objective of literature is to oppose news, politics, and in many cases, I regret to say, religion. Tell me about your kitchen and not the town square.


The point is not the frayed light of six a.m.
or the barking of dogs, half-crazed by the scent
of blood, who we drove away.
Nor the fatigue from a night spent deep
in death, the network that only now falls
silent, the shouts from the platoon above, identifying
bodies, the reflex that all this was to be expected.
The point is not how they lay there, after
the dogs lunged into them, their faces
distorted, their wounds festering, strewn together,
black-garbed, the dirt of the road stained darker
by their blood. One held the glimmer of a smile,
not wicked or revengeful, just lost.
The point is, I volunteered, and Vish, the officer,
was my friend. But when we got there I could not,
I simply could not. To this day I see Vish and a soldier,
shoving them into the armoured truck. They are dropped,
are dragged, I don’t have a better image for all this:
the bodies dragged, dropped,
over and over.

Like most Israeli eighteen-year-olds, I was drafted into the army. My military service left me with post-traumatic stress syndrome, something I grapple with to this day. But I am not alone. There isn’t a single Palestinian or Israeli who is not a victim of trauma related to this decades long conflict. In recent days the Israeli trauma has deepened more than ever. You cannot ignore what happened on October 7th, now named Black Saturday. The pictures and videos of the complete destruction of the southern communities, the massacre of 1400 babies, children, women, men and the elderly, whole families wiped out in their own homes, has taken Israelis and Jews all over the world back to visions of World War II and the Holocaust. A generational wound of pogroms has been reopened. And in response, and retaliation, the Palestinian trauma deepens now too. The common treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is exposure. Gradual exposure of the individual to his fears. The more we try to hold space for those fears, the more they will be able to dissolve. 

Art and literature hold the power of mass exposure, to treat both Israelis and Palestinians. We must write about these days; we must use language that reflects the horror, but also knows how to disassemble it, disarm it, language that seeks to understand it and then offer in its place a different reality. The hope is that from the darkest place of horror, beauty can and will emerge. The language of poetry can sustain this inversion, where a word or image that describes pain and bereavement can, a moment later, in the same line, poem, or book, become language of healing and a prayer for peace. A poem can start in night and end in daylight. 


We travel the silk road of evening,
tobacco and desire flickering
between our hands. We are warm travelers,
our eyes unfurled, traveling in psalms,
in Rumi, in the sayings of the man from the Galilee.
We break bread under the pistachio tree,
under the Banyan tree, under the dark
of the Samaritan fig tree. Songs of offering rise up
in our throats, wandering along the wall of night. We travel
in the openness of warm eternity. Heavenly voices
announce a coupling as the quiet horse gallops
heavenward. We travel with the rest of the world,
with its atrocities, its piles of ruins, scars of barbed wire,
traveling with ardour in our loins, with the cry of birth.
We sit crossed-legged within the rocking
of flesh, the quiet of the Brahmin, the bells
of Mass, the tumult of Torah. We travel
through eagles of death, dilution of earth in rivers,
in eulogies, through marble, we travel through the silk
of evening, our hearts like bonfires in the dark.

This is also the time for the American poetry world to help unify and not divide. We expect poets to be able to hold nuance: to look sincerely at the vast pain experienced by Israelis and Jews, following the large-scale massacre of civilians in their own villages, and look at the pain of Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are suffering the horrific reality of the resulting war, displacement and loss. To look truthfully at all this pain, and offer complexity and compassion, is the duty of poetry.

–Yonatan Berg, October 19, 2023

Translated by Varda Samuels with assistance from Geula Geurts. Poems, from Frayed Light, translated by Joanna Chen.

Read commentary from poet Irena Klepfisz here

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